Strong competition for water is largely recognized as the main factor explaining the resistance of herbaceous old fields to tree invasion. Therefore, site preparation as well as chemical and mechanical vegetation control are recommended when establishing hardwood tree plantations on such sites, but those methods are sometimes socially or ecologically inappropriate. The main objective of this study was to analyze whether treeshelters could improve early tree growth in herbaceous old fields, when mulching alone is used to partially control herbaceous competition. Our results indicate that treeshelters can facilitate tree growth in those conditions but that this was not caused by an improvement of tree water relations. Rather, it appeared to be related to an optimization of light levels inside the shelter, where light intensity was low enough to lead to a photosynthetic system less costly to maintain due to a greater specific leaf area but high enough to have no adverse effects on photosynthetic rates. Although treeshelters increased tree growth when surrounding herbaceous vegetation was low (either height or standing biomass), allowing high light levels, they reduced growth when surrounding vegetation was high and blocked a substantial quantity of light. Therefore, environmental factors such as light availability need to be considered to optimize the success of hardwood plantations when treeshelters are used in recently abandoned agricultural fields.