The four microsporangia of the flowering plant anther develop from archesporial cells in the L2 of the primordium. Within each microsporangium, developing microsporocytes are surrounded by concentric monolayers of tapetal, middle layer and endothecial cells. How this intricate array of tissues, each containing relatively few cells, is established in an organ possessing no formal meristems is poorly understood. We describe here the pivotal role of the LRR receptor kinase EXCESS MICROSPOROCYTES 1 (EMS1) in forming the monolayer of tapetal nurse cells in Arabidopsis. Unusually for plants, tapetal cells are specified very early in development, and are subsequently stimulated to proliferate by a receptor-like kinase (RLK) complex that includes EMS1. Mutations in members of this EMS1 signalling complex and its putative ligand result in male-sterile plants in which tapetal initials fail to proliferate. Surprisingly, these cells continue to develop, isolated at the locular periphery. Mutant and wild-type microsporangia expand at similar rates and the 'tapetal' space at the periphery of mutant locules becomes occupied by microsporocytes. However, induction of late expression of EMS1 in the few tapetal initials in ems1 plants results in their proliferation to generate a functional tapetum, and this proliferation suppresses microsporocyte number. Our experiments also show that integrity of the tapetal monolayer is crucial for the maintenance of the polarity of divisions within it. This unexpected autonomy of the tapetal 'lineage' is discussed in the context of tissue development in complex plant organs, where constancy in size, shape and cell number is crucial.