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 them, leading to poor drainage.
On the other hand, clay soils have some advantages that sandy soil may not. Clay is rich in nutrients and holds 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 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 them 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.