Best Plants For Clay Soil (20+ Perennials You’ll Want In Your Garden)

best plants for clay soil

If you garden in an area of the country with heavy clay soil (like the red clay soil we have here in upstate SC), you know how hard it can be.

When the ground is wet, it’s so soggy that plant roots rot.

When the soil is dry, it’s hard as a brick and nothing will grow in it.

Well, I have good news…with the right plants and a few easy gardening tips, it is possible to grow a thriving garden in those tough conditions!

Before we get to the plants, let’s talk about the tips:

  1. When you have clay soil, it is really important to amend the soil before you plant anything. Adding some compost or triple mix will go a long way to getting proper drainage.
  2. Don’t walk on your garden beds when they’re wet. That will cause the clay to get compacted which will make the issues even worse.
  3. Water for longer periods of time less often. It takes water longer to soak into clay soil but it also takes longer to dry out.

Okay, now let’s get on to the fun stuff…my favorite plants for clay soil.

best shade plants

1 | Astilbe

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Pink Astilbe | © Zanoza-Ru - stock.adobe.com
Pink Astilbe | © Zanoza-Ru - stock.adobe.com

Zones: 3 to 9
Light: Part Shade or Sun (depending on the variety)
Bloom Time: Summer
Height: 6" to 60" (depending on the variety)
Spread: 12" to 36"

Planting Astilbe is a great way to add some color to your shade garden.

With their pretty pink, white, lavender or red plumes that bloom above fern-like foliage in the summer, they definitely make a statement.

Plant them in moist but well-drained soil and water deeply once a week to keep them happy.

Make sure to check the light requirements for the plants you are buying, since some varieties prefer shade while others want more sun.

Learn more about them HERE.

2 | Bee Balm (Monarda)

Red Bee Balm

Zones: 3 - 9
Light: Sun to Part Shade
Bloom Time: Summer
Height: 15" to 48"
Spread: 18" to 48"

Bee Balm (Monarda) is a perennial with brightly colored red, pink or purple flowers that are made up of little tubes. Which are perfect for hummingbirds and butterflies to drink from. (And as the name suggests, bees like it too).

Monarda is a member of the mint family.

This means it can spread pretty quickly so plant it in an area where it has some room to grow. It also means that it grows well even in tough conditions like clay soil.

Because of its herb heritage, Bee Balm is drought-tolerant, and its strong scent deters rabbits and deer.

3 | Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

Black-eyed Susan
Black-eyed Susan

Zones: 4 to 9
Light: Sun
Bloom Time: Late spring to early fall
Height: 1' to 3' (depending on the variety)
Spread: 1' to 2'

Black-eyed Susan is a native perennial that produces daisy-like yellow or orange flowers from late spring until early fall.

Deadheading old flowers will encourage re-blooming.

Those brightly-colored flowers are a magnet for butterflies but not for deer. So that's always a bonus!

It can survive in clay soil and is quite drought- and heat-tolerant once it is established.

Some varieties are considered annuals so check the description of the plants when you buy them.

Also, Rudbeckia can be a prolific self-seeder. If you don't want to grow (or pull) lots of new seedlings, it's a good idea to remove the old flowers before they have a chance to go to seed.

Buy it HERE.*

4 | Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)

Ajuga reptans perennial ground cover for shade

Zones: 4 to 10
Light: Shade to Sun
Bloom Time: Spring
Height: 6" to 12"
Spread: 12" to 48"

Bugleweed will form a dense, evergreen mat of shiny, dark green leaves with spikes of violet-blue flowers that makes a great groundcover.

There is also a variety available with purple flowers and burgundy leaves that is quite pretty.

This shade-loving perennial spreads by underground runners called stollens as well as by self-seeding. (Cut off the spent flowers to prevent the latter.)

Give careful consideration to where you plant it because it will creep into lawns and can be difficult to eradicate.

However, it is useful under trees where grass will not grow (it is one of the few plants that will survive under a black walnut tree).

It also tolerates dry shade and is deer resistant.

5 | Coneflower (Echinacea)

Echinacea 'Razzmatazz'
Echinacea 'Razzmatazz'

Zones: 3 - 9
Light: Sun
Bloom Time: Summer
Height: 24" to 48"
Spread: 24" to 36"

Coneflower (Echinacea) is an easy-to-grow perennial that thrives in full sun and blooms all summer long which may be why so many gardeners love it.

