Clay Soil Shrubs: Are There Shrubs That Like Clay Soil Sites


Most trees and shrubs grow better in light, well-draining soil than in heavy clay. The biggest problem with clay soil is that it holds onto water. Waterlogged soil can slow plant growth or rot the roots. There are shrubs that like clay soils though.

If your yard has heavy soil, your best bet is to amend it to increase drainage, then select clay tolerant shrubs. We’ll give you some tips on amending clay soil as well as a list of shrubs for clay backyards.

About Clay Tolerant Shrubs

Clay is not a “bad” type of soil, despite its reputation. It is simply soil that is composed of extremely fine particles sitting close together. That means that substances like nutrients, oxygen, and water don’t pass easily through it, leading to poor drainage.

On the other hand, clay soils have some advantages that sandy soil may not. Clay is rich in nutrients and hold onto the water that they get. These positive aspects are attractive to clay tolerant shrubs.

Are clay soil shrubs necessarily poor-drainage shrubs then? Not always since clay soils can be amended to increase the drainage. Before you start selecting shrubs for clay soil, take action to build up the drainage first. While you may hear that the best solution is to mix in sand, experts agree that there is something far better, mixing in organic materials. Tackle this in autumn.

Using a shovel and elbow grease, dig out an area of the backyard deeply. As you proceed, add and mix in bulky organic material like compost, coarse grit, leaf mold, and rotted bark chips. This takes some effort, but it will bring great results.

Choosing Shrubs That Like Clay

It’s time to start looking for shrubs that like clay soil. You can consider both shrubs for clay that want some drainage and poor drainage shrubs too. You may have to coddle then when young, but these plants will cope fine with wet conditions as they mature.

For foliage shrubs, or shrubs with berries, consider the dogwood family, especially shrub dogwoods. They grow happily in wet conditions and offer berries in summer and brilliant winter stem color.

Other berry-producing shrubs for clay include tough, native elderberry bushes. The flowers are definitely eye-catching and grow easily in clay in cooler climates.

For flowering shrubs that like clay, a great place to start is with native smooth hydrangea, also called Annabelle hydrangea. These shrubs grow in heavy clay in nature, offer generous blossoms, and are practically foolproof to cultivate.

Or how about rose of Sharon (aka Althea), a long-time garden favorite with its huge, saucer-like flowers. The shrubs bloom for months on end in bright, pretty shades.

Other options for clay soils include berberis or pyracantha for defensive hedges, cotoneaster with its flowers and berries, weigela, and flowering quince for both blossoms and fruit.

For trees that grow well in clay soil, look no further than birch varieties and eucalyptus.


Growing Shrubs in Clay Soil

Clay soil is much maligned by gardeners and homeowners everywhere, and no wonder: it’s heavy, sticky, and difficult to work in. But the simple fact is that clay soil gets its bad rap because it’s hard on people - from a plant’s point of view, clay soil is usually not problematic at all.

In fact, clay soils offer plants two major advantages over other soil types: they hold water well, minimizing drought stress, and are abundant in nutrients essential for plant growth. So, if you’ve been struggling to achieve your dream garden or landscape in clay soil, cheer up! Here are six tips to make it easier on yourself and ensure a healthy, long life for everything you take the time to plant.

    Check drainage. While clay soils’ ability to retain water usually benefits plants, in some cases, this can be too much of a good thing. Before planting anything, check how well your soil drains by digging a hole about the size of the plant (a minimum of 10”/25cm wide and deep) and fill it to the top with water. Come back and check on it every 30 minutes or so. The faster it disappears, the better your drainage is. If there is still water in the hole after four hours, you have poorly drained soil and will need to select species that can tolerate these conditions, like itea, dogwood, winterberry holly, and summersweet, to name a few.


Itea

Dogwood

Winterberry Holly

Summersweet
Start small. The worst part of clay soil is digging in it. Its weight makes planting an exhausting task, especially coupled with the need to clean soil off your shovel after every stroke. The easy way to minimize these challenges is to start with small plants so you can dig smaller holes. Look for perennials and shrubs in one and two gallon containers. With proper care and a little patience, they will grow quickly, saving you time (and money!).

