Understanding the dependence of soil moisture changes following afforestation on the precipitation gradient and afforested vegetation types is crucial for improving ongoing afforestation projects, and to guide future restoration strategies in water-limited regions. For this study, we characterized afforestation-induced changes in soil moisture at depths of 0–3.0 m across a precipitation gradient in the semi-arid Loess Plateau of China. A paired experiment was conducted across 15 sites, where native grasslands served as the baseline hydrology. The results showed that korshinsk peashrub (Caragana korshinskii
Kom.), sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides
L.), and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia
L.) afforestation caused an overall strong decline in soil moisture content at depths of below 2.2 m. The degree of soil moisture decline at the regional scale did not vary between different afforested vegetation types but was contingent on precipitation. With decreasing precipitation gradients, afforestation increased the cost of deep soil moisture. Precipitation restrictions began to appear at mean annual precipitation (MAP) = 520 mm, and were intensified at MAP = 380 mm, which could be employed to divide the Loess Plateau into different ecological regions. Because of this, different strategies should be assigned in future restoration practices to these ecological regions to align with localized precipitation conditions. It will likely be prudent to encourage afforestation in areas with MAP of more than 520 mm, while advocating alternative grassland restoration in areas with MAP of less than 380 mm.
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