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Last updated on January 21st, 2020
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 which is usually the easiest option for those who do not want the work involved in 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 holds 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 just improve the overall quality and drainage even for plants that grow in clay soil.
Below we look at 10 shrubs which will grow in clay soil but we recommend adding some organic matter to give them a helping hand for the first years as this is when they are most likely to have issues, once established they will usually thrive.
Top shrubs for clay soil
Mahonia japonica (Japanese Mahonia)
This species is a flowering shrub is part of the Berberidaceae family. It was originally from Taiwan and today makes for a beautiful addition to your garden especially if you are looking for wide displays of flowers.
This evergreen shrub is known for its bright yellow flowers which are sometimes fragrant which are followed by black or purple berries. It’s an evergreen shrub with spine-toothed thick leathery leaves so provides all year round interest and growing to around 1.5 meters tall doesn’t grow too large. It does prefer well-drained soil but does grow well in clay so the soil may need to be improved a little to ensure adequate drainage.
Viburnum × 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 but it does need to be free-draining.
It produces pink and white flowers in late autumn/spring that emerge from red buds. At 2.5 meters tall once established its a fairly large shrub so allow plenty of room but it can be pruned to keep it within a certain size. Great for sheltered and exposed areas but prefers full sun or partial shade.
This genus has about 30 species of woody plants under its family tree, no pun intended and brings with it distinguishing features like berries, easily identifiable bark which is often bright red, orange or yellow which adds winter interest as its often bright and us associated with the shrubby dogwoods such as Cornus alba which thrive in damp conditions which clay often is.
The red-barked dogwood ‘Elegantissima’ which had bright red stems in winter and beautiful variegated foliage in summer is one of our favourites and grows to around 2.5 meters but can be pruned back hard every spring.
This variety of hydrangea is part of a flowering species which produces 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 at little colour towards the end of summer when many shrubs have finished flowers, again this shrub needs well-drained soil but does prefer moist soil and grows well in clay soil.
Pyracantha which is how this website came about 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 designs 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 which are usually red, orange or yellow that you can even make jelly from. They also work well when trained against a wall.
Buddleia (Butterfly Bush)
These beautiful plants are known colloquially as butterfly bushes and offer stunning flowering displays throughout the springtime. 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 need. They can be pruned back hard to control the size and respond very well to pruning but it’s not essential except for controlling the size. With a size in mind, you can even get dwarf varieties now that grow much smaller which 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 which make a hedge stand out in any garden but also work well as a specimen shrub.
These plants are very popular because of their bright floral displays in springtime and as such 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.
Berberis are evergreen and deciduous shrubs that can reach up to 5 meters tall if you let them depending on the variety but there are some ground cover types of both evergreen and deciduous. They boast a range of pink, rose, red, and even yellow and green-tinged displays which make for wonderful hedges or small bushes in any garden.
When they are used to create hedges they are incredibly effective as they naturally form large, impenetrable thickets. One evergreen variety is Berberis Darwinii which has sparsely-spined leaves and produced orange flowers.
This flowering plant is part of the Rosaceae family and brings with it rich, green leaves coated in a stunning shine alongside rich winter berries of red or orange. Similarly to the other plants on this list, it can make for a beautiful hedge and protect against intrusion while also adding a collage of colours.
One of our favourite varieties is ‘coral beauty’ which only grows to around 50-100cm and is very easy to grow with no maintenance requires.
The last pick on our list is Weigela which offers 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 springtime 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 struggle.