Abstract Possible constraints on the passive recovery of bare areas in the Karoo, a semiarid region in South Africa, include inadequate supply of seed, availability of suitable microsites for plant establishment, altered soil properties, and the truncation of key soil biotic processes. Here we investigate the possibility of initiating the restoration of bare areas by soil surface treatments with gypsum (CaSO4) and/or organic mulch. We also apply an exogenous seed source to test the hypothesis that seed availability limits autogenic recovery. Both gypsum and mulch improved rain water infiltration, gypsum more so than mulch, and both treatments resulted in significantly higher numbers of reseeded seedlings compared with controls. Gypsum also improved the survival of the cohorts of seedlings of the larger seeded Tripteris sinuata. Tripteris showed the highest number of seedlings (maximum count of 150 seedlings/1,000 viable seeds sown) and surviving plants of the three reseeded species, which included two small-seeded species, Ruschia spinosa and Chaetobromus dregeanus. Throughout the study period significantly higher plant volumes of naturally seeded annuals and perennials were recorded in the gypsum and/or mulch treatments compared with the controls. Germination and emergence of reseeded and naturally seeded plants appears to be determined by the availability of cool season (autumn to spring ) soil moisture, whereas follow-up rainfall during this time is important for plant survival. Mulching of bare areas in the Succulent Karoo has the potential to re-create vegetated areas that will further capture and conserve water, soil, and nutrients. Gypsum also showed positive results but might not be a cost-effective option because of transport costs to these remote arid areas.