Desertification can be an irreversible process due to positive feedback among degraded plant and soil dynamics. The recovery of semiarid degraded ecosystems may need human intervention. In restoration practices, the abiotic conditions often need to be improved to overcome the positive plant–soil feedback loops. Using nurse-plants to improve abiotic conditions for introduced individuals (facilitation) has been suggested as an alternative to direct abiotic amelioration. Here, we compared direct abiotic amelioration and facilitation as tools for restoration of semiarid grasslands in Spain. Seedlings and seeds of Lygeum spartum and Salsola vermiculata were planted and sown in a stably degraded semiarid area in Northeast Spain. Two levels of direct abiotic amelioration (ploughing and damming) and indirect abiotic amelioration through facilitation by Suaeda vera nurse shrubs were compared with a control with no amelioration treatment. The control treatment showed low plant establishment, confirming the practical irreversibility of the degraded state. Plant establishment was significantly higher in the three treatments with interventions than in the control treatment. The best treatment depended on the plant trait considered, but damming was in most cases better than plant facilitation. However, facilitation maintained the nutrient-rich topsoil layer. Given the relative success of facilitation, revegetation using the facilitative effect of nurse-plants would, in principle, be recommended for restoring semiarid grasslands. Direct abiotic amelioration would be needed under extreme degradation or harsh climatic conditions.