Hybrids account for nearly all commercially planted varieties of maize and many other crop plants because crosses between inbred lines of these species produce first-generation [F1] offspring that greatly outperform their parents. The mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, called heterosis or hybrid vigor, are not well understood despite over a century of intensive research. The leading hypotheses—which focus on quantitative genetic mechanisms (dominance, overdominance, and epistasis) and molecular mechanisms (gene dosage and transcriptional regulation)—have been able to explain some but not all of the observed patterns of heterosis. Abiotic stressors are known to impact the expression of heterosis; however, the potential role of microbes in heterosis has largely been ignored. Here, we show that heterosis of root biomass and other traits in maize is strongly dependent on the belowground microbial environment. We found that, in some cases, inbred lines perform as well by these criteria as their F1 offspring under sterile conditions but that heterosis can be restored by inoculation with a simple community of seven bacterial strains. We observed the same pattern for seedlings inoculated with autoclaved versus live soil slurries in a growth chamber and for plants grown in steamed or fumigated versus untreated soil in the field. In a different field site, however, soil steaming increased rather than decreased heterosis, indicating that the direction of the effect depends on community composition, environment, or both. Together, our results demonstrate an ecological phenomenon whereby soil microbes differentially impact the early growth of inbred and hybrid maize.