The Q&A Archives: plant choice

Question: My gardening area is shady and has clay soil very tightly packed. I have tried many plants in one particular area. Ferns do well for me but not in this area. Whatever I place there dies. I water daily, but perhaps the soil needs to be amended. But what other plants would survive this condition? Would a type hardy ground cover be best?

Answer: Clay soil is one of the most difficult conditions a gardener can face. Dense and slippery when wet, it's even more of a challenge as it bakes brick solid when dry. Clay particles are extremely small and tend to pack together, leaving no room for air or water movement.

The first order of business here is to improve the texture of the soil with organic matter. This will be an ongoing process, but the benefits will pay off in the long run. Generously amending or top dressing with compost, leaf mold, composted manure or other organic matter will gradually bulk up the texture of your soil, lessening the compaction. The good news is that clay tends to be much higher in nutrients than a sandy soil.

Choosing plants to grow in clay soil takes some discretion. Certainly, plants that need a well drained soil are not going to be happy growing in clay.

Thank goodness there are plants that not only tolerate clay soil, many will also help break up and improve its texture. Rugged native prairie plants have the constitution to hold up in clay. Tap rooted plants can get deep enough so that their roots don't rot and they break up the texture of clay on their way down.

Plants Recommended for Growing in Clay Soil
(You are in zone 5 so some will be marginal)
Amsonia Blue Star (Zones 5-9)
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly Weed (Zones 4-9)
Aster (various) Aster (Zones 4-8)
Coreopsis Tickseed (Zones 4-8)
Echinacea purpurea Coneflower (Zones 3-9)
Eryngium yuccifolium Sea Holly (Zones 5-10)
Helianthus x laetiflorus False Sunflower (Zones 5-9)
Heliopsis helianthoides Ox Eye (Zones 4-9)
Hemerocallis Daylily (Zones 3-10)
Liatris pycnostachya Kansas Gayfeather (Zones 4-9)
Liatris spicata Blazing Star, Gayfeather (Zones 4-9)
Monarda fistulosa Wild Bee Balm (Zones 3-9)
Ratibida pinnata Drooping Coneflower (Zones 3-10)
Rudbeckia hirta Black-eyed Susan, Gloriosa Daisy (Zones 3-7)
Sedum 'Autumn Joy' (Zones 3-10)
Silphium integrifolium Prairie Dock (Zones 4-7)
Silphium laciniatum Compass Plant (Zones 5-9)
Silphium perfoliatum Cup Plant (Zones 5-9)
Solidago Goldenrod (zones 5-9)
Vernonia noveboracensis Ironweed (Zones 5-9)
Yucca filamentosa Adam's Needle (Zones 5-10)

Ornamental Grasses Suited for Clay Soils
Andropogon gerardi Big Bluestem (Zones 2-7)
Elymus canadensis Canadian Wild Rye (Zones 3-8)
Miscanthus sinensis Eulalia Grass (Zones 4-9)
Panicum virgatum Switch Grass (Zones 5-9)
Pennisetum (various) Fountain Grass (Zones 6-9) Use as an annual in your garden.
Sorghastrum nutans Indian Grass, Wood Grass (Zones 5-8)
Spartina pectinata Prairie Cord Grass (Zones 4-7)

Best wishes with your garden!

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