Purple coneflower

They are heat- and drought-tolerant, attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds and will grow in pretty much any soil conditions.

Deer will leave them alone, unless they are really hungry. Although the rabbits seem to like them.

Echinacea pallida
Echinacea pallida

There are so many different colors and flower forms that you are sure to find one (or more) that you like.

While Coneflower is usually listed as a summer-blooming plant, I am always able to get a second round of flowers in the fall by chopping the plants off after the first round of blooms is finished. They are usually looking pretty scraggly at that point anyway, so the pruning makes the garden look better, too!

One note:  Echinacea do tend to self seed. So you may need to pull out a few plants if you find them growing where you don't want them.

Buy it HERE.*

6 | Coral Bells (Heuchera)

Coral Bells with dark leaves and white flowers
Coral Bells with dark leaves and white flowers

Zones: 4 to 9
Light: Shade to Part Shade
Bloom Time: Spring
Height: 6" to 6' (depending on the variety)
Spread: 12" to 5'

Commonly called Coral Bells, Heuchera foliage provides great color in the shade garden.

The leaves come in a range of hues from almost black, dark purple, chartreuse, peach and orange and have an interesting lobed shape.

It does not like to be planted too deep, so set the crown at ground level.

Heuchera planted with Lamium in a perennial shade border

This plant does have insignificant little flowers, but it is mainly grown for its beautiful foliage, like these yellow and orange varieties grown with Lamium in the middle.

It was named Plant of the Year in 2012.

7 | Daylily (Hemerocallis)

Purple Daylily (Hemerocallis) in the garden
Daylilies

Zones: 3 - 9
Light: Sun To Part Shade
Bloom Time: Late Spring and Summer
Height: 12" to 48"
Spread: 24" to 48"

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) really are a "plant and forget" flower which is why they are one of my favorite full sun perennials.

As the name suggests, each bloom only lasts a day. But as you can see, one plant can grow a lot of buds!  

They come in many different plant sizes and flower colors. But generally bloom in late spring and summer.

Different varieties have different bloom times, so you can get a longer flowering period in your garden by selecting them to bloom one after the other.

Some of the newer varieties also re-bloom. Make sure to remove old flowers to encourage new ones in these plants.

Hemerocallis is heat- and drought-tolerant, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, and rabbits usually avoid them. They are a favorite of deer, however.

Buy it HERE.*

8 | Ferns

native ferns

Zones: 2 to 11
Light: Shade to Part Shade
Bloom Time: Foliage Only
Height: 6" to 6' (depending on the variety)
Spread: 12" to 5'

From miniature 6" plants to large 6 foot giants, there are so many varieties of ferns that you are sure to find some that will thrive in your garden.

Better yet, many of these are native varieties which are really easy to grow since they are so well adapted to the climate.

While most ferns prefer shaded areas, you can also find some that grow in full sun.

The one thing that they all have in common? They need consistent moisture.

So check your local nurseries to find the ferns that suit your situation the best.

Find some of the best native fern varieties HERE.

9 | Glory of the Snow (Chinodoxa)

Glory of the Snow with blue flowers  (Chinodoxa) ©skymoon13 - stock.adobe.com

Zones: 2 to 8
Light: Full Sun / Part Shade / Shade
Bloom Time: Early Spring
Height: 6" to 8"
Spread: 2" to 3"

As the name suggests, Glory of the Snow is another one of the spring-flowering bulbs that blooms very early in the spring and often comes up through the snow.

It sports pink, blue or white blooms that are deer-resistant and naturalize into a carpet of spring flowers.

Glory of the Snow with pink flowers ©Maksims - stock.adobe.com
©Maksims - stock.adobe.com

Plant Chionodoxa bulbs 3" deep and 2" to 3" apart.

These plants are poisonous so be careful where you plant them if you have pets or kids that may try to eat them.

Buy them HERE.*

10 | Goat's Beard

Zones: 3 to 9
Light: Shade to Sun
Bloom Time: Late spring / Early summer
Height: 30" to 60"
Spread: 40" to 48"

Goat's Beard is a tall native perennial that thrives in the shade and looks a lot like Astilbe.

It has creamy white lacy blossoms that float above delicate serrated dark green foliage on a hardy plant which thrives in part shade.