Don’t amend clay soil. Lots of people think they need to add “good” soil when they plant in their clay soil to make a happy home for their new plant. As well intentioned as this may be, it can actually increase the risk of root rot. It works like this: when you water your new plant, the water infiltrates that soft, fluffy soil in the hole very quickly, so you end up applying a fairly large volume of water. However, once the water reaches the dense clay soil around the hole, it slows to a halt. As a result, all that water sits around the roots while it waits its turn to percolate through the clay, which can lead to root rot. For this reason and more, we do not recommend that you add anything to the soil when you plant. There are a few extreme cases of clay soil, like caliche, where it is not possible to grow anything without some amendment. However, unless you know this to be the case for your area, it’s best to use only your natural clay soil. For a more in-depth look at the complications that arise from amending soil, and particularly clay soil, we recommend this article (download PDF).

Mulch your clay soil. Mulch has myriad benefits for plants and soil: it helps regulate the temperature around the roots, minimizes water loss, minimizes soil erosion, and improves the soil as it breaks down into a top dressing of organic matter. Clay soils especially benefit from mulch because during hot, dry weather, the sun can bake exposed clay surfaces to a hard sheet. This makes re-wetting them very difficult, as the water will simply bead and splash off instead of slowly seeping into the soil. Mulch will eliminate this possibility. A good 2-3” (5-7 cm) layer of shredded bark mulch will do the trick.


Top 10 Shrubs for Clay Soil

Clay soil is much maligned by gardeners and homeowners everywhere, and no wonder: it’s heavy, sticky, and difficult to work in. But the simple fact is that clay soil gets its bad rap because it’s hard on people - from a plant’s point of view, clay soil is usually not problematic at all. In fact, clay soils offer plants two major advantages over other soil types: they hold water well, minimizing drought stress, and are abundant in nutrients essential for plant growth. So, if you’ve been struggling to achieve your dream garden or landscape in clay soil, cheer up! Here are ten beautiful shrubs that will thrive in clay.

Aronia

Sometimes known by the unfortunate name of chokeberry (thanks to its edible but astringent fruit), aronia is a beautiful North American native with multi-season appeal. Spring brings a blanket of white flowers, each dotted with bright pink pollen in the center. As summer wears on, purple-black fruits develop. Finally, come autumn, the whole plant blazes with brilliant orange, red, and yellow color. Previously, aronia was only available as a large shrub or small tree, but Low Scape ® aronias make this versatile, durable species available to all with new, smaller habits. Low Scape ® Mound aronia naturally grows as a tidy little tuffet, making it the perfect groundcover or edging. Low Scape ® Hedger aronia has a taller but narrow habit, so it makes the perfect low hedge for landscaping or screening off air conditioners and the like. This tough species can grow in most any soil and even tolerates shade well.

Diervilla

Growing wild over much of the eastern United States and Canada, diervilla is a quiet, refined shrub that does a lot in the landscape but asks very little from you. The Kodiak ® series of diervilla offers three vivid foliage colors to spice up even your most troublesome spots. Kodiak ® Black diervilla emerges in shades of deep purple black Kodiak ® Orange in shades of orange and red and Kodiak ® Red in a deep and handsome red. Come fall, the foliage really comes alive, appearing lit from within, which makes them the perfect alternative to burning bush in places where it has become invasive. All summer long, all three varieties are dotted with yellow flowers that attract pollinators. While Kodiak ® diervillas may not be the most flashy shrubs you’ll ever plant, you will definitely appreciate how hard-working they are – and how much work they save you.

Dogwood

Most people know the tree-like white flowering dogwoods that burst into bloom each spring. Those can be a bit fussy about where they are planted, but their close cousins, the shrub dogwoods, are some of the most widely adaptable landscape plants on the market. They grow in sun or shade, in all types of soils, in wet and dry conditions, and are resistant to both deer and rabbits. Their best feature in the landscape is their colorful winter stems – red for Arctic Fire ® and yellow and coral for Arctic Sun ® , or, in the case of Pucker Up ® , its unique “quilted” foliage. Red Rover ® combines brilliant fall color, blue berries, and deep mahogany-red stems. All can be planted anywhere and relied upon for beautiful, practically effortless coverage.

