Last updated on February 27th, 2022
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Did you know there are many shrubs that thrive in clay soil? But by improving clay soil just a little, you will have many more plants to choose from
If you have clay soil, you can 1) try to improve the quality of the soil to accommodate for the plants you want or 2) find plants that do well in clay soil. This is usually the easiest option for those who don’t want the work that is involved with improving the structure of the soil.
How to improve clay soil
Clay soil is not necessarily bad or nutrient-poor but it does tend to be heavier with bad drainage, which is usually the real problem. When you dig a hole it can act as a sump and hold water, some plants then essentially drown or rot off because the roots are constantly sat in water. To that end, you can lighten it with some compost to give it better drainage and lighten the compact nature of it.
We also recommend you dig some gravel into the clay soil and add some organic matter, this should also be done when planting to improve the overall quality and drainage, even for plants that grow well in clay soil.
Below we look at 10 shrubs that will grow happily in clay soil, however, we recommend adding some organic matter to give them a helping hand for the first year because this is when they are most likely to experience issues and once fully established they will usually thrive.
The Top Shrubs for Clay Soil
1. Mahonia japonica – Japanese Mahonia
This species is a flowering shrub that is part of the Berberidaceae family. It was originally from Taiwan and today makes a beautiful addition to your garden, especially if you are looking for a wide display of flowers.
This evergreen shrub is known for its bright yellow flowers that are sometimes fragrant which are then followed by black or purple berries. It is an evergreen shrub with spine-toothed thick leathery leaves so provides year round interest and growing to around 1.5m tall means it doesn’t grow too large. It does prefer well-drained soil but will grow just as well in clay, so the soil may need to be improved a little to ensure adequate drainage.
2. Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn – Arrowwood Dawn
This variety is part of a hybrid group of flowering plants that were crossbred back in 1935. The variation of the Viburnum makes for stunning displays throughout the year and offers a wonderful addition to any clay-heavy soil, but just like Mahonia, it can handle moist soil although it does need to be free-draining.
It produces pink and white flowers in the late autumn/spring that emerge from red buds. At 2.5 metres tall once fully established, it’s a fairly large shrub, so allow plenty of room, although it can be pruned to keep it within a certain size. Great for sheltered and exposed areas but prefers full sun or partial shade.
3. Cornus – Dogwood
This genus has about 30 species of woody plants under its family tree, no pun intended, and it brings with it distinguishing features like berries and easily identifiable bark. This bark is often bright red, orange or yellow and will add some winter interest because it is often bright. These eye-catching colours are often associated with the Shrubby Dogwoods such as Cornus alba, which thrive in damp conditions where the clay often is.
The red-barked Dogwood ‘Elegantissima’ has bright red stems in winter and beautiful variegated foliage in summer. It is one of our favourites and grows to around 2.5 metres, but can be pruned back hard every spring.
4. Hydrangea paniculata
This variety of Hydrangea is part of the flowering species that produce panicle-shaped blooms which take on elongated cone forms. The abundance of flowers you receive from each cone makes it well worth investing in this particular plant if you want a garden chock full of flowers.
This shrub produces flowers from late summer giving a little colour towards the end of summer when many shrubs have finished flowering. Again this shrub needs well-drained soil although it does prefer moist soil. It will grow well in clay soil.
5. Pyracantha – Firethorn
Pyracantha, which is where the name of this website came from, encompasses a genus of thorn-filled evergreen shrubs. If you are looking for a beautiful shrub to fill your clay-heavy soil, and particularly want one that you can use as a hedge or provide protection against invasive animals, the serrated leaf design, in tandem with the numerous thorns, will surely make this selection a winner. Pyracantha produce masses of flowers and then an excellent show of berries that are usually red, orange or yellow that you can even make jelly from. They also work well when trained against a wall.
6. Buddleia – Butterfly Bush
These beautiful plants are more commonly known as Butterfly Bushes and they offer stunning flower displays throughout the spring. For gardens in which you seek a bright, flourishing display of flowers, this is the option to choose.
It’s great for attracting bees and butterflies into the garden and is probably one of the easiest shrubs to grow with very little maintenance required. They can be pruned back hard to control the size and they often respond very well to pruning, although it’s not essential unless you are trying to control the size. With size in mind, you can even get dwarf varieties now that grow much smaller and are a great choice for small gardens.
Forsythias are part of the olive family and regardless of the species you choose, you can find beautiful and overwhelming bright yellow flowers that stand out in any garden. They are good for creating a hedge and planting as a specimen shrub.
These plants are very popular because of their bright floral displays in spring and as such, they are often integrated into parks, but more importantly, they will thrive in clay soil gardens too. One of the first shrubs to flower in spring when not much else is.
8. Berberis – Barberry
Berberis are evergreen and deciduous shrubs that can reach up to 5 metres tall if you let them (depending on the variety) but there are some groundcover types of both varieties. They boast a range of pink, rose, red, and even yellow and green-tinged displays that make wonderful hedges or small bushes in any garden.
When they are used to create hedges they are incredibly effective because they naturally form large, impenetrable thickets. One evergreen variety is Berberis Darwinii that has sparsely-spined leaves and produces orange flowers.
This flowering plant is part of the Rosaceae family and brings with it rich, green leaves coated in a stunning shine alongside winter berries of red or orange. Similarly to the other plants on this list, it can make a beautiful hedge and protect against intrusion while also adding a collage of colour.
One of our favourite varieties is ‘Coral Beauty’ that only grows to around 50-100cm and is very easy to grow with no maintenance required.
The last pick on our list is Weigela, these are deciduous shrubs that are actually held in a collection at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens. These are considered part of the honeysuckle family and as such, produce beautiful spring displays of funnel-shaped flowers.
They are also very easy to grow and what makes them stand out from the crowd is they also grow well in shady areas where most shrubs may struggle.