We investigated whether the capacities of Lolium perenne L. and Poa pratensis L. roots to proliferate locally and to alter local nitrogen (N) inflows in a decomposing organic matter patch were important in their capture of N when grown together. In the presence of a patch, plants of both species were significantly heavier and contained more N. Root length and weight densities increased in the patch, but specific root length was unaltered. Although both species proliferated roots in the patch, L. perenne produced greater root length densities than P. pratensis, and also captured more N from the patch. Indeed, total N uptake from the patch was related to root length density within the patch. N inflows (rate of N uptake per unit root length) in the patch were no faster than in the whole root system for both species. Under the conditions of this study, root proliferation in an organic patch was more important for N capture from the patch than alterations in N inflows. Local proliferation of roots may be a key factor in interspecific competition for non-uniformly distributed supplies of N in natural habitats, so resolving the previous uncertainty as to the ‘adaptive’ nature of root proliferation.