Vegetation throughout the southwestern United States has changed from perennial grassland to woody shrubland over the past century. Previous studies on the development of 'islands of fertility' focused primarily on only the most limiting, plant-essential element, soil nitrogen (N). The research presented here addressed the question of whether other plant-essential elements, namely phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), showed similar concentration gradients under the desert shrub Larrea tridentata (creosotebush). It also examined whether the spatial distribution of N, P, and K differed from that of essential, but non-limiting nutrients, namely calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S), and non-essential elements, namely sodium (Na), chloride (Cl), and fluoride (F). Within adjacent grassland and shrubland plots, surface soils were collected under and between vegetation and analyzed for a suite of soil nutrients. Soil nutrient distribution followed a uniform pattern that mirrored the spatial homogeneity of bunchgrasses in the grassland, but followed a patchy distribution that mirrored the spatial heterogeneity of individual shrubs in the shrubland. The main differences were that in the grassland, all elements were uniformly distributed, but in the shrubland the plant-essential elements, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, were concentrated under the shrub canopy, and the non-limiting and non-essential elements were either concentrated in the intershrub spaces or were equally concentrated under shrubs and in the interspaces. Our results show how vegetation shifts from grassland to shrubland contribute to long-term, widespread change in the structure and function of desert ecosystems.