Response of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) to nitrogen, phosphorus and rhizobia inoculation across variable soils in Zimbabwe

Common bean is an important crop with potential to curb malnutrition in poor Sub-Saharan African populations. Yields of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) are, however poor, limited by low soil phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N) and poor biological N2-fixation. On-farm experiments were carried out to study the effect of N, P and rhizobia inoculation on common bean yield and yield components during the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 cropping seasons in Eastern Zimbabwe. Experiments were conducted on five farmers’ fields located in two agroecologies; three fields were considered to be degraded with soil organic carbon (SOC) < 4 g kg−1 and available P < 6 mg kg−1, while the two non–degraded sites had SOC > 7 g kg−1 and available P > 15 mg kg−1. Two common bean varieties (Gloria and NUA45) were tested in a split-plot arranged in randomized complete block design. The main plot factor was the combination of N (0 and 40 kg ha−1) and P (0 and 20 kg ha−1), and the sub-plot factors were variety (Gloria and NUA 45) and inoculation with Rhizobium tropici strain CIAT899 (+/− inoculum). At planting, both N and P were applied at 20 kg ha−1, with an additional 20 kg ha−1 N top dressing applied at flowering. Analysis of variance indicated common bean did not respond to rhizobia inoculation (P > 0.05) whilst P significantly increased the number of nodules and active nodules per plant (P < 0.001), and grain yield. Application of 40 kg ha−1 N significantly increased the number of pods per plant, number of seeds per pod, and grain yields. A significant NP interaction was only observed on grain yield for non-degraded soils. Co-application of N and P in non-degraded sites increased grain yields from 0.27 to 1.48 Mg ha−1during the first season and from 0.37 to 2.09 Mg ha−1during the second season. On degraded sites, NP application resulted in uninspiring grain yield gains of 0.09 to 0.19 Mg ha−1 during the first season, and from 0.16 to 0.28 Mg ha−1 in the second season. In general, effects of N or P were not significantly different, suggesting that farmers could invest in either of these nutrients for increased common bean grain yields. Strategically, P investments would be more logical as residual P effects to rotational cereals improve overall cropping system performance. The response of common bean to inoculation in Zimbabwe still needs to be widely investigated for these and other varieties.