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Best shrubs to grow in clay soil

The Japanese Quince bush has small flowering buds in a pretty rose color.
The Japanese Quince bush has small flowering buds in a pretty rose color.
Marie Anne St. Jean

Working with clay soil wouldn’t be most landscapers’ first choice of medium to plant in, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your shrubs. There are many plants that do well or at least tolerate clay soil, so don’t give up just yet if you’ve just found out that the soil in your area has more clay than sand. Running the gamut from evergreen shrubs to more colorful flowering bushes, you should have no trouble finding plants that will work for your landscaping needs.

The Arborvitae is a common evergreen shrub that is well suited for clay soil. While technically a tree, the dark green color of the arborvitae looks equally nice as a single bush paired with other clay-tolerant shrubs and flowers, or planted in a row as a border or hedge. Most varieties of the Arborvitae are fast-growing and some may reach over 40 ft in height. According to The Gardener’s Network, arborvitae require little care other than annual pruning and protection from snow and ice build up in winter, making it a good choice for the novice gardener.

For a burst of color in your landscape, the large, showy flowers of the Hydrangea are a good choice. Hydrangeas prefer morning sun and afternoon shade, but according to All About Hydrangeas, it's best to avoid planting under a tree. While they are tolerant of clay soil, overwatering a hydrangea planted in that environment can lead to root rot.

My personal favorite shrub for the clay soil environment is the Japonica or Flowering Quince. Competing with forsythia, the flowering quince (also called Japanese Quince) is an early bloomer with the rosebud-like flowers coming to full bloom in early March in some areas. Requiring little care, most varieties of the flowering quince will produce a pear-like fruit in the fall that is bitter, yet makes a wonderful jelly. Stunning when in bloom, the thorns of this round shrub make it an attractive choice for a hedgerow. New shoots will pop up and the plant will spread over time, so make sure to tend to them before they become become established if you want to contain your Japanese Quince to a smaller area.

The Forsythia is another well known bush that tolerates clay soil. The golden-yellow cast of the early buds is a most welcome sight at the end of a long winter. The forsythia is a versatile shrub that looks lovely when pruned as a row of hedge, but just as pleasant when left to grow in its natural state.

Best planted in clay soil in spring or fall, the Spirea is one of the easiest plants to grow in most any landscape. The clusters of red, pink, yellow or white flowers of this member of the rose family bloom from late spring to mid-summer, with many varieties that will attract butterflies and hummingbirds to your perennial garden. The spirea tolerates sun or shade, and deadheading will often induce a second flowering extending the beauty even later in the season.

Clay soil doesn’t have to mean a boring landscape. If in doubt as to what will thrive in the soil makeup of your area, check with your local agricultural extension service for advice.

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