Abstract Aim To investigate the differential effects of position within gaps, coarse woody debris and understorey cover on tree seedling survival in canopy gaps in two old-growth Nothofagus pumilio (Poepp. & Endl.) Krasser forests and the response of this species to gaps in two forests located at opposite extremes of a steep rainfall gradient. Location Nahuel Huapi National Park, at 41° S in north-western Patagonia, Argentina. Methods In both study sites, seedlings were transplanted to experimental plots in gaps in three different positions, with two types of substrate (coarse woody debris or forest floor), and with and without removal of understorey vegetation. Survival of seedlings was monitored during two growing seasons. Soil moisture and direct solar radiation were measured once in mid-summer. Seedling aerial biomass was estimated at the end of the experiment. Results Mid-summer soil water potential was lowest in the centre of gaps, in plots where the understorey had been removed, and highest at the northern edges of gaps. Direct incoming radiation was highest in gap centres and southern edges, and lowest at northern edges. Seedling mortality was highest in gap centres, in both sites. Coarse woody debris had a positive effect on seedling survival during summer in the mesic forest and during winter in the xeric forest. The removal of understorey cover had negative effects in gap centres during summer. Seedling final aerial biomass was positively affected by understorey removal and by soil substrate in both sites. In the dry forest gaps, seedling growth was highest in northern edges, whereas it was highest in gap centres in the mesic forest. Overall growth was positively related to survival in the xeric forest, and negatively related in the mesic forest. Main conclusions Survival and growth were facilitated by the shade of gap-surrounding trees only in the xeric forest. Understorey vegetation of both forests facilitated seedling survival in exposed microsites but competed with seedling growth. Nurse logs were an important substrate for seedling establishment in both forests; however, causes of this pattern differed between forests. Water availability positively controls seedling survival and growth in the xeric forest while in the mesic forest, survival and growth are differentially controlled by water and light availability, respectively. These two contrasting old-growth forests, separated by a relatively short distance along a steep rainfall gradient, had different yet unexpected microenvironmental controls on N. pumilio seedling survival and growth. These results underscore the importance of defining microscale limiting factors of tree recruitment in the context of large-scale spatial variation in resources.