25 Best Plants to grow in Clay Soil


Clay Soil!  It has a bad reputation among gardeners and flower aficionados due to how dense and compact it can get.  However, clay soil actually holds some of the best nutrients for growing plants!  If you have clay soil, the best thing you can do is to grow flowers that will THRIVE in clay!  I’ve compiled the list of flowers below that will thrive in Clay Soil.

25 BEST PLANTS TO GROW IN CLAY SOIL:

  • BLANKET FLOWER
  • WILD BERGAMOT
  • BEE BALM
  • NEW YORK IRONWEED
  • TALL SUNFLOWER
  • CUP PLANT
  • COMPASS PLANT
  • GOLDEN ALEXANDER
  • PLAINS COREOPSIS
  • PARTRIDGE PEA
  • COMMON MILKWEED
  • SWAMP MILKWEED
  • BUTTERFLY WEED
  • BLUE FALSE INDIGO
  • AROMATIC ASTER
  • NEW ENGLAND ASTER
  • FALSE SUNFLOWER
  • BLAZING STAR
  • PALE PURPLE CONEFLOWER
  • PURPLE CONEFLOWER
  • BLACK EYED SUSAN
  • WINECUP
  • LITTLE BLUESTEM
  • BIG BLUESTEM
  • SIDE OATS GRAMMA

What is Clay Soil?

Clay soil is made up of small particles that bond tightly together.  These tight bonds (or clumping) can make it difficult for water to be absorbed, or to drain well.  If the clay soil is dry, water tends to flow over or through cracks, leaving the main soil volume dry.  Furthermore clay soil can be very difficult to dig up, as it is heavy and clumps together.  Clay soil that is densely compacted will make it hard for the roots of some species of flowers to grow. Additionally, if the clay doesn’t drain well and is too moist then certain species roots will rot.

How can I tell if I have clay soil?clay soil

Perform the following test below to determine if you have clay soil.

  • Take a shovel full, or handful of soil
  • Place the soil in a cup of water and mix so that it is thoroughly saturated
  • Remove the soil and roll it into a long tube about 4x as long as wide
  • Hold the tube vertically
    • If the tube does not break, you have clay soil
    • If the tube breaks, it is partially clay
    • If the tube does not break, it is sandy soil

How to make clay soil lighter, and easier to work

The easiest way to make clay soil easier to dig, till and work is to heavily amend with compost and organic matter.  By adding organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings, and veggie scraps you will loosen up the bonds of clay soil.  This will not only unlock the nutrients for plant consumption, but make it easier to take a shovel full of dirt.

Want to learn more about composting?  Click here

How to improve drainage in clay soil for flowers

To make clay soil drain much better, you need to break it up with organic matter (as described above).  You don’t need to do this to an entire flower bed or yard though.  You can focus on the space where you want to grow a plant.

To improve the drainage of clay soil, perform the following steps

  1.  Dig your hole twice the diameter of the plant, and at least twice as deep.
    • I often will will stab my shovel or trowel an extra few inches deeper, and put compost directly into the cavity from the shovel.  This just provides a further degree of drainage.
  2. Mix compost into the soil that was removed to a 1:3 ratio.  So, if you removed about 1 gallon of soil, you should use about 1/3 gallon of compost.
  3. Add a handful or compost to the bottom of the hole.
  4. Fill in the bottom 60% your hole with your soil/compost mix.  You want the hole to be slightly shallower so that the top of the plant is just above the ground level.
  5. Place your plant in the hole, then add the soil/compost mix.  You should be able to create a slight mound with the plant.  This helps provide a bit more drainage.

The absolute best way to garden with Clay Soil

By far the best way to grow a flower garden that has clay soil is to use plants that LIKE to GROW in Clay Soil!  Don’t fight nature!  Embrace it!  There are a ton of flowers that you can grow in clay soil that require little to no maintenance and look beautiful!

The list below are plants that will grow really well in CLAY SOIL!

Blanket Flower (gaillardia x grandiflora)

The blanket flower is a native (cultivar) perennial that blooms from June until frost with bright red/yellow/orange flowers.  It laughs in the face of clay soil, and will stay upright through storms.  This full sun loving plant is visited heavily by bumblebees and other pollinators.


wild bergamot monarda fistulosa

Wild Bergamot (monarda fistulosa)

For a wildflower that blooms long, is drought tolerant, and attracts almost every kind of pollinator look no further than Wild Bergamot, aka Wild Beebalm.  A group of several specimens of Wild Bergamot will bring in everything from hummingbirds, large Swallowtail butterflys to a variety of bees.  Blooming for a month or more in mid-summer, this flower has one of the most unique and interesting blooms.


