Abstract This study examined the early growth and water use of tree plantations established on a marginalized irrigated cropland in northwest Uzbekistan, where salinization of agricultural soils is widespread due to shallow saline groundwater tables. During the first two growing seasons in 2003–2004, the tree stands consisting of Elaeagnus angustifolia L., Populus euphratica Oliv., and Ulmus pumila L. were irrigated with 80 mm year −1, and, in 2005, were left to rely on the shallow (0.9–2.0 m deep) groundwater with a salinity of 1–5 dS m −1. Soil salinity increased but remained within the range of moderate-to-strong (4–14 dS m −1) during the three years. In the course of the growing season, plantations transpired 0.1–7 mm day −1 in 2003 and 1–13 mm day −1 in 2004–2005, as determined with the Penman–Monteith model. In the absence of irrigation, the annual stand transpiration averaged 1250, 1030, and 670 mm for E. angustifolia, P. euphratica and U. pumila, respectively. In 2005, the leaf area index of E. angustifolia ranged from 5 to 10, surpassing that of the other two species more than two-fold. Differences in canopy conductance and transpiration were significant among the tree species and the decoupling coefficient at no time exceeded 0.3, indicating strong physiological control of transpiration. The vigorous juvenile growth and high transpiration under deficit irrigation and after irrigation was terminated, suggested that afforestation with well-adapted tree species is a viable land use option for degraded cropland. The plantation responses to increasing soil salinity must be monitored to determine potential leaching demands in the long run.