Goat's Beard can take a couple of years to get going in your garden. But once it is established, it is easy to care for and covers the plant in blooms every year.

This perennial comes in a male and a female version, with the male plants having showier flowers. Most aren't labelled as such, so it helps to buy them when they're blooming to get the kind you want.

Try to plant it in its "forever home" as this perennial doesn't like to be moved.

Find it HERE.

11 | Hosta

Hostas along path
Hostas along path

Zones: 3 to 9
Light: Shade To Part Shade
Bloom Time: Summer
Height: 6" to 6' (depending on the variety)
Spread: 12" to 6' (depending on the variety)

Hostas are an old standby perennial ground cover that is available in a large variety of leaf colors and plant sizes.

Lime green Hosta
Lime green Hosta

I like to put those varieties that have cream, white, or lime green leaves in the darkest spots of my shade garden so that they pop, particularly at night.

Variegated Hosta
Variegated Hosta

I have a particular fondness for the tough, leathery or waxy leaved hostas because they repel slugs and maintain neat mounds.

Hosta with mauve flowers in the perennial shade garden

Most hostas bloom mauve or white in summer.

Learn more about growing Hostas here and find some interesting varieties HERE.

12 | Japanese Anemone

Japanese Anemone

Zones: 3 to 9 (depending on the variety)
Bloom Time: Fall
Light: Part Shade To Shade
Height: 36" to 60"
Spread: 36″ to 48"

Japanese anemone is one of my favorite tall shade perennials for late summer/fall blooms. 

Japanese anemones

They have delicate pink or white flowers that sway in the late summer wind until frost. Pure joy in the autumn landscape!

For the best blooms, grow in any soil, in partial shade.

Hummingbirds are attracted to the flowers, but deer and rabbits are not.

Japanese Anemone in the shade garden

Japanese anemone is a late bloomer; so the plant stays dormant until late spring.

Because of this, I like to plant a fern peony beside it. The peony is fading by the time the anemone starts to sprout.

Tall shade perennial - Japanese Anemone

At 3' high, this plant may need staking  But it always gets many appreciative comments from passersby.

These plants also spread by underground runners and can become invasive in some areas, so check with your local nursery before planting. Or grow them in an enclosed space like a large container or raised bed.

Learn more about growing Japanese Anemone HERE.

13 | Japanese Painted Fern

Ferns and Columbine
Ferns and Columbine

Zones: 4 to 9
Light: Shade to Part Shade
Bloom Time: Foliage Only
Height: 12" to 24" (depending on the variety)
Spread: 18" to 36"

Japanese painted ferns are a blessing to garden designers.

With their blue green leaves, burgundy variations, and compact growth habit they are an extremely interesting addition to any shade garden.

Like most ferns, these perennials don't like to dry out, so make sure to provide consistent water. Otherwise, they are very low maintenance plants.

Japanese Painted Fern 'Pictum'
Japanese Painted Fern 'Pictum'

Variation “pictum” (find it HERE*) has burgundy stems and pewter colored leaves that reflect light.

Japanese Painted Fern 'Ghost'
Japanese Painted Fern 'Ghost'

Whereas ‘ghost’ (find it HERE*) has silvery green fronds that brighten up a dark space.

Click HERE for more hardy fern varieties.

14 | Lenten Rose (Hellebore)

Hellebores make a great addition to the shade border
Hellebores make a great addition to the shade border

Zones: 4 to 9
Light: Shade
Bloom Time: Early Spring to Early Summer
Height: 12" to 18"
Spread: 18" to 24"

Hellebores are low-growing, clump-forming, easy-to-grow plants that start blooming really early in the spring, earning it the nickname 'Christmas rose' . Even in Canada, their flowers can be seen peeping out from the snow in February.

Once they start blooming, they have the added benefit that the blooms last for quite some time. In my South Carolina garden, the first flowers appear in February and are still going strong in April.

White Hellebores

The foliage is evergreen and low growing.

Which makes it a perfect plant for the front of a shady border or to use as a ground cover under trees and bushes.

Picotee Hellebore
Picotee Hellebore

The blooms range in color from cream, light green, speckled pink or burgundy to glorious double pink or white in the hybrid ‘Ellen’ series.

The only maintenance I do, is to tidy the appearance by removing any dead leaves.

