Perennial Garden That Grows in Clay Soil

garden that grows in clay soil

One of my perennial beds was original clay, filled with broken bricks and other construction rubble. Needless to say, this was a poor soil to garden in. Since the bed borders the community parking lot driveway, it is very dry and hot even in the shade. In the winter, it faces salt and the snow plow.

Are you faced with the same situation? If so, this article shares how I overcame the problems. I believe they will apply to any situation with clay or compacted soil.

perennial garden flower

First Steps. Strip all sod and weeds off the bed. Dig down as far as you can in the soil. It’s wonderful if you can dig down 12 inches but if the soil is clay, 6 inches may be all you can handle. Cover the soil with 6 inches of chopped leaves or compost and let it sit through a winter. That would give the earthworms time to do their job. If you are doing this in the spring or summer, dump 3 inches of compost and another 3 inches of good quality topsoil on top of the clay. This will give the roots of your new plants at least 6 inches of good soil to grown into during the first gardening season.

Edging. I had to deal with bike riders who seemed to enjoy riding their bike down the middle of the garden. Therefore, I lined the edges with patio blocks set on their sides. I haven’t had a bike rider leave the driveway since. If you don’t need to worry about this problem, use any type of edging you like. Edging comes in everything from the heavy duty plastic with a rolled edge to bricks, railroad ties, or landscape timbers. Cement blocks or retaining wall blocks may also be used.

Watering. The third major task is to install a watering system before you even plant your new plants. I like the heavy duty “leaking hoses” made of old tires. This can be left in place right through the winter without cracking.

Mulch. Mulch is essential for an attractive garden. Mulch also helps keep the soil cool and moist, even on the hottest day.

Hardy Plants for Clay-based Soils

Purple Cone Flower. Echinacea is commonly called “purple cone flower.” The flower color can be pink, magenta, white or purple. The ray flowers (petals) surround a prickly, dark brown, thick center. The ray flowers may curve downward. Overall, the plant is about 3-4 ft. tall although shorter varieties are sometimes available. Coneflowers flower the second year from seed. Although, references say they can be divided, I’ve had poor luck doing this since the clay is so difficult to dig in and the roots are usually mangled in the process. This plant blooms from mid-summer until frost.

This is a common American wildflower that has long been used in herbal medicine by Native Americans and others. I leave the dark brown seed heads for the birds during the fall and winter. Cut old stems back to the ground in early spring. [Plants may be purchased at most garden centers selling perennials. If you want to grow it from seed, you may order it from almost any seed or herb catalog. Species generally found are Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia, E. pallida.

perennial garden plans

Shasta daisies. These plants are familiar to most gardeners. They were originally called Chrysanthemum maximum but have been reclassified Leucantheum maximum. Luther Burbank developed Shasta daisies from several Chrysanthemum species: C. maximum, C. leucanthemum, and C. nipponicum. It was named for Shasta, California. You will find them in your local garden center either under the name “Shasta Daisy” or under one of the two scientific names.

Shastas are tall perennials which have a thick, scalloped shaped leaf. The foliage is dark green. The daisy like flowers normally have white-cream colored ray flowers surrounding the yellow disc flowers on stems up to 3 feet tall. The plants need no special care and thrive in my dry, clay soil. They are easily propagated by dividing the clumps in early spring or growing them from seed (2 years for flowering). I cut them back after the initial flush of bloom in early summer and may get light bloom over the rest of the season. As the picture above shows, I use them in front of my cone flowers.

Russian Sage.Perovskia atriplicifolia was introduced as the 1995 Perennial Plant of the Year. This was my introduction to the plant. Actually, the name is misleading because this plant comes from the rocky areas of Pakistan. It was named for a Russian General. Russian Sage is a member of the mint family which should clue you in to its ease of culture and hardiness!

The plant grows about 4-6 feet tall. It has whitish-gray, fine leaves. Some think the follows look like those of lavender. Like mint plants, Russian Sage is strongly scented with a camphor-like scent. In the north, it begins blooming late in July and lasts until frost giving a bluish haze to the border.

It can be propagated from seeds or you can simply purchase small plants at your local nursery. They will grow fast and flower the same season. You may want to try taking cuttings too, early enough in the summer to allow ample time for rooting and getting planted out before frost returns.

Rue. Ruta graveolens is native to the Mediterranean region. It grows in ditches, on hillsides, next to old walls, and other wastelands. Rue was used as food flavoring and as medicine during the New Testament period. Today, we know it can be fatal! The Greeks and Romans believed it protected them against diseases. They spread it on floors of public buildings and walked outside carrying bouquets of it in their hand to protect them from disease.

