Increasing rates of forest disturbance may provide greater opportunity for invasion of nonnative species, thereby altering the successional trajectory of native plant communities. In the eastern U.S., invasive Ailanthus altissima and native Liriodendron tulipifera have similar life histories and niches and often co-occur. To examine how disturbance affects the establishment of these species, we performed field experiments to evaluate the response of sown seeds and transplanted seedlings to three levels of disturbance on north- and south-facing aspects. L. tulipifera germination was severely limited by low seed viability and had significantly lower germination than A. altissima in all sites. The effect of disturbance regime on A. altissima germination depended on aspect in the second growing season. In contrast, mean seedling survival, biomass, leaf area and leaf area ratio were greater for L. tulipifera in all field sites. Overall, the north-facing selective cut forest provided a disproportionately large number of suitable microsites for L. tulipifera establishment. Collectively, this study demonstrated that different timber harvest practices produce heterogeneous mosaics of suitable microsites for germination and establishment. Limited L. tulipifera germination may be a serious constraint to population establishment if seeds are deposited for the first time immediately after a disturbance event. However, if sufficient viable seeds of both species exist, L. tulipifera out-performs the invasive in the first two years following disturbance. This may explain why A. altissima has shown explosive population growth in a limited number of sites in the past century.