1. We examined the effect of soil organic content (1.4, 3.6, 7.2% soil C), water level (+2, -1, -4 cm from soil surface) and duration (13 or 33 days) on 10 species that varied in abundance during succession in freshwater marshes. We also determined the effect of shade (0, 40, 80% shade) and soil organic content (1.4 and 7.2% soil C) on germination of six species over 62 days with water 0.5 cm below the soil surface. 2. Water level consistently affected species germination on both dates. Above-ground biomass was generally higher with increasing organic content of soil, but shade had little effect on germination or height. 3 The hydrologic zone in which species were found in the field was a good indicator of the response of germination to hydrology. Both early successional species and species wide-spread across the successional gradient show similar germination on all organic contents, while later successional species appear to germinate best at higher organic contents. 4. Successional changes in soils are capable of affecting plant community development, independent of disturbance.