Elderberry

Ornamental elderberries like Black Lace ® and Laced Up ® are so beautiful and exotic looking that it comes as a surprise to many people that they are also extremely tough. In addition to the unusual foliage, pink flowers in early summer contrast with the black leaves for a traffic-stopping display. Variegated Instant Karma ® elderberry puts an interesting green-and-white twist on the species, and Lemony Lace ® a bright yellow lacy version. These elderberries aren’t finicky about their soil, but they prefer cooler climates. They can take a bit of shade but color and flower production is best in full sun.

Flowering Quince

Flowering quince is an old-fashioned favorite for its very vivid spring blooms. It fell out of favor, however, due to its prominent thorns. Fortunately, Dr. Tom Ranney from NCSU developed the Double Take ™ series, which has the same super saturated flower colors but in big, doubled versions and without thorns. Take your pick of four glorious shades: Double Take Scarlet ™ , Double Take Orange ™ , Double Take Pink ™ , and Double Take Peach ™ . They bloom for several weeks and often rebloom in fall. We’ve heard reports of over a month of bloom in areas as hot as Dallas, Texas, which shows how tough and durable these springtime beauties are.

Lilac

Everyone loves lilacs, and it must be because their fragrance is so delicate that people tend to think they are hard to grow. Surprise! Lilacs are actually extremely durable. The love – nay, need – cold temperatures, making them one of the most cold-tolerant landscape plants. Plus, they are typically untouched by deer and rabbits. All one really has to do is plant them in a sunny spot and enjoy. To get the very most out of a lilac planting, look for Bloomerang ® reblooming lilacs – they bloom alongside other lilacs in spring, but after a brief rest, bloom mid-summer through fall for more color and fragrance. They are also highly resistant to diseases that can plague conventional lilacs, too.

Potentilla

Happy Face ® potentillas are about as close as you can get to a shrub that blooms non-stop. The show begins in late spring and goes, and goes, and goes, right up until the first hard frost. We selected the Happy Face series for extra-large, very bright blooms. They are nestled into a neat, mounded shrub of emerald green foliage that emerges with a snowy white coating of fine, soft hairs. Not only does clay soil pose no problems for these durable, hard-working shrubs, they are also extremely deer and rabbit resistant, too.

Rose of Sharon

Whether you call it rose of Sharon or althea, everyone agrees that this old-fashioned favorite is hard to beat for easy-care summer color. With large, saucer-like blooms for months every summer in beautiful shades perfectly suited to sunny days, its prettiness belies an extremely tough plant. It can grow in nearly any soil and needs no pruning to grow into a landscape-worthy accent or hedge. Many varieties have the liability of setting a lot of seed that spread all over the place and makes it kind of a maintenance nightmare, but our low to no seed varieties, the Chiffon ® series, the Satin ® series, and the Sugar Tip ® series eliminate this problem, adding outstanding, pure colors and graceful habits to boot. If you’re looking for something smaller, the dwarf Lil’ Kim ® series is just the ticket.

Smooth hydrangea

Yes, you can grow hydrangeas even in clay soil! In fact, smooth hydrangeas, also known as Annabelle hydrangeas, are native to North America and grow naturally in very heavy clay soils without a problem. In addition to their ability to withstand challenging conditions, smooth hydrangeas like the Incrediball ® series and Invincibelle ® series bring all-new colors to this landscape standard. Better still, they all have strong, sturdy stems that won’t flop, even after summer rains, like ‘Annabelle’ notoriously does. Whether you live in the frigid North or the steamy South, you can grow these easy-care, practically fool-proof hydrangeas.

Weigela

With their trumpet-like flowers and late spring bloom time, weigela seem to announce the transition into summer. They do so with good-natured aplomb and the ability to take most anything nature throws at them, including tough soils. They love a good, sunny spot, which ensures best color on dark-leaf varieties like the Wine series as well as abundant blooms. For the longest bloom period, look to reblooming varieties like Sonic Bloom ® or the Snippet ® series. Just pick your favorite colors, plant, and enjoy – you won’t have to worry about deer or rabbits spoiling the show.


