Gardening & Planting In Clay Soil

Growing In Clay Soil

Knowing the kind of soil you are working with, whether it be clay, sandy, chalky or loam in your garden can have a big impact on the success of your planting. Clay soil can be particularly tricky at certain times of the year and if you have ever dug clay soil you will definitely feel it.

That is not to say that clay soil is bad. In fact clay is one of the most fertile soils. There are a number of ways to improve it to make working with clay soil easier so let’s take a look at how best to garden with clay soil.

Identifying Clay Soil

How do you know if you have clay soil? Of course, there are varying degrees of clay from grittier clay to really heavy clay soil. 

The easiest way to identify clay soil are the following methods:

Pick up a piece of damp soil and work it between your hands, form it into a ball and then roll it into a sausage shape. If you can do this relatively easily without it cracking or crumbling then it is likely to be clay soil.

Clay Soil Test

Another method is pinching a piece of soil between your fingers. If you cannot feel many particles or grittiness then there is probably a high amount of clay in the soil.

If you are still unsure, you may want to consider taking a sample of you soil to a friendly nursery for help identifying the makeup if your soil.

Is Clay Soil Good or Bad For Gardening?

There are benefits and disadvantages to any type of soil. It really is a case of working out how best to deal with the conditions that present themselves. No matter what kind of soil you have there will be plants and things you can do that will create a stunning garden.

Clay Soil Is Fertile

Clay soil is usually quite fertile and has the ability to be very fertile if treated correctly. The particles in clay soils have the ability to hold or absorb potassium, calcium, magnesium and other nutrients that are required for good plant health. 

This ability to absorb nutrients is not nearly as good in sandy soils for example. If you are adding nutrients to the soil, either by mulching or digging in organic matter than clay soil will hold onto these nutrients and produce healthier plants.

Clay Holds Water

Clay soil has many more particles per square inch than other types of soil. Surface tension and chemical factors binds water to these particles meaning that clay will hold more water than other types of soil. 

This benefits gardeners throughout the summer or in drought prone areas as less watering is required. On the other hand during wetter weather you are much more likely to have standing water and the ground is going to be waterlogged for longer periods.

Planting with this in mind means that if you know an area is liable to flood or get bogged down for a period then plant choice needs to be varieties that will cope with this. There will almost certainly be plants that will thrive in conditions such as these.

Working Clay Soil Can Be Hard

Digging or tilling clay soil is going to be harder than any other type of soil. During certain times of the year in fact heavy soil will be back breaking to dig. In overly wet or dry conditions or freezing conditions you are best off waiting until the weather improves before attempting to dig over the soil.

Clay soil has a tendency to form great clods, it is heavy as it holds more water and during dry weather can become baked solid. Fortunately you are really not going to be digging over the soil every year, so after the initial hard work you should be fine.

Once you have dug over the soil you are best off mulching every year and allowing the worms to till the soil this will keep the texture open and mean you don’t have to go to the effort of working the soil yourself. 

Avoiding compacting the soil by walking over it is another thing to pay attention too.

Improving Clay Soil

Clay soil is not a problem at all. In fact, if you manage the soil properly you will likely see plants flourishing more than in other soil types. There are a number of things you can do to improve the soil and these relate to nutrition and structure.

There are no instant fixes and improving clay soil will take a number of years before you really start noticing the difference.

The Number 1 Thing To Do To Improve Clay Soil = Incorporating Organic Matter

Digging Clay Soil

By far the best thing to do to improve clay soil is to incorporate organic matter. Digging in organic matter will open the structure of the soil allowing water to drain through quicker as well as adding nutrition that fertilise any plant that you add.

Organic matter can be any of the following:

  • Compost
  • Leaf Mould
  • Well Rotted Manure
  • Green Manure

Basically anything that was once living and will decay, leaving behind nutrition and an open structure.

Digging in organic matter will prevent water logging because the clay particles will be less tightly packed. It will also open the texture allowing roots to move freely throughout the soil and getting a firmer hold.


No matter what soil type you have mulching at the beginning of spring is always worthwhile. 

Digging organic matter into clay soil is the first step and the effort is worth it. After this you will not want to dig over the soil every year but mulching will to all intents and purposes achieve the same thing.

Mulching involves adding organic matter to the soil surface in a layer a couple of inches thick. Over the course of a year or so this breaks down and gets worked into the soil by the weather, worms and so on. 

Adding a layer of mulch will prevent clay soil from baking at the surface forming a hard crust and it also has the added benefit of nourishing the soil and prevents weed growth.

Adding Grit To Clay Soil

Garden Grit

It is often suggested to add grit or sand to clay soil and indeed it can help but the amount you would need to have any sort of impact on the soil structure is far too much.

Rather than digging in sand or grit across a whole border it is much easier to add the grit when putting in plants that would benefit from it.

Plants that prefer freely draining soil and don’t like too have wet roots will benefit by adding grit or sand when they are planted. This directly benefits the plant and require only a small amount of extra outlay or work compared to adding grit to an entire border.

It is best to work with the soil you have than physically trying to change the texture.

Plants That Do Well In Clay Soil

It is worth try most plants in your garden regardless of whether you have clay soil or not. Plants that like sandy, arid and dry conditions are likely to struggle but you can always use containers for these types of plants and even place them throughout the borders.

Trees & Shrubs For Clay Soil

Trees To Plant In Clay Soil
  • Fruit trees such as apple, pear and plum
  • Sorbus
  • Ash
  • Elder
  • Birch
  • Hawthorn
  • Dogwood / Cornus
  • Buddleja
  • Hydrangea
  • Viburnum
  • Berberis
  • Cotoneaster
  • Rosa

Perennials That Do Well In Clay Soil

Hosta Clay Soil
  • Hosta
  • Alchemilla Mollis
  • Geranium
  • Hellebores
  • Anemone
  • Coreopsis
  • Phlox
  • Astrantia
  • Aster
  • Rudbeckia
  • Aconites

Climbers For Clay Soil

Climber Clay Soil
  • Ivy
  • Honeysuckle
  • Clematis

Bulbs For Clay Soil

  • Narcissi
  • Anenone
  • Snowdrops
  • Fritillaria meleagris

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