Bee Balm monarda didyma beebalmBeebalm (monarda didyma)

Also known as Crimson Beebalm, or Scarlet Beebalm, this beautiful flower will begin blooming in early Spring and last until Mid-Summer.  Like Wild Bergamot it will bring in a large variety of pollinators.  But beebalm is also a favorite of hummingbirds!  Beebalm has shallow roots and can grow in moist to medium conditions.  So, clay soil is no problem!


New York IronweedNew York Ironweed

Ironweed is a tall, erect butterfly magnet that grows great in clay and moist soils.  Reaching heights of 5-6′ tall, this sun loving plant gives dark purple blooms late in the season.  Attracting many different pollinators, I’ve noticed that Ironweed seems to be a favorite of Monarch Butterflys migrating to Mexico.


helianthus giganteusTall Sunflower (helianthus giganteus)

Also known as Giant Sunflower, this perennial sunflower grows very tall throughout the season, reaching heights of 8′.  It is one of the last sunflower varieties to bloom providing late season nectar/pollen to bees and butterflys.  The birds love to eat the seeds too!  Just make sure to give it some space, and in an area where it can be exposed to wind.  Exposure to wind while growing tall will help strengthen the stalks.


Cup Plant flowers Silphium perfoliatumCup Plant

Like butterflys?  Look no further than the Cup Plant!  This sunflower-like perennial grows 5-8′ tall and likes to have about 2′ of space all around.  It will give you a super bloom that lasts for about a month in Mid-Summer.  The Cup Plant also adds interest in that the leaves along the stalk form a cup that captures rain water.


NPS photo

Compass Plant

Similar to the Cup Plant, the Compass Plant can reach heights of 8′ tall.  The Compass Plant has no problem growing in clay soil, as it evolved on the prarie.  Blooming for 3-4 weeks in mid-Summer, the Compass Plant will provide sunflower-like blooms that are very showy.  The Compass Plant got its name from the orientation of the leaves in mid-day sun.  During hot temperatures, the leaves would orient in a North-South direction to help conserve water.  So, early settlers noticed this and gave the plant it’s common name!


Golden Alexander Bloom zizia aureaGolden Alexander (Zizia aurea)

Beautiful Golden Alexander adds interest and life to your garden in early Spring.  Blooming beautiful yellow colors on clusters of tiny delicate blooms, Golden Alexander will attract many different short-tongued bees and provide them with nectar & pollen.  It also is a host plant for the Black Swallowtail butterfly!


Plains Coreopsis plantPlains Coreopsis (coreopsis tinctoria)

A beautiful annual flower that looks great as an accent or mass planting, Plains Coreopsis gives color from June until Frost.  The thin stems are almost invisible against a backdrop of other plants, which can give the illusion that the blooms are floating in the air!  This is a very versatile plant in that it will grow in full or partial sun, and almost any soil that can drain.


Partridge Pea FlowerPartridge Pea (chamaecrista fasciculate)

Having a short taproot that can punch through clay, Partridge Pea is a drought tolerant Native Annual Flower.  As a beautiful wildflower, Partridge Pea is a true favorite of bees!  In my Partridge Pea patches in my backyard microprarie, you can always here the buzzing of dozens of bumble and other bees.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are literally dozens of bees on these plants from sun up to sun down.

Partridge Pea will spread, so it is best suited to a more wild area.  But pulling unwanted seedlings in the Spring isn’t too hard, and only takes me about 30 minutes.  Also, Partridge Pea will fix nitrogen from the air to the soil, as it is a legume.  So, this flower makes it’s own fertilizer!


Common Milkweed BloomCommon Milkweed (Asclepias syrica)

Want Monarch Butterflys?  Then you need to grow some Milkweed!  This perennial blooms for a month or more in mid-Summer.  If in full sun, it can develop beautiful purple-white blooms that are loved by bees and other pollinators.  Milkweed has absolutely no problem growing in clay soil.


Swamp Milkweed BloomSwamp Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata)

Want a milkweed that doesn’t spread?  Then Swamp Milkweed is for you!  This Native Perennial can grow in moist to medium clay soils.  It blooms for 1-2 months in mid-Summer, and is the host of the Monarch Butterfly!  Research has shown that you will get more caterpillars when you plant Swamp Milkweed on the outer edges of your garden too.


Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed flower close up bloomButterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

As one of the shorter types of milkweed (2′ tall), Butterfly Weed brings beautiful orange flowers for 1-2 months during the Summer.  Also a host for the Monarch Butterfly, this native perennial is just gorgeous.  It’s short height makes it a versatile choice, as it can go in manicured flower beds or wild areas.  Take note that although it grows in clay, it will be slower growing and should be heavily amended with compost to ensure drainage.


bumble bee pollen baptisia 3Blue False Indigo (Baptisia Australis)

A true clay-busting native Perennial flower, Blue False Indigo roots are slow to develop, but they go deep!  The taproot will go 5-6′ down, right through clay.  This flower blooms in Spring, but the smooth soft foliage is looks nice throughout the season.


