Planting tree seedlings in small patches (islands) has been proposed as a method to facilitate forest recovery that is less expensive than planting large areas and better simulates the nucleation process of recovery. We planted seedlings of four tree species at 12 formerly agricultural sites in southern Costa Rica in two designs: plantation (entire 50 × 50 m area planted) and island (six patches of three sizes). We monitored seedling survival, height, and canopy area over 3 years. To elucidate mechanisms influencing survival and growth, we measured soil and foliar nutrients, soil compaction, and photosynthesis. Survival of all species was similar in the two planting designs. Seedling height and canopy area were greater in plantations than islands at most sites, and more seedlings in islands decreased in height due to damage incurred during plot maintenance. Survival, height, and canopy area were both site- and species-specific with the two N-fixing species (Inga edulis and Erythrina poeppigiana) greater than the other species (Terminalia amazonia and Vochysia guatemalensis). Foliar N was higher in Terminalia and Vochysia in sites where Inga growth was greater. Soil nutrients, however, explained a small amount of the large differences in growth across sites. Leaf mass per area was higher in islands, and P use efficiency was higher in plantations. Our results show advantages (good seedling survival, cheaper) and disadvantages (more seedling damage, slightly lower growth) to the island planting design. Our study highlights the importance of replicating restoration strategies at several sites to make widespread management recommendations.