1. The success of grassland biodiversity restoration schemes is determined by many factors; as such their outcomes can be unpredictable. There is a need for improved understanding of the relative importance of belowground factors to restoration success, such as contrasting soil type and management intensities, as well as plant community composition and order of assembly.
2. We carried out an eight-year mesocosm experiment across three locations in the UK to explore the relative and interactive roles of various aboveground and belowground factors in the establishment of target species, to determine general constraints on grassland restoration. Each location had a series of mesocosms with contrasting soil types and management status, which were initially sown with six grasses typical of species-poor grasslands targeted for restoration.
3. Over five years, sets of plant species were added, to test how different vegetation treatments, including early-coloniser species and the hemiparasite Rhinanthus minor, and soil type and management, influenced the establishment of target plant species and community diversity.
4. The addition of early-coloniser species to model grasslands suppressed the establishment of target species, indicating a strong priority effect. Soil type was also an important factor, but effects varied considerably across locations. In the absence of early-coloniser species, low soil nutrient availability improved establishment of target species across locations, although R. minor had no beneficial effect.