There is increasing interest in use of ‘alternative’ soil amendments in agriculture, but the wide range of resources and products available differ greatly in their potential to overcome soil constraints and improve nutrient use efficiency. The three main types of biological amendments can be categorised as biostimulants, organic amendments and microbial inoculants. Many have potential to influence biological, chemical and physical conditions of soil, but most are not well researched or easily used in agriculture. The main exception is legume inoculants, which are very well researched and contribute enormously to agricultural productivity when legumes are incorporated into farming systems. Biostimulants include amino acids, chitosan, seaweed extracts and humic substances. Organic amendments include manures, composts, compost derivatives and biochars. Microbial inoculants include specific bacterial inoculants for legumes, and less specialised rhizosphere bacteria, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, ectomycorrhizal fungi and a range of disease suppressing microorganisms. Some biological amendments applied to soil may be more effective when used in combinations rather than singly. Furthermore, those used over longer periods may have potential for cumulative effects not captured when used over shorter timeframes. Such differences in effectiveness would occur primarily where benefits involve microbial interactions with chemical and physical soil processes leading to slow transformations within the soil matrix that influence soil fertility and soil health. Similarly, addition of manures and composts may require several years for any quantifiable increase in soil organic C. Although considerable knowledge of the modes of action of many biological amendments is available, their performance under field conditions is usually less well understood. The wide variety of natural and manufactured products available in most cases precludes adequate peer-reviewed research to support claims about their effectiveness. This can lead to proliferation of unsubstantiated assertions of efficacy. This review highlights the lack of field-scale evidence of benefits for many biological amendments with potential to be used in agriculture. We propose complementary approaches of (i) laboratory- or glasshouse-scale research to understand modes of action, and (ii) targeted field-scale participatory research involving groups of farmers using on-farm trials as a forward pathway. Use of biological amendments to overcome soil constraints is expected to expand with intensification of agriculture and as a result of climate change. Therefore, information that enables farmers to discriminate among products that have different levels of effectiveness is necessary, and on-farm participatory research should contribute to addressing this need.