During cell locomotion and endocytosis, membrane-tethered WASP proteins stimulate actin filament nucleation by the Arp2/3 complex. This process generates highly branched arrays of filaments that grow toward the membrane to which they are tethered, a conflict that seemingly would restrict filament growth. Using three-color single-molecule imaging in vitro we revealed how the dynamic associations of Arp2/3 complex with mother filament and WASP are temporally coordinated with initiation of daughter filament growth. We found that WASP proteins dissociated from filament-bound Arp2/3 complex prior to new filament growth. Further, mutations that accelerated release of WASP from filament-bound Arp2/3 complex proportionally accelerated branch formation. These data suggest that while WASP promotes formation of pre-nucleation complexes, filament growth cannot occur until it is triggered by WASP release. This provides a mechanism by which membrane-bound WASP proteins can stimulate network growth without restraining it. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01008.001.