Plant growth is usually constrained by the availability of nutrients, water, or temperature, rather than photosynthetic carbon (C) fixation. Under these conditions leaf growth is curtailed more than C fixation, and the surplus photosynthates are exported from the leaf. In plants limited by nitrogen (N) or phosphorus (P), photosynthates are converted into sugars and secondary metabolites. Some surplus C is translocated to roots and released as root exudates or transferred to root-associated microorganisms. Surplus C is also produced under low moisture availability, low temperature, and high atmospheric CO2 concentrations, with similar below-ground effects. Many interactions among above- and below-ground ecosystem components can be parsimoniously explained by the production, distribution, and release of surplus C under conditions that limit plant growth.