Floodplain sediments can be dated precisely based on the change in anatomy of tree rings upon burial. When a stem of tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima) or sandbar willow (Salix exigua) is buried, subsequent annual rings in the buried section resemble the rings of roots: rings become narrower, vessels within the rings become larger, and transitions between rings become less distinct. We combined observations of these changes with tree-ring counts to determine the year of deposition of sedimentary beds exposed in a 150-m-long trench across the floodplain of the Rio Puerco, a rapidly filling arroyo in New Mexico. This method reliably dated most beds thicker than about 30 cm to within a year of deposition. Floodplain aggradation rates varied dramatically through time and space. Sediment deposition was mostly limited to brief overbank flows occurring every few years. The most rapid deposition occurred on channel-margin levees, which migrated laterally during channel narrowing. At the decadal timescale, the cross-section-average sediment deposition rate was steady, but there was a shift in the spatial pattern of deposition in the 1980s. From 1936 to 1986, sediment deposition occurred by channel narrowing, with little change in elevation of the thalweg. After 1986 sediment deposition occurred by vertical aggradation. From 1936 to 2000 about 27 per cent of the arroyo cross-section filled with sediment. The rate of filling from 1962 to 2000 was 0·8 vertical m/decade or 85 m2/decade. Published in 2005 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.