Clay soil needs amendment, conducive plants or both

Updated Jun 23, 2021
Photo: PxherePhoto: Pxhere

Soil is an important part of the equation when creating a beautiful backyard, but clay soil is considered the bane of gardens due to some of its properties.

Clay soil is known for draining poorly and becoming tightly compacted, preventing oxygen and water from passing through. Ironically, the cons of clay soil are also its pros, as it is able to retain water and nutrients better than sandy soils. Because it can cling to water and fertilizer longer than other soils, it can reduce how often plants need to be watered or fertilized.

When it comes to working with clay soil, there are pretty much only two options: Beat ’em or join ’em.

If you choose to fight to improve the soil, samples should be taken from several locations of the area that you are working with and sent to an agricultural extension soil lab. Generally, when you get your results back, the lab will also include recommendations on what type of soil amendment to use.

Improving the soil takes time, and whether you choose to use inorganic or organic materials to break up the clay particles, keep in mind that both involve an ongoing process.

When working in the amendments, use 3 inches of material per square foot and mix the amendment in 6 inches with a tiller.

Avoid using peat moss as an amendment because it adds to the clay soil’s ability to retain water.

If the concept of trying to fix the soil seems too overwhelming, expensive or time-consuming, the other option is to work with the soil by using plant life that thrives in clay soil.

The plants listed here are just a few of the flowers, shrubs and trees that are tolerant of clay soils. For a list of more flowers go to the University of Minnesota Extension here, and for trees and shrubs go here.

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Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliea)

A native wildflower that can vary from soft pink to bright purple in color depending on the cultivar. These perennials are great for cut flowers and can provide gardens with extra color in the fall. Grows 3 to 6 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Full sun

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Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

Armenian Cranesbill (Geranium psilostemon)

An herbaceous perennial with electric purple blooms with black centers. Blooms from early to late summer. Its leaves turn a red hue in the fall. Can be used for both borders and containers. Grows 2 ½ to 4 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Full sun to partial shade

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Switchgrass ‘Northwind’ (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’)

Winner of the Perennial Plant Association’s 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year, this native grass is extremely hardy and is deer resistant. It blooms in late summer and the foliage changes from blue to yellow in the fall. Its seed heads are mostly in the center of the clump, making it more upright. Grows 4 to 5 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-9
  • Full sun to half sun

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Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)

A durable perennial with a vast number of colors and varieties to choose from. This plant is great for mass plantings and tends to bloom for 3 to 4 weeks continuously. Low-maintenance and drought-tolerant. Grows 1 ½ to 2 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Full sun

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Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

A dense, spreading shrub that provides interest in multiple seasons and can be used in mass plantings and borders. Its distinctive red stems contrast with its creamy white fruit. Can be used to attract birds in the winter. Grows 10 to 15 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Full sun to partial shade

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Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)

An annual also known as tickseed, this wildflower has bright yellow petals that turn maroon in the center. It blooms in midsummer and can be used to attract butterflies. Can be used in border plantings or wildflower gardens. Grows 2 to 4 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-11
  • Full sun

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Photo: PixabayPhoto: Pixabay

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Known as a “living fossil” because it’s considered one of the oldest plants on Earth, the ginkgo tree has emerald fan-shaped leaves that turn an eye-catching yellow in the fall. It is tolerant of many conditions including heat and exposure to salt. Grows 25 to 50 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Full sun to partial shade

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Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

River Birch (Betula nigra)

Native to the Eastern United States, river birch is a deciduous tree that is highly adaptive. Its bark is one of its most notable features, with red to pinkish strips that peel away to reveal gray to reddish brown inner bark. It needs acidic soils to thrive in clay. Grows 40 to 70 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Full sun to partial shade

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Photo: PixabayPhoto: Pixabay

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

A nice partner with asters in the wildflower look, these flowers have a long bloom season. Golden yellow petals nod to its belonging to the sunflower family. Capable of reseeding itself after the first season. Grows 1 to 3 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Full sun

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Photo: Publicdomainpictures.netPhoto: Publicdomainpictures.net

Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)

A member of the aster family, this perennial wildflower can provide some nice height to the garden with its feathery, lavender-colored blooms. Attracts both bees and butterflies. Works well in borders, prairie gardens and cutting gardens. Grows 3 to 5 feet tall.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-9
  • Full sun
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