This review presents information about root systems of crops and trees and describes approaches that have been used to model uptake of water and nutrients in crops that may have application to agroforestry systems. Only a few measurements of the distribution of tree roots in agroforestry systems have been published and these are predominantly in alley cropping systems with young trees. Therefore, a major limitation to developing water and nutrient uptake models for trees is the lack of adequate measurements and conceptual models for describing the distribution of roots spatially and temporally. Most process-based modelling approaches to water and nutrient uptake integrate the activities of a single root over the whole root system. Several difficulties can be foreseen with applying these approaches to roots of older trees including the presence of mycorrhizal associations so that the root surface is not the site of uptake, the uncertainty as to whether all tree roots are active in taking up water and nutrients, and the fact that, unlike annual crops, trees have substantial reserves of nutrients that can be mobilised to support growth so that the notion of a plant demand regulating uptake may prove difficult to define. The review concludes that a programme of experimental measurements is required together with modelling using approaches both in which roots are implicit, and in which process-based models with roots allow competitive ability to be assessed.