Climate variability and human activities interact to increase the abundance of woody plants in arid and semi-arid ecosystems worldwide. How woody plants interact with rainfall to influence patterns of soil moisture through time, at different depths in the soil profile and between neighboring landscape patches is poorly known. In a semi-arid mesquite savanna, we deployed a paired array of sensors beneath a mesquite canopy and in an adjacent open area to measure volumetric soil water content (θ) every 30 min at several depths between 2004 and 2007. In addition, to quantify temporally dynamic variation in soil moisture between the two microsites and across soil depths we analysed θ time-series using fast Fourier transforms (FFT). FFT analyses were consistent with the prediction that by reducing evaporative losses through shade and reducing rainfall inputs through canopy interception of small rainfall events, the mesquite canopy was associated with a decline in high-frequency (hour-to-hour and day-to-day) variation in shallow θ. Finally, we found that, in both microsites, high-frequency θ variation declined with increasing soil depth as the influence of evaporative losses and inputs associated with smaller rainfall events declined. In this case, we argue that the buffering of shallow soil moisture against high-frequency variations can enhance nutrient cycling and alter the carbon cycle in dryland ecosystems. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.