Vegetation is usually sparse in the desert regions, but it plays important roles in stabilizing sand dunes and combating desertification. Establishing how desert vegetation responds to changes in both natural forcing and anthropogenic interference is essential for better understanding desertification processes and their future dynamics. In this study, a comprehensive analysis of NDVI time series data in combination with climate reanalysis data and topographic data was conducted to investigate the possible effects of different external factors on desert vegetation in the Tengger desert, one of the largest deserts in northern China. The results show that vegetation is mostly distributed near the desert margins and in the interdune areas with relatively low and flat topography. Multiple NDVI datasets indicate a consistently greening trend over the entire desert during the last forty years, and the greening rates are higher at sites with sand fixation and vegetation restoration practices. After a few decades of restoration practices, vegetation greenness in these sites is approaching to their natural states, but they still show large interannual variability associated with precipitation fluctuations. Therefore, the greening trend of the entire desert could be related to recent climate change towards wetter, warmer and less windy conditions, while human efforts have accelerated the rate of vegetation recovery in the restoration sites. Our study implies that the present climate change has produced conditions favorable for continued vegetation increase in the drylands of northern China, and this trend has been facilitated by policy-driven restoration projects. The combined effects of climate change, topography and human interference on desert vegetation should be considered in future restoration practices.