General principles from coexistence theory are often invoked to explain how and why mixtures of species outperform monocultures. However, the complementarity and selection effects commonly measured in biodiversity experiments do not precisely quantify the niche and relative fitness differences that govern species coexistence. Given this lack of direct correspondence, how can we know whether species-rich mixtures are stable and that the benefits of diversity will therefore persist? We develop a resource-based included-niche model in which plant species have asymmetric access to a nested set of belowground resource pools. We use the model to show that positive complementarity effects arise from stabilising niche differences, but do not necessarily lead to stable coexistence and hence can be transient. In addition, these transient complementarity effects occur in the model when there is no complementary resource use among species. Including a trade-off between uptake rates and the size of the resource pool stabilised interactions and led to persistent complementarity coupled with weak or negative selection effects, consistent with results from the longest-running field biodiversity experiments. We suggest that future progress requires a greater mechanistic understanding of the links between ecosystem functions and their underlying biological processes.