All You Need To Know About Planting In Clay Soil And The Best Plants To Consider

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Have you experienced planting in clay soil? So you have sweat a lot as well, right? Indeed, for many gardeners, dealing with clay soil is such a predicament. It could be back-breaking and could be impossible to work with. You might not want to plant at all if you have a clay soil in the garden. But don’t you know that clay soil could also be truly brilliant in the garden? You might say “really” or “but how”. Well, these are usual reactions but the fact that planting in a clay soil is also considered as a wise idea that every gardener should consider.

What Is Clay Soil?

But first, it helps a lot if you will be familiar with what clay soil is. This kind of clay soil has a structure that is made of very fine particles that closely sit together. This means that water and air cannot move easily through the soil. And this is the idea behind the fact that clay soil is heavy leading to poor drainage as well.

Plants could have slow growth and the roots might rot because clay soil gets waterlogged known as the biggest problem of clay soil. In addition, clay soil is also slow to warm up and heavy to dig in spring. However, these issues are being outweighed by the possibility that clay soil has this ability to be the foundation for numbers of different plants. So, though there are certain issues about this type of soil, still planting in clay soil must not be ignored.

Positive Things about Clay Soil

Good to know that there are wide numbers of good things about clay soil. This type of soil does a good job of holding on both the nutrients and moisture because of its density. You could use slow-release mineral fertilizers like gypsum and rock phosphate as for building soil fertility and take advantage of its nutrient retention talents.

Most gardeners would think that gypsum would help in loosening the tight texture of the clay soil. Indeed, gypsum isn’t a substitute for organic matter however it definitely works to be an easy and sustained source of calcium.

Another good thing about clay soil is that ventilation, which is vital as you grow vegetables in clay soil, could be accomplished easily by mixing coarse forms of the organic matter into the soil between the plantings. The structure of the clay will be enhanced a lot better and longer through the chunky types of organic matter including garden compost, chopped leaves or weathered sawdust.

In addition, the large particles of the organic matter might be a life raft for microorganisms once mixed into the tight clay. These are major players in terms of transforming compacted clay to a fertile clay loam.

Once organic matter is already added to the clay soil, like for more than three seasons, you might see dramatic changes in the texture of the soil. After heavy rains, it will dry a lot faster or it might crack a bit during dry weather and it wouldn’t need as much digging in order to keep it aerated.

Rather, you could begin using a long-tined broad fork in order to restore the air to the root zone once renovating the planting beds. Since clay soil is heavy, using a broadfork is less work compared to digging and turning a bed. And once a bed is perforated with deep holes from the broadfork, compost and the organic fertilizer spread over the surface could be raked into the holes.

Negative Things About Clay Soil

On the other hand, there are as well negative things about planting in clay soil. Some of the drawbacks about clay soil include the following:

  • Slow to warm in the spring
  • Slow draining
  • Tendency to be alkaline
  • Tendency to heave in the winter
  • Compacts easily, making it hard for plant roots to grow

How To Improve Clay Soil For Planting?

Worry not if you want to plant in clay soil but drawbacks are making it hard for you to do so! Improving the clay soil is indeed your best way to consider. There is a fact that almost all clay soils could be improved over a certain period of time. However, the most vital problem to deal with is the bad drainage particularly when it causes standing water.

With this, you have to dig the soil over very deeply at the same time incorporating much bulky organic matter as you go. Some great options are compost, coarse grit, leaf mold and well-rotted bark chips. But take note that putting in too much wood or bark chippings since the bacteria needed in order to break down this amount of wood might deplete the soil of some nitrogen.

There could be other ways in order to improve clay soil. Others would recommend that it is ideal to dig in the sharp sand though not as effective as other methods. It would require you a huge volume of sand.

Aside from that, organic matter is indeed a better choice. You just have to dig in the organic matter once starting a new bed or once tackling a new plot. The work could be hard but there is indeed a dramatic difference with regards to the quality of the soil. With this, you might as well improve clay soil in most sections too.

Other options to improve clay soil include the following:

Lime For Clay Soils

Some clay soils would respond well to the addition of the liming agent such as calcium. This might lead for the clay particles to form clumps, therefore, improving the drainage and structure. This method seems to work best on acidic soils. For some other soils, you could add gypsum as this might help the structure of the clay without having to affect the acidity.

Improving Established Beds

But what if the garden is already established? Will you still dig it over? Worry no more since you can still improve the clay soil though in such situation. Simply add thick layers of mulch such as compost and leaf mold over the soil surface during summer. Through this, it will help in retaining moisture and preventing it from cracking and drying. Along with that, there will be an assurance of adding more nutrients as well as improving the structure of the soil.

This will not require you to dig mulch in as the worms, insects, and microorganisms would take the material down to the soil. Though it could take a few seasons still best results will be guaranteed if you remain to be consistent as well. Just make sure that you keep mulch clear of plant stems as to avoid rotting.

