Summary Efforts to re-establish indigenous forests in pastoral New Zealand have increased as the value of native biodiversity has been realized. Direct seeding of woody species is preferable to transplanting, as labour and material costs are less. However, the success rate of direct seeding in pasture has been variable due to intense competition from adventive species. We initiated an experiment in pasture plots adjacent to a forest fragment where seed bed treatments (increasing in degree of disturbance from herbicide application to turf removal and topsoil removal) in combination with mulch treatments (wood chip shavings with and without forest floor organic material) were seeded with a mixture of New Zealand lowland forest species. The objective of the study was to determine if early successional plant communities, and ultimately seedling establishment, differed as a result of seed bed preparation after 1 year. Coprosma robusta (Karamu) and Kunzea ericoides (Kanuka) seedlings established on plots in significant numbers: both species were most abundant on topsoil-removed plots where bare substrate was greatest and plant cover least. Both seed bed treatments and mulching treatments led to measurable differences in overall composition of early successional plant communities. However, absence of plant cover and low soil fertility (both associated with the topsoil-removed treatment) were the most important factors in seedling success.