Clay in the Garden

Clay soil is problematic. It is sticky, heavy, wet and stinky, making it tough to work with. It is slow to drain after a storm, slow to warm in the spring and difficult for plant roots to penetrate.

When gardening in a site with clay soil you will need to decide whether to accept the soil as it is or try to change it. It is possible to change clay soil with a rigorous program of aeration, working in organic material and monitoring the pH, but even with this massive undertaking, over time, clay soil will revert back to its original state without ongoing maintenance and care. It is always best, and easiest, to select plants that thrive in the type of soil in which you are planting rather than changing your soil to suit the plant.

Plants for Clay Soil

No matter what type of landscaping you hope to do, there are trees, shrubs and flowers that can thrive even in dense clay. Consider these lists of clay-friendly plants when planning your landscape.


  • Bald Cypress (Taxodium distchum)
  • Crabapple (Malus)
  • Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Hawthorns (Crataegus)
  • Hornbeams (Carpinus)
  • Pin Oak (Quercus paulstris)
  • River Birch (Betula nigra)
  • Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia soulangiana)
  • Spruce (Picea)
  • Linden (Tillia)
  • Upright English Oak (Quercus robur fastigiata)
  • Willow (Salix)


  • Aucuba (Aucuba japonica)
  • Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
  • Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)
  • Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster)
  • Dwarf Norway Spruce (Picea abies)
  • Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia)
  • Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
  • Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
  • Korean Boxwood (Buxus microphylla)
  • Lilac (Syringa)
  • Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia aquifolium)
  • Plume Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera)
  • Potentilla (Potentilla fruticosa)
  • Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria)
  • Twig Dogwoods (Cornus)
  • Viburnum (Viburnum)
  • Weigela (Weigela florida)
  • Willow (Salix)


  • Aster (Aster)
  • Bee Balm (Mondarda didyma)
  • Berginia (Berginia cordifolia)
  • Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
  • Daylilies (Hemerocallis)
  • Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis scoriodes)
  • Gooseneck Loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides)
  • Helen’s Flower (Helenium)
  • Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium)
  • Japanese Anemone (Anemone japonica)
  • Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
  • Ligularia (Ligularia)
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum)
  • Monkshood (Aconitum)


  • Checkered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris)
  • Small Camas (Camassia quamash)
  • Snowdrops (Galanthus)
  • Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)
  • Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Despite the difficulty of working in clay soil, there are many beautiful plants that can thrive. Be sure to nurture the plants appropriately with the proscribed watering, fertilizing and other care, and your clay-based landscape can be just as lush and attractive as any other type of soil.