Wetlands provide vital services on which human societies depend. As they have been rapidly degrading due to anthropogenic impacts worldwide, wetland restoration is increasingly applied. When a return to the original state of a wetland is constrained, forward-looking restoration can provide a new way to enhance an ecosystem's ecological integrity. However, the direction in which new ecosystems will develop is strongly coupled to the initial environmental conditions and may benefit from active decisions on (future) management. To improve the natural values of a degrading freshwater lake in the Netherlands, a forward-looking restoration project was initiated in lake Markermeer in 2016, involving the construction of a 700-ha archipelago called the “Marker Wadden”. This archipelago should provide new habitat to higher trophic levels in the lake's food web through the development of currently missing Common reed (Phragmites australis) dominated marshlands with gradual land-water transitions. However, the restoration project faces strong grazing pressure by Greylag geese (Anser anser) that possibly inhibit reed establishment. Here, we aimed to unravel the effect of herbivory by Greylag geese (using exclosures) and the introduction of reed rhizomes on early vegetation development and carbon dynamics on the bare soils of this new ecosystem in a manipulative field experiment. Our results showed that excluding herbivores strongly increased reed-vegetation cover, density and maximum height, but only when reed rhizomes were actively introduced. Spontaneous vegetation development on bare soils was limited, and colonization by Broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia) dominated over reed. Net ecosystem exchange of carbon and ecosystem respiration were strongly linked to vegetation development, with highest methane emissions in the most densely vegetated plots. We conclude that the establishment of reed marshes can strongly benefit from excluding herbivores and the introduction of reed, and that otherwise other vegetation types may establish more slowly in newly created wetlands. This illustrates how active management of vegetation development has the potential to benefit novel ecosystems.