Extensive land clearing in many parts of the global tropics is a major threat to biodiversity, and strategies are urgently needed to reinstate forest. Tree planting is a commonly used strategy to rapidly restore forest to degraded landscapes. However, tree planting is expensive, and in most cases financial constraints prevent its use at a scale needed to address the ongoing legacy of land clearing. Here, we conduct a quantitative review of literature from the global tropics and evaluate outcomes of less intensive interventions (i.e. non-planting) aimed at stimulating natural regeneration of forest. We focus specifically on overcoming barriers to native plant regeneration that predominate in the earliest stages of succession. Common interventions include varied strategies to suppress herbaceous vegetation (e.g. cutting or herbicide treatment), and measures to bolster propagule supply (e.g. direct seeding and artificial bird perches). There was an apparent trend among pair-wise comparisons of effect sizes to suggest that combined interventions to simultaneously suppress herbaceous vegetation and increase propagule supply resulted in the most consistent outcomes in terms of promoting progress toward restoring forest structure. Despite an obvious demand for lower cost interventions, a paucity of information means that it is still premature to generalize outcomes of specific interventions and their overall cost relative to active tree planting. Nevertheless, we report an increase in research effort in this area, and suggest promising directions to accelerate progress that will improve capacity to select optimal, cost effective strategies that achieve long-term restoration objectives with a particular level of certainty.