Studying the specific effects of water and nutrients on plant development is difficult because changes in a single component can often trigger multiple response pathways. Such confounding issues are prevalent in commonly used laboratory assays. For example, increasing the nitrate concentration in growth media alters both nitrate availability and osmotic potential. In addition, it was recently shown that a change in the osmotic potential of media alters the plant's ability to take up other nutrients such as sucrose. It can also be difficult to identify the initial target tissue of a particular environmental cue because there are correlated changes in development of many organs. These growth changes may be coordinately regulated, or changes in development of one organ may trigger changes in development of another organ as a secondary effect. All these complexities make analyses of plant responses to environmental factors difficult to interpret. Here, we review the literature on the effects of nitrate, sucrose and water availability on root system growth and discuss the mechanisms underlying these effects. We then present experiments that examine the impact of nitrate, sucrose and water on root and shoot system growth in culture using an approach that holds all variables constant except the one under analysis. We found that while all three factors also alter root system size, changes in sucrose and osmotic potential also altered shoot system size. In contrast, we found that, when osmotic effects are controlled, nitrate specifically inhibits root system growth while having no effect on shoot system growth. This effectively decreases the root : shoot ratio. Alterations in root : shoot ratio have been widely observed in response to nitrogen starvation, where root growth is selectively increased, but the present results suggest that alterations in this ratio can be triggered across a wide spectrum of nitrate concentrations.