? Aims This study aimed at assessing whether patch type (i.e., under-shrub soil patch and inter-shrub soil patch) has an effect on soil microbes and how different shrub species altered the soil microbes through understanding soil microbial activity, biomass, and community structure. Methods We characterized the soil microbes in under-shrub and inter-shrub soil patches in three shrublands (Artemisia ordosica, Salix psammophila, and Caragana microphylla), respectively, in the Mu Us Desert, China, using microbial activity indicators, chloroform fumigation-extraction analysis, and high-throughput 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Results Members of the phyla Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, Acidobacteria, Planctomycetes, Bacteroidetes, Chloroflexi, Firmicutes, and Gemmatimonadetes were dominant. Inter-shrub soil patch differed from under-shrub soil patch in soil bacterial composition, microbial enzyme activity, and biomass, but not in diversity. Soil collected in A. ordosica shrubland exhibited the highest microbial enzyme activity, biomass, and diversity. Shrub species had significant effects on community structure, primarily the relative abundance of Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, and Bacteroidetes. Conclusions The results indicated that both shrub species and patch type had effects on soil microbial communities. In shrub-dominated desert ecosystems, spatial heterogeneity of soil nutrients and moisture might not be the main factors underlying variations in bacterial diversity. The different compositions of microbial communities in various shrublands provide a foundation for further research into the mechanisms of soil organic carbon accumulation.