North Americans will find the cultivar, Ruta graveolens “Blue Mound” to be an attractive, bluish-green plant with bright yellow flowers from June to August. I’ve had a single plant growing in a narrow strip of land between a brick townehouse and an asphalt driveway where it gets covered with road salt every winter for many years. It was even uprooted one winter and returned strong after being replanted in the spring. I cut it to the ground every fall and it grows faithfully every spring. By deadheading it, I can keep it flowering through August. As with any of the plants in these perennial borders, it only receives fertilizer if I remember–no more than once a month.

Lavender. This flower originates in the Mediterranean and North Africa regions, along with southwest Asia and India. There are 25 species total but only Lanvandula angustifolia is hardy to USDA growing zone 5 (can get to 10 below 0 F). Several cultivars are currently available in garden centers. The only one I find reliably hardy here in Michigan isLanvandula angustifolia. ‘Munstead’. This variety makes a nice bushy shrub one to two feet tall. Because the leaves are a light gray-green, many people use this in silver gardens. It forms a flower stalk that reaches approximately 12 inches tall with a dense, purple flower spike at the tip.

garden that grows in clay soil

Lavenders can be propagated from seed or tip cuttings. Because of the shortness of our growing season, I prefer to just purchase small plants from a local garden center. The plants grow quickly and flower, usually later in the summer, than they do their second year. The only fertilizer these plants get is a monthly foliage feed with seaweed or fish emulsion. I simply haven’t found a need to fertilize either those plants growing in the solid clay soil, or those growing in my good backyard soil. The plants grow to approximately the same size in either types of soil which is surprising to me.

Lavender has many uses. Some use the dried flower stalks (harvested just before the flower opens fully) to make lavender “wands”. You will find the directions in many herbal crafts books. Many herb shops sell dried lavender leaves and flowers for use in dried arrangements. Some believe lavender is beneficial in sleep pillows. Still others use them in sachets which are used to scent their dresser drawers. I enjoy picking a few lavender leaves, putting them in my hands and rubbing them together to give a scent to my hands as I go about my gardening.

Coreopsis. This flower is sometimes called tickseed, is a highly prized plant in the perennial border. I’ve grown Coreopsis grandiflora , C. lanceolata, and C. verticillata. All of these have flourished in my heavy clay soils. The daisy like flowers are typically pale yellow-gold. Some cultivars look almost like miniature, golden carnations because they are double-petaled. C. Grandiflora and C. lanceolataboth have basal leaves which are different shaped from the leaves found on the upper portions of the plant. This can cause some confusion in the spring if you happen to forget that they will bush out from the clump of basal leaves that often over winters. Both species are slightly hairy and may feel sticky to the touch.

The threadleaf form, C. Verticillata is easily distinguished from the other varieties by its long wiry stems and threadlike leaves. I love either the pale yellow (Moonbeam) or traditional gold colored forms. Some nurseries are a pink coreopsis, C. rosea which looks like C. Verticillata. In fact, some nursery tags mistakenly identify this as a cultivar of C. verticillata. C. rosea needs more moisture than other forms of Coreopsis and did not grow well in clay soil. I’d plant this in good topsoil which tends to stay moister during the summer.

Depending on the cultivar, Coreopsis will grow from 1 to 2 feet tall. The one drawback of this plant is that you must deadhead it regularly to keep it flowering all summer. If you allow it to go to seed, most of the seedlings will not look like their parents. Like other plants, cultivars do not generally reproduced true from seed although you will find some varieties as seeds–just don’t expect totally consistent plants. If you want a perpetually cheerful looking plant, Coreopsis is for you. This plant has never shown pest or disease problems and is seldom fertilized.

Black Eye Susans. These are North American native plants which provide bright, bold color from mid-summer until frost finally kills the plant for the winter. Rudbeckia hirta, is the wildflower commonly called “black-eyed susan” while R. fulgida sullivantii is the species that produces most of the named garden cultivars. All have a flower consisting of a central disc that ranges from gray to black in color with yellow or gold ray flowers (petals) which may lay flat or droop.

One of the largest flowers is on the R. Fulgida sullivantti ‘Goldsturm’ cultivar. This particular plant must be propagated by dividing. Seeds offered generally are not the same quality as the vegetatively produced plants.

Some catalogs classify these as coneflowers which may easily be confused with Echinacea. Rudbeckias are very easy to grow plants, best propagated by dividing the clumps in the spring. All species that I have grown have suffered some from mildew and shown leaf damage from leaf miners. Goldsturm has shown the least damage. I can’t imagine a perennial border without one or more varieties of these brightly colored plants!

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