And finally, you must consider adopting the no-dig system if you have tried to improve the soil. If you turn it over deeply almost every year then it might disturb the hard work of the soil creatures as well as microorganisms.

Planting In Clay Soil: Best Plants to Consider

Indeed, though there are lots of work that should be considered once planting in clay soil, the fact that huge range of plants could grow on this kind of soil remains. And the best plants that could grow well in clay soil are as follow:


Referred as native British trees, ash, oak, and the elder is suited to clay soils. Fruit trees such as pear and apple could also grow well in clay soil. But take note that soft fruit brushes might struggle in this kind of soil. Growing eucalyptus and birch trees could lead to more height and for more decorative trees you could grow amelanchier, magnolia, sorbus and hawthorn.

And many kinds of conifer could also happily grow in clay soils such as thuja, pine, chamaecyparis and juniper.

Flowering Perennials and Bulbs

Indeed, perennial plants are perfect to clay soils and could do a lot better than delicate annuals. Once these plants get established they could definitely produce stunning displays. You might as well fill shady spots with lush greenery like euonymous, lingularia and hostas. And good ground cover options include alchemilla mollis and vinca.

Along with that, daisy family is a great option for clay as flowering herbaceous perennials such as coreopsis, asters and rudbeckia. Woodland plants such as aconites, phlox, Japanese anemone and hellebores might as well be considered.

Bedding plants could also thrive in clay soil particularly in sunny spots such as pulmonaria, cranesbill, primulas and geraniums. And in both light partial shade and full sun, astrantia, astilbe, solidago and kniphofia are nice options.

But wait there’s more! Climbers could be planted in clay soil as well. Honeysuckle, clematis and ivy grow in sun or partial shade and they all love rich clay soil. Snowdrops and narcissi are considered as hardy enough bulbs to survive this kind of soil however they could rot in very wet conditions. Well, you just need to put drainage material such as sand in the base of the planting hole to help them. And daylilies and irises are also happy once planted in clay soil.


Don’t you know that huge range of shrubs could also thrive in clay soil? Well, you could definitely grow shrubs if you have a yard with clay soil. But as a general rule, they could cope better with wet conditions once they are a lot larger and well-established.

For structure, look for cornus, berberis, viburnum, pyrancantha, mahonia and cotoneaster. And most of these plants do have colorful berries and evergreen leaves. You might also grow following shrubs in clay soil such as hydrangea, forsythia, weigela, chaenomoles and buddleja.

Roses are also great shrubs for clay particularly if it has been improved with the organic matter. Some plants are as well even tolerant of wet soils such as rugosa group. The choice is only limited once the clay soil is as well in shade.


Knowing the fact that clay soils warm up slowly in spring, they are indeed poor for early vegetable varieties. However, if you really want to plant vegetables in clay soil then main crop vegetables which are harvested in autumn and summer are great choices. They would often have a very strong yield because of the high water content and nutrient of the soil.

Most of the classic options that will grow in clay soil are brassicas such as cauliflower and cabbage along with pumpkins and squashes and also bulbs such as leeks and onions. And the only condition is that they need more of sunlight since most veggies definitely hate shade.

Golden Rules: Planting And Care Tips

Planting in clay soil also needs extra care for you to have a beautiful garden. With that, I have included here some planting and care tips that are considered as golden rules. They are the following:

1 - Keep off clay soil once it is wet. It will lead to compaction and it will be a lot heavier if you walk all over it.

2 - And when it’s wet, never dig or plant in the clay soil.

3 - Put down wooden boards to walk in order for you to spread the weight.

4 - Dig over in the autumn then incorporate organic matter.

5 - You might as well plant woody varieties such as trees as well as shrubs on the slight mound in order to help in keeping the roots clear of a very wet soil.

6 - Leave the soil surface in ridges over winter for the frost to get in and definitely break up the clumps.

7 - Simply bear in mind these golden rules in order to grow beautiful plants in your garden with a clay soil.

Final Thoughts

Indeed, planting in clay soil could be a challenge for some. But for you who have read this post, it could be an easy thing to consider. Yes, that’s right! If you really want to grow plants but you have a clay soil yard then knowing important things about growing plants in such kind of soil plays a crucial role. It is definitely better that you know what to do with the clay soil so you could yield plants that best suit to the said kind of soil.

I hope you found this post interesting and helpful. If you have any experience in terms of planting in clay soil, we will be very happy hearing your thoughts! Leave your comments below and also share this article!


© Raymond Alexander Kukkee

Raymond is a freelance author and writer who practices traditional and experimental gardening using natural, sustainable methods in the challenging Zone 3 environs of Northwestern Ontario. Read more articles by Raymond.

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