This study tested two hypotheses: (1) species with roots that have a high length to dry mass ratio or specific root length (SRL) also have the potential for high rates of root growth in small volumes of favourable soil and (2) variation in average root diameter fully accounts for variation in SRL. To minimize differences among shoots, the study used 13-year-old ‘Valencia’ sweet orange [Citrus sinensis (L.) Osbeck] trees budded to rootstocks representing a range of genotypes. Soil cores 7.4 cm in diameter and 14.2 cm deep were extracted from beneath the canopy, and the soil was sieved free of roots and replaced. Root length, diameter and dry weight of the roots in the disturbed soil and adjacent undisturbed soil were evaluated 5, 10, 19 and 40 weeks following soil replacement. The disturbed soil had a higher water content than the undisturbed soil for the first three sampling dates. Averaged across rootstocks, root length density increased in a linear fashion in the disturbed soil and was comparable to that in the undisturbed soil by 40 weeks. Mean root diameter of the fibrous roots (< 2 mm) declined with age. Rootstocks with the highest SRL had the most rapid rate of root proliferation (cm cm−3 wk−1) (r= 0.94) and the greatest rate of water extraction at 19 weeks (r= 0.79). Although variation in root diameter contributed to rootstock variation in SRL, the data also suggested that rootstocks of high SRL had roots with lower tissue density than those of low SRL (P < 0.05). The potential trade-offs of constructing root systems of high SRL are discussed.