P is for persistence: Soil phosphorus remains elevated for more than a decade after old field restoration

Tina Parkhurst, Rachel J. Standish, Suzanne M. Prober

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding constraints to ecological restoration on former agricultural land has become increasingly important due to agricultural land degradation in the developed world, and growing evidence for enduring agricultural legacies that limit native species recovery. In particular, the removal of native plant biomass and subsequent disturbance of soil properties through farming activities can alter soil ecosystem processes. Planting of native plant species is a common approach to restoring native vegetation on agricultural land and is assumed to benefit soil ecosystem processes, but the degree to which altered soil chemical processes recover is poorly documented. We investigated recovery of soil chemical properties after restoration in semiarid Western Australia, hypothesizing that elevated nutrient concentrations would gradually decline post planting, but available phosphorus (P) concentrations would remain higher than reference conditions. We used a space-for-time substitution approach, comparing 10 planted old field plots with matched fallow cropland and reference woodlands. Sampling on planted old fields and reference woodland plots was stratified into open patches and under tree canopy to account for consistent differences between these areas. The most prominent legacy of cropping was significantly and substantially higher concentrations of soil available P in fallow croplands and restored old fields compared with reference woodlands. Soil mineral nitrogen (N) concentrations were elevated in fallow croplands compared to open patches in reference woodlands (ammonium and nitrate) and under the tree canopy (ammonium). However, in restored old fields, mineral N concentrations were similar to woodland sites, providing evidence for amelioration over time. No significant differences in nutrient concentrations under tree canopies compared with open patches had developed in the planted old fields, despite a distinction between open patches and he under ttree canopy in reference woodlands for total N. We conclude that soil P legacies in old fields may inhibit the recolonization of native species that are sensitive to, or uncompetitive at, elevated P concentrations. To achieve full recovery, further research is required to test restoration practices aimed at reducing soil P concentrations to facilitate native plant establishment and persistence.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2547
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number3
Early online date26 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2022


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