Need More Information?

More ideas for plants that grow in chalk soil can be found at Choosing Plants for Clay Soil: Perennials and Climbers.

Not looking for plants for chalk soil? Links to all the 'plants for places' pages on this site can be found at plant guides.

You can find information and advice about garden soil, including links to other soil-related pages, at garden soil.

Home › Plant guides › Trees & shrubs for clay soil

Home › Garden soil › Trees & shrubs for clay soil


If your garden soil errs on the clay side then growing plants for clay soil will save you a lot of effort. By growing plants that thrive in these conditions you won’t have to put in hours of work to try and change the soil.

Clay soil can be heavy and hard to dig. It’s prone to waterlogging in winter and cracking in summer, but it’s also nutritious and moisture retentive. It’s far better to grow plants that thrive in clay soil and the good news is that there are some great plants to choose from. Here are our top plants for clay soil.

10 plants for clay soil:

10. Ribes sanguineum

Flowering currant flowers are dainty and delicate, adding finesse to the garden in late spring. The plant itself if tough, vigorous and quick-growing. This shrub will quickly establish in clay soil and can reach over 2m in height. Prune after flowering in summer if the plant gets too big.

9. Malus (crab apple)

Crab apples are superb all round plants for clay soil. A crab apple in full bloom is one of the most picturesque spring scenes. Malus hupehensis produces a particularly graceful display of white blossom in spring and colourful fruit in autumn. There’s the opportunity to make crab apple jelly, too.

8. Bergenia cordifolia

Often referred to as ‘elephants ears’ due to their leaves which look similar! Bergenia is an evergreen perennial that produces spires of pink or red flowers in spring. A good plant for ground cover, it looks at its best planted in a block because the flowers have more impact in big numbers. A very tough plant for clay soil and tolerant of partial shade too.

7. Spiraea japonica

A tremendous shrub to place near the front of a border. It shows off thousands of tiny flowers in summer, held together in tight clusters. Spiraea japonica is not fussy and grows well on clay soil. It will also tolerate drought well once established, after a couple of growing seasons in a border. The flowers attract bees and butterflies.

6. Viburnum tinus

Viburnum is an underrated evergreen shrub for clay soil. The opening of its white flowers announces the end of winter and provides a pretty backdrop for a border in early spring. Dense, compact growth make this a useful plant for screening off a view and creating a sense of enclosure in the garden.

5. Syringa vulgaris

Lilacs are tough shrubs that often get overlooked, perhaps because they often don’t look attractive in the garden centre. Though their flowering time is fairly short, a lilac in late spring is a glorious sight. The scent of the blooms is delicious. They make glorious cut flowers.

Lonicera periclymenum

4. Lonicera periclymenum

A sweetly scented honeysuckle is a true summer treat and this species of honeysuckle grows well on clay soil. A scented climber is always a memorable plant, the perfume easy to access, especially if you grow it by your front door. The variety ‘Serontina’ has flowers that display a vivid deep red colouring.

3. Pulmonaria

Pulmonaria is tolerant of shade as well as being one of the top perennial plants for clay soil. This spring-flowering, low-growing perennial is a good source of food for early bees. Its cheerful blue flowers make beautiful accompaniments to daffodils in spring. The distinctive dotty foliage can be refreshed if you cut it back in early summer.

2. Alchemilla mollis

This is a very useful edging plant for clay soil. It produces wispy stems of yellowish green flowers in early summer, that create a ‘frothy’ look from a distance. Low-growing, Alchemilla mollis is a useful plant for covering the bare stems of ‘leggy’ shrubs and roses. It also grows well in partial shade.

1. Rose ‘Roald Dahl’

All roses like clay soil. Choose a repeat-flowering variety and you’ll be rewarded with at least two flushes of flowers each growing year. Released in 2016, ‘Road Dahl’ is a repeat-flowering rose. It grows well on clay-soil, is very free-flowering and has a strong scent. This rose was launched by David Austin Roses and £2.50 from the sale of each rose will be donated to Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.

Find our favourite plants with true blue flowers here.


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