Experimental restoration may both accelerate and elucidate natural processes of succession on degraded agricultural land by offering insight into factors that influence rates of succession and the composition of resulting communities. A novel study in restoration of degraded tropical agricultural land in coexistence with cattle ranching activities was established in southern Veracruz, Mexico. The experimental planting of 16 mixed-species stands of 18 pioneer and late-successional tree species was established from September to November 2006 on an eroded hillside pasture with an elevational gradient from 182 to 260 m and heterogeneous soil depths. An unusually severe dry season in 2007 killed 72 per cent of the seedlings: least squares regression suggested that survival of six pioneer and 12 late-successional species was mainly explained by initial basal diameter at planting followed by soil depth for pioneers and by elevational position on the hillside for late-successional species. Individuals with larger initial size at planting (>4 mm basal diameter), regardless of germination size in a growing house, survived better probably because larger seedlings developed deeper roots that found fissures in substrate underlying thin soils. Interestingly, seedlings small at planting (<4 mm basal diameter) survived as well as large seedlings in deeper (>19 cm) soils, but virtually, all small seedlings died on thin soils (<18·5 cm). Mortality in restoration plantings can be reduced by planting large seedlings of a mix of pioneer and late-successional species, recognizing that soil depth is a key criterion for survival of the smallest seedlings in a cohort. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.