Saline-sodic soils are widely distributed in the western Songnen Plain of Northeast China and planting rice has been found to be an effective and feasible approach for improving saline-sodic soil and increasing food production. Assessment of the effectiveness and sustainability of this method requires monitoring of the changes in soil salinity and nutrient content. The objective of the current study was to investigate the changes of soil salinity and nitrogen (N) contents over 1, 3, 6 and 9 years of cultivation, four application rates of N (N0: no N, N1: 100 kg N/ha, N2: 200 kg N/ha and N3: 300 kg N/ha) and two irrigation water types: ground water irrigation (GWI) and river water irrigation (RWI). Salinity and N contents of soil and water samples were analysed before planting and after harvest throughout the experiments. Soil pH and electrical conductivity (EC), especially in the surface layer of 0–40 cm depth, decreased with years of cultivation with both GWI and RWI, while soil inorganic N and total N contents increased. Moreover, with increasing N application rates, soil inorganic N and total N contents increased significantly in the 0–20 cm soil layer. Increasing N application had little effect on soil pH and EC. Reclaiming and planting rice promoted desalination of the surface and formation of a fertile tillage layer in saline-sodic paddy fields. In terms of irrigation and drainage in saline-sodic paddy fields, both soil salinity and N contents increased. Soil total salinity increased annually by 34 and 12·8 kg/ha, and inorganic N contents increased annually by 9 and 13·5 kg/ha with GWI and RWI, respectively. Therefore, comprehensive agricultural practices should be adopted for improving and cropping rice in saline-sodic paddy fields.