General gardening topics

12 Shrubs For Clay Soil and How to Improve The Soil

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Over the past two decades of being a professional gardener and working at my family’s small garden centre, I often ask what shrubs I can plant in clay soil. I’ve already talked about what perennials grow well in clay soil and what plants are best for clay soil, so in this guide, I wanted to focus on the best shrubs for clay soil.

For my customers, as a professional gardener, I always try to improve clay soil, as shrubs will always do better if you do the work before planting, improving the texture and drainage of the soil. Clay soil is nutrient-rich, but it’s usually a soggy mess in winter and baked hard in summer. If you plant them at the wrong time of year or incorrectly and cause a sump effect that collects water, they can also suffer from root rot, so the correct preparation is vital.

Pyracantha from Garden centre in 2l pot
Pyracantha grow well in clay soil and is one of my go-to shrubs for clay soil

Some of my favourite go-to-show shrubs that I have found respond well to clay soil include Cornus, whose bright stems look amazing in winter; abelia, weigela, hydrangeas, buddleia and deutzia all have stunning flowers, while forsythia with a mass of yellow flowers, and Ribes, both early flowering and provide much-needed colour in early spring.

Mahonia x media 'Charity' is one of the more popular varieties of Mahonia shrubs so in this guide we look at how to grow and care for Mahonia media charity.

When it comes to evergreen shrubs for clay soil, there a handful I always turn to, which includes Cotoneaster with its red berries which the birds love, Escallonia, Mahonia, again early yellow flowers as pictured above, Spotted laurels, Pyracantha, and finally Vinca if I’m looking for a ground cover shrub for 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.

I highly recommend adding a layer of mulch to the soil. I usually use long manure, which is horse manure, which still has a proportion of visible straw remaining. My mum and dad have horses, so this is easy to get for me. The good news is you can also use garden compost, leaf mould, which you can make yourself, or bark chippings; this naturally breaks down into the soil and helps prevent weeds and retain moisture in summer.

If you want to do it properly, I also recommend mixing in plenty of coarse grit into the soil to improve the drainage. Finally, this is super important to prevent root rot that eventually kills the plant; breaking up the soil at the bottom and sides of your planting holes is crucial so the water can drain away from the roots. The most common mistake I see people make is just digging a hole without breaking it up, and then they plant the shrub; it then acts like a sump, causing root rot and killing the shrubs.

When planting in clay soil, the best time to do it is either late winter or early spring for planting; by doing this, the worst of the winter weather has passed, and the shrubs have time to establish a sound root system before the summer, causing the soil to become very hard. If you do everything I’ve mentioned above, your shrubs will have the best possible start. Now, let’s drive in and see which shrubs I actually recommend for clay soil.


My Favourite Shrubs For Clay Soil

1. Abelia grandiflora ‘Francis Mason’

Abelia grandiflora Francis Mason
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers well-drained soil; drought-tolerant once established.
  • Position and Aspect: Best in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Grows to about 1-1.5 meters (3-5 feet) in height and spread.

Abelia grandiflora ‘Francis Mason’ is a stunning shrub that not only adds beauty to your garden but also thrives in clay soil, making it an excellent choice for gardeners looking for shrubs that can handle heavy clay soil. Abelia ‘Francis Mason’ is known for its attractive golden-yellow variegated leaves that contrast sharply against its small pinkish-white bell-shaped flowers that bloom from summer to fall.

When fully grown, it can reach 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, making it an excellent choice for small gardens, borders, or as a specimen plant. It is also low-maintenance and can be easily pruned to maintain its shape. It does well when planted in full sun or partial shade and can tolerate clay soil as long as it is not waterlogged, so dig plenty of organic matter and horticultural grit into the soil.


2. Mahonia japonica – Japanese Mahonia

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers moist, well-drained soil; tolerates a range of soil types.
  • Position and Aspect: Best in partial to full shade.
  • Eventual Size: Reaches up to 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) in height and spread.

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.


3. Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn – Arrowwood Dawn

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers moist, well-drained soil; adaptable to various soil types.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Grows to about 2.5-3 meters (8-10 feet) in height and spread.

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.


4. Cornus – Dogwood

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers moist, well-drained soil; adaptable to a variety of soil types and pH levels. Some species are drought-tolerant once established.
  • Position and Aspect: Most thrive in full sun to partial shade, with flowering and foliage coloration best in full sun.
  • Eventual Size: Size varies by species, but many grow to about 1.5-6 meters (5-20 feet) in height and spread.

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.

Cornus
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5. Hydrangea paniculata

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers moist, well-drained soil; adaptable to soil pH, affecting flower color less than other Hydrangea species.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Grows to about 1.5-3 meters (5-10 feet) in height and spread.

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.


6. Pyracantha – Firethorn

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
  • Growing Conditions: Adaptable to various soils; prefers well-drained conditions; drought-tolerant once established.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Reaches up to 3-4 meters (10-13 feet) in height and spread.

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.

Pyracantha
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7. Buddleia – Butterfly Bush

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers well-drained soil; drought-tolerant once established.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun.
  • Eventual Size: Grows to about 1.5-3 meters (5-10 feet) in height and spread.

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.


8. Forsythia

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers well-drained soil; adaptable to various soil types; drought-tolerant once established.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Reaches up to 1-2.5 meters (3-8 feet) in height and spread.

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.

Forsythia
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9. Berberis – Barberry

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers well-drained soil; adaptable to various soil types and pH levels; drought-tolerant once established.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Size varies by species, but many grow to about 1-3 meters (3-10 feet) in height and spread.

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.

Berberis
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10. Cotoneaster

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Adaptable to various soils; prefers well-drained conditions; drought-tolerant once established.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Size varies by species, but many grow to about 0.5-3 meters (1.5-10 feet) in height and spread.

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.


11. Weigela

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.
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers well-drained soil; adaptable to a range of soil types and pH levels.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Grows to about 1-2.5 meters (3-8 feet) in height and spread.

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.

Weigela
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12. Spiraea ‘Arguta’

Spiraea 'Arguta'
  • Growing Conditions: Prefers well-drained soil; adaptable to various soil types and pH levels.
  • Position and Aspect: Thrives in full sun to partial shade.
  • Eventual Size: Reaches up to 1.5-2 meters (5-6.5 feet) in height and spread.

Spiraea ‘Arguta’ is one of my favourite shrubs and one of the first to start in spring and add a splash of colour. It’s a fantastic shrub that is well-suited to clay soil and can add charm and beauty to any garden. This deciduous shrub, more commonly known as Bridal Wreath, produces an abundance of small, white flowers that bloom in early spring. This shrub grows well in clay soil as long as it is well-drained and not too wet. It prefers full sun or partial shade and can reach heights of 6 to 8 feet with a spread of 8 to 10 feet when fully matured, so allow plenty of space. Spiraea ‘Arguta’ is also known for its graceful arching branches, which are covered in dark green leaves that turn a beautiful reddish-orange in the fall.


Last update on 2024-02-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Welcome to my site, my name is John and I have been lucky enough to work in horticultural nurseries for over 15 years in the UK. As the founder and editor as well as researcher, I have a City & Guilds Horticultural Qualifications which I proudly display on our About us page. I now work full time on this website where I review the very best gardening products and tools and write reliable gardening guides. Behind this site is an actual real person who has worked and has experience with the types of products we review as well as years of knowledge on the topics we cover from actual experience. You can reach out to me at john@pyracantha.co.uk

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