The use of plant growth-promoting microorganisms (PGPMs) as bio-effectors (BEs) to improve the nutrient acquisition of crops has a long history. However, limited reproducibility of the expected effects still remains a major challenge for practical applications.
Based on the hypothesis that the expression of PGPM effects depends on soil type and the properties of the applied fertilizers, in a new study, the performance of selected microbial inoculants was investigated for two contrasting low-fertility soils supplied with different organic and inorganic fertilizers.
Greenhouse experiments were conducted with tomato on an alkaline sandy loam of pH 7.8 and an acidic loamy sand of pH 5.6 with limited phosphate (P) availability. Municipal waste compost, with and without poultry manure (PM), rock phosphate (RP), stabilized ammonium, and mineral nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) fertilization were tested as fertilizer variants. Selected strains of Bacillus amyloliquefaciens (Priest et al. 1987) Borriss et al. 2011 (FZB42) and Trichoderma harzianum Rifai (OMG16) with proven plant growth-promoting potential were used as inoculants.
On both soils, P was identified as a major limiting nutrient. Microbial inoculation selectively increased the P utilization in the PM-compost variants by 116% and 56% on the alkaline and acidic soil, while RP utilization was increased by 24%. This was associated with significantly increased shoot biomass production by 37–42%.
Plant growth promotion coincided with a corresponding stimulation of root growth, suggesting improved spatial acquisition of soluble soil P fractions, associated also with improved acquisition of nitrogen (N), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), and calcium (Ca). There was no indication for mobilization of sparingly soluble Ca phosphates via rhizosphere acidification on the alkaline soil, and only mineral NPK fertilization reached a sufficient P status and maximum biomass production. However, on the moderately acidic soil, FZB42 significantly stimulated plant growth of the variants supplied with Ca–P in the form of RP + stabilized ammonium and PM compost, which was equivalent to NPK fertilization; however, the P nutritional status was sufficient only in the RP and NPK variants.
The results suggest that successful application of microbial biofertilizers requires more targeted application strategies, considering the soil properties and compatible fertilizer combinations.