Hardpans (plough/hoe pans) are commonly believed to restrict plant root growth and crop yields under conventional small-scale agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. This study questions the notion of widespread hardpans in Zambia and their remedy under conservation tillage. Soil penetration resistance was measured in 8x12 grids, covering 80 cm wide and 60 cm deep profiles in 32 soil pits. Large and fine maize roots were counted in 8x6 grids. Soil samples from mid-rows were analysed for pH, exchangeable H+
, exchangeable Al3+
, cation exchange capacity, total N and extractable P (Bray 1) at six depths from 0-10 to 50-60 cm. Cultivation-induced hardpans were not detected. Soils under conservation tillage were more compact at 5 cm depth than soils under conventional tillage. No differences in root distributions between conservation and conventional tillage were found. Maize ( Zea mays L.
) roots were largely confined to a relatively small soil volume of about 30 cm x 30 cm x 30 cm. Root growth appeared to be restricted by a combination of low concentrations of N and P. Soil acidity and Al saturation appeared to play a minor role in root distribution. L-shaped taproots in soils under manual tillage reported earlier were not necessarily due to hardpans, but may rather be caused by temporarily dry, impenetrable subsoils early in the rain season. There is no scientific basis for the recommendation given to farmers by agricultural extension workers to “break the hardpan
” in fields under manual or animal tillage in the study areas.