It is not easy to grow in dense soil but this list of plants for clay soil will give you a fighting chance. There are flowering perennials, shrubs, climbers, and trees that all enjoy or tolerate hard clay at their roots.
Want to grow edibles? Here’s a list of 10 Good Veggies to Grow in Clay Soil.
Growing Plants in Clay Soil
My first garden: clay on clay on clay!
To state the obvious: it’s not easy to grow in clay soil. It’s dense, does not drain well—unless it’s on a slope, and then everything runs off. It can be impossible to dig, and, without some amendments, may not allow us to plant.
It’s not all bad news, but you do have to outsmart it.
My first garden was on a massive clay deposit—much denser than anything my neighbors had to contend with—and it was a struggle to get the garden established. It’s hard enough being a new gardener without any growing experience, but combine that with impossible soil and it’s a real challenge.
The prevailing advice at the time was to dig deeply, turn the soil, and amend it with compost and peat moss.
When garden soil is that dense, there is no changing it. It would take an impossible volume of loamy soil to begin to put a dent in it. And it just takes one winter for the amendments to wash away and the clay to rise up again. It is a formidable opponent with deep pockets.
So, what to do?
There were two things that turned my impossible clay soil into a healthy garden.
First, I built level raised garden beds on all sloped areas (which was almost the entire yard) to stop my efforts from being washed away. This idea should not be overlooked. We can only create or purchase so much good compost, so do whatever you can to keep it where you need it. Containing it does wonders.
Next, I started regarding the clay as a foundation to grow on top of.
This meant adding loads of good compost right on top, building it up deep enough to plant without having to pry a shovel into the clay below.
I was an early advocate of no-dig gardening simply because I could not dig!
I realize most clay gardens are not as tough as mine was, but I believe the principle is useful for any degree of clay (or other impossible soil): build up good soil and don’t waste resources trying to change the innate nature of the beast.
Once I did those things, it just took two seasons for the garden to take off.
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How to Identify Your Soil Type
If you’re reading this, you probably already know or suspect your soil is primarily clay. But it is possible to have several different types of soil in one yard.
This shows a simple way to test the quality of your soil. Sand, silt, or clay. Do a few samples in case there are variances. You just need a soil sample, water, and a jar.
Separately, it’s helpful to get a proper soil test done by an accredited lab to learn the nutritional needs of your soil. Examining for macro and micro nutrient levels, they can advise you on exactly what to add-and how much- for happier plants.
Garden Soil 101
Soil | The foundation of your garden. Know what you’ve got and provide only what it needs.
• Mulch | Add 2-inches of organic matter to protect soil, retain moisture, and gradually fertilize your soil.
• Leaves | Finely chopped fall leaves make excellent mulch.
• Compost: Decomposed organic matter providing nutrients for the garden.
• Potting Mix | Contains no soil: designed to optimize plant growth in pots.
• Seed Starting Mix | A lightweight potting mix for sowing seeds in containers.
• Soil pH | Knowing your level (which may vary) is informational, not a call to action. Most soils fall in the range of 5 to 8 and accommodate a wide range of plants.
Plants for Clay Soil
This generalized list is a starting point for finding plants for your clay soil garden. While the plants listed prefer or tolerate clay conditions, it’s always good to amend the soil with compost on a routine basis to provide nutrients for the plants.
The growing zones and conditions listed are general. Each species or hybrid may have unique needs which you can find on the plant tag.
1Perennials | Flowers
- Anemone x hybrida – zones 3 to 8
- Aster (Symphyotrichum) – Zone 4-8
- Astilbe (Astilbe japonica) – Zone 3-8
- Bearded Iris (Iris germanica) – Zone 3-9
- Bee Balm (Monarda) – Zone 4-8
- Bellflower (Campanula spp.) – zones 3 to 8
- Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) – zones 4 to 9
- Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) – Zone 5-9
- Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) – Zone 4-9
- Blue Cardinal Flower (Lobelia siphilitica) – Zone 3-9
- Daylily (Hemerocallis)* – Zone 3-9
*Hemerocallis fulva is considered invasive in some parts of North America.
- Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) – Zone 3-9
- Elephant’s ears (Alocasia and Colocasia spp.) – zones 9 to 11 (summer only in colder zones)
- Euphorbia characias subsp. Wulfenii – zones 6 to 8
- Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) – zones 4 to 8
- Geum – zones 3 to 9
- Helenium (Helenium) – Zone 4-8
- Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) – Zone 3-7
- Hydrangea macrophylla – zones 5 to 9
- Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) – Zone 6-9
- Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) – Zone 4-8
- Liatris (Liatris) – Zone 4-8
- Lungwort (Pulmonaria) – zones 4 to 8
- Ox-eye Daisy (Heliopsis helianthoides var.) – zones 3 to 8
- Fleeceflowers (Persicaria) – zones 4 to 9
- Phlox (Phlox) – Zone 4-8
- Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) – zones 4 to 8
- Sedum (Sedum) – Zone 3-9
- Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum hirtum) – zones 3 to 9
- Meadow rue (Thalictrum rochebrunianum) – zones 3 to 8
- Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum) – Zone 5 to 8
- Aronia – deciduous shrub – part sun to sun – zones 3 to 9
- Cotoneaster x watereri – semi-shade – zones 5 to 8
- Currant, flowering (Ribes sanguineum) – part sun to sun – zones 5 to 8
- Diervilla – long-blooming– sun or shade – zones 4 to 7
- Dogwood (Cornus)– part sun to sun – zones 4 to 7
- Elderberry (Sambucus) – part sun to sun – zones 4 to 7
- Euonymus europaeus* – part sun to sun – zones 4 to 7
- Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles) – part sun to sun – zones 5 to 9
- Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)* – shade or sun – zones 3 to 8
- Lilac (Syringa)– sun – zones 3 to 7 – full sun
- Potentilla – part sun to sun – zones 2 to 7
- Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)– sun – zones 5 to 9
- Smooth hydrangea – part sun to sun – zones 3 to 8
- Weigela – sun – zones 4 to 8
*Watch for invasive species. Winged Euonymus (Euonymus alatus) and Guelder Rose (Virburnum opulus) are invasive in parts of North America.
3Climbers and Wall Shrubs
- Golden hops (Humulus lupulus) – zones 4 to 8
- Rose filipes – zones 4 to 9
- Silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica) – zones 7 to 10
- Acer maple
- Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
- Aspen (Populus tremula)
- Dogwood (Cornus kousa)
- Manchurian cherry (Prunus maackii)
- Rowan (Sorbus cashmiriana)
Now, dig in!
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