The rhizosphere differs from the bulk soil in a range of biochemical, chemical and physical processes that occur as a consequence of root growth, water and nutrient uptake, respiration and rhizodeposition. These processes also affect microbial ecology and plant physiology to a considerable extent. This review concentrates on two features of this unique environment: rhizosphere geometry and heterogeneity in both space and time. Although it is often depicted as a soil cylinder of a given radius around the root, drawing a boundary between the rhizosphere and bulk soil is an impossible task because rhizosphere processes result in gradients of different sizes. For instance, because of diffusional constraints, root uptake can result in a depletion zone extending <1 mm for phosphate to several centimetres for nitrate, while respiration may affect the bulk of the soil. Rhizosphere processes are responsible for spatial and temporal heterogeneities in the soil, although these are sometimes difficult to distinguish from intrinsic soil heterogeneity. A further complexity is that these processes are regulated by plants, microbial communities and soil constituents, and their many interactions. Novel in situ techniques and modelling will help in providing a holistic view of rhizosphere functioning, which is a prerequisite for its management and manipulation.