Relating patterns of species abundance to the processes that determine them at local and regional spatial scales is one of the central aims of ecological research. To examine the relationship between distribution and growth in tropical rain forest, seasonal and annual changes in tree diameter of two tree species with contrasting distribution patterns, Celtis mildbraedii and Strombosia glaucescens, were monitored across topographic gradients in moist semi-deciduous and moist evergreen forest in Ghana over 2 years, 1997-9. Concurrent measurements were made of soil water availability, and during 1997/8, of rainfall, nutrient availability and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR). The two sites received similar, low, total rainfall during 1997/8, but soil water availability in the dry season at the evergreen site exceeded that at the semi-deciduous forest site. Soil water availability was higher during 1998/9 at both sites. During 1997/8, PAR was similar at the two sites. The evergreen site had soils of lower pH, available P, Mg, Ca and K concentrations than the semi-deciduous forest site. Water availability and the sand content of the soil increased and concentrations of total N and C decreased, from summit to valley positions at both sites. Celtis mildbraedii had significantly faster growth rates than S. glaucescens, and growth of both species was greater at the semi-deciduous than the evergreen forest site during the wet year (1998/9) but not during the dry year (1997/8). Celtis mildbraedii in semi-deciduous forest grew less in valley than summit and slope positions. We conclude that in the absence of a severe dry season, growth is higher in semi-deciduous than evergreen forest, and is related to the higher soil fertility in more seasonal forest. The patterns are consistent with the hypothesis that concentrations of available P and/or cations in the soil limit growth in evergreen forest, while concentrations of N in valley soils limit growth of C. mildbraedii in semi-deciduous forest. There was no evidence that variation in PAR influenced growth rates in these forests. A reduction in growth rate on less fertile soils may be a factor determining the distribution limit of dry forest species, such as C. mildbraedii, in evergreen forest.