© 2015, Institute of Botany, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. The relationship between species richness and productivity has been a central issue in community ecology, and this issue has resulted in much debate in the ecological literature. To evaluate whether species richness is consistently associated with productivity and the underlying mechanisms, a potted experiment with various combinations of three perennial plant species (Elymus nutans, Roegneria nutans and Festuca sinensis) was conducted under three fertilization levels over three years with interannual variation in rainfall in a subalpine meadow on the Tibetan plateau, China. The additive partitioning method was used for measuring net, selection and complementarity effects. The results suggest that species richness, composition and density had significant effects on aboveground biomass, but their effects were much less than abiotic factors (fertility and year). Relative yield total (RYT), net, selection and complementarity effects were not consistently positive or negative across years in the mixed communities. Both the interaction of year and species richness and the interaction of year and composition had significant effects on aboveground biomass, selection and complementarity effects. Fertilization and density had no significant effects on net, selection and complementarity effects. Our results indicate that plant richness is not consistently associated with productivity in these experimental plant communities, considering that selection and complementarity effects can vary with complex environmental conditions, and that these factors influence plant productivity. We suggest that different forms of relationships between species richness and productivity may be exhibited based on biotic or abiotic factors in plant communities.