Abstract Large-scale restoration of bottomland hardwood forests in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley (USA) under federal incentive programs, begun in the 1990s, initially achieved mixed results. We report here on a comparison of four restoration techniques in terms of survival, accretion of vertical structure, and woody species diversity. The range of treatment intensity allowed us to compare native recolonization to direct seeding and planting of Quercus nuttallii Palmer, and to an intensive treatment of interplanting two species that differed in successional status (early successional Populus deltoides Bartram ex Marsh. ssp. deltoides, with the mid-successional Q. nuttallii). Native recolonization varied in effectiveness by block but overall provided few woody plants. All active restoration methods (planting and direct seeding) were successful in terms of stocking. Populus grew larger than Quercus, reaching canopy closure after 2 years and heights after 2 and 5 years of 6 and 12.7 m, respectively. Planted Quercus were significantly larger than direct seeded Quercus in all years, but only averaged 1.4 m in height after 5 years. Interplanting did not seem to facilitate development of the Quercus seedlings. The early success of the interplanting technique demonstrated that environmental benefits can be obtained quickly by more intensive efforts. Native recolonization can augment active interventions if limitations to dispersal distance are recognized. These results should provide landowners and managers with the confidence to use techniques of varying intensity to restore ecosystem functions.