Sustainable intensification is seen as the main route for meeting the world’s increasing demands for food and fibre. As demands mount for greater efficiency in the use of resources to achieve this goal, so the focus on roots and rootstocks and their role in acquiring water and nutrients, and overcoming pests and pathogens, is increasing. The purpose of this review is to explore some of the ways in which understanding root systems and their interactions with soils could contribute to the development of more sustainable systems of intensive production. Physical interactions with soil particles limit root growth if soils are dense, but root–soil contact is essential for optimal growth and uptake of water and nutrients. X-ray microtomography demonstrated that maize roots elongated more rapidly with increasing root–soil contact, as long as mechanical impedance was not limiting root elongation, while lupin was less sensitive to changes in root–soil contact. In addition to selecting for root architecture and rhizosphere properties, the growth of many plants in cultivated systems is profoundly affected by selection of an appropriate rootstock. Several mechanisms for scion control by rootstocks have been suggested, but the causal signals are still uncertain and may differ between crop species. Linkage map locations for quantitative trait loci for disease resistance and other traits of interest in rootstock breeding are becoming available. Designing root systems and rootstocks for specific environments is becoming a feasible target.