Aromatic AsterSymphyotrichum oblongifolium Aromatic Aster Flower Blooms

One of the shorter Asters that are native to North America, Aromatic Aster is one of the last flowers to bloom.  In fact, it will start blooming in Early Fall, and continue well past frost. I’ve even had them bloom into November (USDA zone 6).  A valuable nectar source for late season pollinators, this is a beautiful flower that is also ecologically important.


New England AsterNew England Aster in Bloom

Providing tall purple flowers in late Summer / early Autumn, New England Aster is a valuable food source for late season pollinators and migrating Monarch Butterflys.  Typically growing 3-5′ tall, this flower provides beautiful purple flowers for 3-6 weeks.  One of the most common Asters, you may have noticed these growing in ditches or abandoned farm fields.


False Sunflower (Helianthus helianthoides)Heliopsis Helianthoides, False Sunflower with butterflies

One of the longest blooming perennials, False Sunflower will bloom beautiful yellow flowers for up to 3 months!  Growing up to 4-5′ tall in optimum conditions, this wildflower may require some staking if not exposed to any wind.  But if you like cut flowers, this plant can supply you with blooms nearly all summer by itself!


Liatris Spicata Blazing Star

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)

This native perennial is a drought tolerant, clay busting, showy, and tough pollinator magnet!  Blooming for 1-2 months in late Spring to mid-Summer, the lovely purple stalks are long lasting!  My Blazing Star flowers are heavily visited by bees and smaller butterflys.  Also, after blooming you will see numerous songbirds landing on the stalks to eat the seeds.


Echinacea Pallida Bloom bursting with Pollen! Bees/butterflies love this flower!
Echinacea Pallida Bloom bursting with Pollen! Bees/butterflies love this flower!

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

One of the earliest blooming varieties of Echinacea, Pale Purple Coneflower will bloom for about a month in late Spring.  The taproot of Pale Purple Coneflower has no problem punching through hard, compacted clay soil.  Also, when the blooming period of Pale Purple Coneflower ends is about when the blooming period of it’s cousin, Purple Coneflower begins!


Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)Echinacea Purpurea Purple Coneflower with heliopsis blooms

The most common of coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea blooms for 1-2 months in mid to late Summer.  Unlike other Echinacea varieties, Purple Coneflower has fibrous roots that have no problem growing in clay soil.  A favorite of bees and butterflys, this native perennial is not just showy but ecologically valuable.


Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp)

If you are in the market for a tough, clay busting native perennial that is loved by bees and butterflys, then Black-Eyed Susans are for you!  There are so many varieties of Rudbeckia available that there is one for almost any ecological condition.  For instance, a long lasting drought tolerant perennial like Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), a moist soil tolerant Sweed Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtemosa), or even the general biennial Rudbeckia hirta.  Combining different varieties can give you those beautiful yellow and black flowers for nearly all season.


Winecup Flower (Callirhoe involucrata)

A groundcover, Winecups or winecup flower blooms showy pink wine-cup like flowers for 4-6 weeks in early to mid Summer.  Afterwards, it will make seed and die-back for about a month, only to spring back to life in late Summer/early Fall.  Some years I am able to get a second bloom from this beautiful, drought tolerant plant.

A special note though:  Although the taproot has no problem growing through hard compacted clay, it needs to drain well.  This plant is susceptible to root rot.


Little Bluestem

If you like ornamental grasses, Little Bluestem is a great choice.  Being a medium sized prairie grass (typically 4′ tall), Little Bluestem will thrive in clay and is drought tolerant.


Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)Bluestem Seed Heads Andropogon gerardii

As the name suggests, Big Bluestem is kind of like the big-brother to Little Bluestem.  Growing up to 8′ tall, this is a beautiful ornamental grass that can provide a focal point or central accent to any flower bed.  If in a wild setting, it also can provide cover for wildlife too!


Sideoats Grama Flowers Bouteloua curtipendulaSide Oats Grama (bouteloua curtipendula)

One of the more compact prairie grasses, Side Oats Grama reaches 3′ tall.  Although in fall/winter the central clump is only 1′ tall.  But, the neatest thing about Side Oats Grama is that it is a grass that actually produces flowers!  Along one side of the blades, small delicate flowers will bloom for a number of weeks.  The individual flowers hang down from the blade and dangle in the wind, making this a really cool and beautiful grass.

PIN IT FOR LATER:

plants that thrive in clay soil



Well, that’s our list for now.  Check back regularly as we will update this list as we write up more native plant profiles.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this and found our list of flowers that grow well in clay helpful in planning your garden!  Remember, it is way easier to embrace mother nature rather than fighting her!


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Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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