1. Global change is likely to alter plant community structure, with consequences for the structure and functioning of the below-ground community and potential feedbacks to climate change. Understanding the mechanisms behind these plant–soil interactions and feedbacks to the Earth-system is therefore crucial. One approach to understanding such mechanisms is to use plant traits as predictors of functioning.
2. We used a field-based monoculture experiment involving nine grassland species that had been growing on the same base soil for 7 years to test whether leaf, litter and root traits associated with different plant growth strategies can be linked to an extensive range of soil properties relevant to carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycling. Soil properties included the biomass and structure of the soil microbial community, soil nutrients, soil microclimate and soil process rates.
3. Plant species with a high relative growth rate (RGR) were associated with high leaf and litter quality (e.g. low toughness, high nitrogen concentrations), an elevated biomass of bacteria relative to fungi in soil, high rates of soil nitrogen mineralization and concentrations of extractable inorganic nitrogen, and to some extent higher available phosphorus pools.
4. In contrast to current theory, species with a high RGR and litter quality were associated with soils with a lower rate of soil respiration and slow decomposition rates. This indicates that predicting processes that influence carbon cycling from plant traits may be more complex than predicting processes that influence nitrogen and phosphorus cycling.
5. Root traits did not show strong relationships to RGR, leaf or litter traits, but were strongly correlated with several soil properties, particularly the biomass of bacteria relative to fungi in soil and measures relating to soil carbon cycling.
6. Synthesis. Our results indicate that plant species from a single habitat can result in significant divergence in soil properties and functioning when grown in monoculture, and that many of these changes are strongly and predictably linked to variation in plant traits associated with different growth strategies. Traits therefore have the potential to be a powerful tool for understanding the mechanisms behind plant–soil interactions and ecosystem functioning, and for predicting how changes in plant species composition associated with global change will feedback to the Earth-system.