When I decided to finally start gardening last fall, I figured I wouldn’t have it easy. We had plenty of space and plenty of sunlight but our house (and our state) feels like it sits on a giant clay deposit. Gardening with raised beds was the solution but it wasn’t feasible for every area we wanted to plant in. Adding a bunch of containers across 3/4 of an acre just wouldn’t look good regardless of what landscape architect you could get to plan out a garden. So instead of fighting the soil, we decided to let it work in our favor instead!
Gardening in clay soil is always a challenge. If you live in an area like we do in north Georgia, you know exactly how fun it is to walk outside after a rainy day when the mud feels like it’s literally sucking you in with its stickiness, or blowing in the wind after baking under the hot sun even for a single day. This horrible mix of textures is mostly due to the structure of the soil, which lacks organic matter and constricts oxygen access, making root development a nightmare for all but the toughest of plants.
Trying to dig any kind of hole in the middle of summer, or winter, or any time of the year actually unless it’s been raining for a full day, will leave you with a body sore enough to make you feel like you’ve been working out for hours.
However, clay soils aren’t all bad. Because of the mineral composition of the soil, clay actually tends to hold soil nutrients, resulting in fertile soil that’s great for growing plants and vegetables. But if all of those nutrients are held in tough clumps that a root can’t get through, it’s pretty useless. So, gardeners are left with two options: amend or adapt. The first option is decidedly more long-term – adding organic matter in layers to the soil to promote greater microbial activity and better soil structure will result in soil that’s workable and feasible for growing a greater variety of plants. And for serious home gardeners, it definitely seems like the best option.
But for gardeners like me, who wants beauty with a little less effort and would rather dedicate most of their energy to optimizing their vegetable and fruit crops, it’s all about that second option – adapting to your growing conditions and letting nature win by growing what’s supposed to grow in clay soil.
Thankfully, there is a wide variety of flowering plants that will beautify even the saddest of clay landscapes. Ranging from flowers to drought-tolerant bushes, sun-loving to shade-preferent, these clay soil lovers will thrive in tough clay soil and allow you to turn your attention to the other things you want to grow. This is by no means an exhaustive list but they’re all beautiful and low-maintenance and exactly what I look forward to planting in my front and backyard.
Goldenrod, a member of the Asteraceae family that also includes daisies, asters, and sunflowers, is actually considered a weed in our area. In late summer and early fall, almost every fallow field in the state is covered in the long stalks of gold flowers. They make excellent additions to areas that don’t require formal landscaping and like ornamental grasses, they’re great space fillers.
Appropriately named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, irises are known for their variety of color, coming in any shade from white to deep purple. When we moved into our house, a clump of irises got shuffled during the renovation period but to my surprise, not one died from lack of water or even proper growing conditions. Eventually, I separated the rhizomes and transplanted them but I realized months later that the rhizomes I thought were dead were very much alive and we have irises popping up in every area of the yard.
The point being, if you want beautiful flowers with the lowest possible effort, skip the succulents which in my experience are actually picky, and go for the irises, which, short of being dunked in bleach for a day, are almost impossible to kill.
Yarrow, along with being a beautiful plant available in a variety of colors, is the perfect plant for organic gardening. It’s tough enough to grow in clay soil but also an attractive plant for pollinators and other helpful pests like predatory wasps, and birds which use the flower to line their nests. If you’re a lover of cottage gardens like I am, yarrow is the perfect addition to your landscape.
Canna flowers, with their lush green foliage, remind me of my childhood in Brazil. They’re sturdy flowers that thrive in sunlight and warm temperatures, and even their foliage come in different colors, from green to deep purple. They’re excellent additions to sunny gardens with an exotic flair, and are fairly disease resistant, making for an excellent choice for low-effort gardeners.
Baptisia australis, commonly known as false indigo, is a member of the same family as peas and peanuts, but is toxic and should not be consumed. The plant is native to the US and hardy from zones 3 to 8, making it perfect for a variety of gardens. It owes its clay hardiness to the long taproot that supports the plant but also makes it very difficult to move once established. For fans of sweet pea flowers, baptisia is another great addition to clay-heavy gardens.
Another popular flower for pollinators, coneflowers are beautiful additions to a variety of garden styles, from prairie and cottage style to landscaped gardens that need an addition of color but require low maintenance. These were common on my university campus and flowered for months even through periods of drought.
The perfect plants for any shade garden, hostas come in a wide range of colors and textures, adding dimension to even the least sunny spots in your garden. They’re perfect for lining walk and driveways, as well as for filling awkward spots where nothing else will grow. Their foliage can be in lighter or darker green, and solid or variegated with white stripes.
We recently picked up a few at our local extension’s annual plant sale and they’ve proved to be the sturdiest of plants, surviving days of rain followed by weeks of drought, with no attention or extra amendments. Although principally grown for their beautiful foliage, the plants do produce flowers, ranging from white to lavender in color.
Sedum is actually a genus of plants, commonly known as stonecrops, and are included in the same family as jade plants. Being a succulent, sedum is adaptive to a wide variety of growing conditions, although conditions do vary among varieties. Pictured is the ornamental cultivar Herbstfreude.
Not to be confused with the similarly spelled yuca (also known as cassava or manioc), the yucca is a shrub commonly grown for its beautiful cascading white flowers. The plant prefers high temperatures and little water, so it’s ideal for drought and low maintenance gardens. Due to its height, sharp leaves, and beautiful flowers, yucca is a great addition for architectural focus in a garden.
Although also featuring beautiful flowers, heuchera varieties are typically grown for their wide range of foliage colors, from golden yellow to deep purple. Their colors are evocative of autumn throughout the year, lending even the dullest of gardens greater dimension and texture with their variegated leaves. They make for excellent walkway and driveway liners due to their low height, but can also be spread across wide areas, especially when mixed with different color varieties.