In desert ecosystems a large proportion of water and nitrogen is supplied in rain-induced pulses. It has been suggested that competitive interactions among desert plants would be most intense during these pulse periods of high resource availability. We tested this hypothesis with three cold desert shrub species of the Colorado Plateau (Gutierrezia sarothrae, Atriplex confertifolia, and Chrysothamnus nauseosus), which differ in their distribution of functional roots. In a three-year field study we conducted a neighbor removal experiment in conjunction with simulated 25-mm precipitation events and the addition of a nitrogen pulse in either spring or summer. We measured predawn water potential (Ψ), gas exchange, leaf δ15N, carbon isotope discrimination (Δ), and growth of target plants for the duration of the study. We found that G. sarothrae used resource pulses to a larger extent than A. confertifolia, which has more functional roots at depth. In all species, the addition of a water or nitrogen pulse did not significantly affect maximal rates of photosynthesis or branch growth. Contrary to our initial hypothesis, we did not find that pulse use was reduced by the presence of neighboring plants. Nevertheless, there was strong evidence for competitive interactions, which were more likely mediated by water at depth than by nitrogen. In the more deep-rooted species A. confertifolia, neighbor removal affected Ψ, gas exchange, Δ, percentage of carbon, and growth. G. sarothrae, which has a much smaller proportion of roots at depth, was less affected by the removal of neighboring shrubs, and not at all when only predominantly shallow-rooted herbaceous species were removed.
These results suggest that shrubs in this cold desert community may primarily compete for water in deeper soil layers, where water depletion is slow and dominated by plant water uptake. There appeared to be little competition for water in shallow soil layers, where depletion is fast and dominated by evaporation.