The abundance of microbes in soil is thought to be strongly influenced by plant productivity rather than by plant species richness per se. However, whether this holds true for different microbial groups and under different soil conditions is unresolved. We tested how plant species richness, identity and biomass influence the abundances of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), saprophytic bacteria and fungi, and actinomycetes, in model plant communities in soil of low and high fertility using phospholipid fatty acid analysis. Abundances of saprophytic fungi and bacteria were driven by larger plant biomass in high diversity treatments. In contrast, increased AMF abundance with larger plant species richness was not explained by plant biomass, but responded to plant species identity and was stimulated by Anthoxantum odoratum. Our results indicate that the abundance of saprophytic soil microbes is influenced more by resource quantity, as driven by plant production, while AMF respond more strongly to resource composition, driven by variation in plant species richness and identity. This suggests that AMF abundance in soil is more sensitive to changes in plant species diversity per se and plant species composition than are abundances of saprophytic microbes. This journal is © 2010 The Royal Society.