Plant-soil interactions are known to influence a wide range of ecosystem-level functions. Moreover, the recovery of these functions is of importance for the successful restoration of soils that have been degraded through intensive and/or inappropriate land use. Here, we assessed the effect of planting treatments commonly used to accelerate rates of grassland restoration, namely introduction of different legume species Medicago sativa, Astragalus adsurgens, Melilotus suaveolens, on the recovery of soil microbial communities and carbon and nitrogen contents in abandoned fields of the Loess Plateau, China. The results showed effects were species-specific, and either positive, neutral or negative depending on the measure and timescale. All legumes increased basal respiration and metabolic quotient and had a positive effect on activity and functional diversity of the soil microbial community, measured using Biolog EcoPlate. However, soil under Astragalus adsurgens had the highest activity and functional diversity relative to the other treatments. Soil carbon and nitrogen content and microbial biomass were effectively restored in 3-5 years by introducing Medicago sativa and Astragalus adsurgens into early abandoned fields. Soil carbon and nitrogen content were retarded in 3-5 years and microbial biomass was retarded in the fifth year by introducing Melilotus suaveolens. Overall, the restoration practices of planting legumes can significantly affect soil carbon and nitrogen contents, and the biomass, activity, and functional diversity of soil microbial community. Therefore, we propose certain legume species could be used to accelerate ecological restoration of degraded soils, hence assist in the protection and preservation of the environment. © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012.