Environmental and socio-economic changes are leading to increased levels of land abandonment worldwide. The assembly of plant communities on old fields has informed much ecological theory, which in turn has facilitated efforts at ecological restoration. The interaction of the cultivation legacy with inherent soil and vegetation characteristics will determine the dynamics of plant community assembly on old fields and indicate the level of effort required to restore historical vegetation states. The abandonment of traditional agricultural lands in some areas will create old fields that require limited or no restoration. Yet intensification of agriculture and rapid environmental change will lead to increasing numbers of old fields that show little recovery towards an historic vegetation state. The restoration of these old fields will pose significant scientific and policy challenges.