The use of biostimulants with plant growth-promoting properties, but without significant input of nutrients, is discussed as a strategy to increase stress resistance and nutrient use efficiency of crops. However, limited reproducibility under real production conditions remains a major challenge. The use of combination products based on microbial and non-microbial biostimulants or microbial consortia, with the aim to exploit complementary or synergistic interactions and increase the flexibility of responses under different environmental conditions, is discussed as a potential strategy to overcome this problem. This study aimed at comparing the efficiency of selected microbial single-strain inoculants with proven plant-growth promoting potential versus consortium products under real production conditions in large-scale tomato cultivation systems, exposed to different environmental challenges. In a protected greenhouse production system at Timisoara, Romania, with composted cow manure, guano, hair-, and feather-meals as major fertilizers, different fungal and bacterial single-strain inoculants, as well as microbial consortium products, showed very similar beneficial responses. Nursery performance, fruit setting, fruit size distribution, seasonal yield share, and cumulative yield (39–84% as compared to the control) were significantly improved over two growing periods. By contrast, superior performance of the microbial consortia products (MCPs) was recorded under more challenging environmental conditions in an open-field drip-fertigated tomato production system in the Negev desert, Israel with mineral fertilization on a high pH (7.9), low fertility, and sandy soil. This was reflected by improved phosphate (P) acquisition, a stimulation of vegetative shoot biomass production and increased final fruit yield under conditions of limited P supply. Moreover, MCP inoculation was associated with selective changes of the rhizosphere-bacterial community structure particularly with respect to Sphingobacteriia
, reported as salinity indicators and drought stress protectants. Phosphate limitation reduced the diversity of bacterial populations at the root surface (rhizoplane) and this effect was reverted by MCP inoculation, reflecting the improved P status of the plants. The results support the hypothesis that the use of microbial consortia can increase the efficiency and reproducibility of BS-assisted strategies for crop production, particularly under challenging environmental conditions.
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