15 Stunning Perennials That Thrive in the Shade | This list of easy to grow shade perennials is perfect for ground covers under bushes or trees in your garden.
Double Hellebore

They have become very popular, which means new varieties are coming out all the time, like these ones with double flowers.

Purple Hellebore
Purple Hellebore

Or these purple ones.

The plants can be a little gangly in the summer. Planting them with something that comes out a little later and also likes the shade (like Hostas) will help provide some distraction.

Find more information about growing Hellebores HERE.

15 | Leopard Plant (Ligularia)

Ligularia dentata 'Othello' ©maxandrew - stock.adobe.com
©maxandrew - stock.adobe.com

Zones: 3 to 9
Light: Shade
Bloom Time: Summer
Height: 24" to 48" (depending on the variety)
Spread: 24" to 36"

Ligularia dentata is a large-leafed perennial that likes heavy shade and wet soil.  Do not let it dry out.

For a pop of bright color in your shade garden, this easy-to-grow flowering perennial is just the thing.

The only problems being that snails and slugs will eat the leaves. And it may temporarily wilt in the afternoon sun, only to recover at night.  Which makes it best sited on the north side of the house.

Ligularia also attracts bees and butterflies and resists deer.

Totally stunning if you can keep it wet enough!

Find it HERE.*

16 | Periwinkle (Vinca minor)

Vinca minor used as shade ground cover in the garden

Zones: 4 to 8
Light: Shade
Bloom Time: Spring
Height: 4" to 8"
Spread: 24" or more

Periwinkle has pretty lavender-blue flowers in the spring that show off on glossy evergreen foliage.

It spreads aggressively by rooting at the nodes of the trailing stems, so plant it where you want a thick ground cover.

Vinca is drought, shade, deer, and shallow-rocky soil tolerant.

17 | Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia Capillaris)

Pink Muhly Grass growing in front of a fence
Pink Muhly Grass

Zones: 5 - 9
Light: Full Sun
Bloom Time: Late Summer to Fall
Height: 3' to 4'
Spread: 3' to 4'

As you may have guessed from its name, Pink Muhly grass is known for its airy pink plumes that appear in late summer.

This native ornamental grass is deer-resistant, heat-tolerant and will survive in dry conditions once it is established.

So if you're looking for a low maintenance plant that loves the sun, this is a great option for your garden.

Pink Muhly Grass ©Li - stock.adobe.com
©Li - stock.adobe.com

It's also not as big or as invasive as some of the other ornamental grasses, which makes it a great border plant.

Buy it HERE*.

18 | Rose Mallow (Perennial Hibiscus)

Hibiscus moscheutos "Kopper King"
Hibiscus moscheutos "Kopper King"

Zones: 4 to 9
Light: Sun
Bloom Time: Late Summer to Fall (earlier in the South)
Height: 3' to 5' (depending on the variety)
Spread: 3' to 5'

Hardy Hibiscus or Rose Mallow is a native perennial with HUGE blooms (up to 10 inches across!) that look tropical even though they're not.

It thrives in full sun and loves wet soil. So make sure it doesn't get too dried out.

Having said that, Rose Mallow is very adaptable to pretty much any other type of soil conditions - clay or sand, acidic or alkaline...it will grow well in any of them.

Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love the brightly-colored flowers. Deer and rabbits do not.

Hardy Hibiscus grows on woody stems that look like branches but die down to the ground in the winter.

Hibiscus moscheutos "Fireball"

As you can see from this picture, it is susceptible to caterpillars which eat the leaves.

Although they don't seem to prevent the plant from growing, the big holes in the foliage don't look that great. Washing with an insecticidal soap helps to prevent this.

This is one of the last perennials to come up in the spring, so don't be worried if it seems like it's not coming back...it probably just needs a little more time.

Buy it HERE.*

19 | Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Russian sage
Russian sage

Zones: 4 to 9
Bloom Time: Early summer to fall
Height: 24" to 48"
Spread: 24" to 48"

With its gray-green foliage and beautiful purple-blue flowers, Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is one of my favorite full sun perennials.

This is an easy-to-grow plant with a really long bloom time that starts in the summer and continues well into fall.

It's deer resistant, drought tolerant, and it attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Russian sage also requires absolutely no maintenance...no fertilizing, deadheading or dividing.

You can cut it shorter in the spring to control its size if you want to, but otherwise pruning is not necessary, either.

Buy it HERE.*

20 | Sedum

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' before the flowers open
Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Zones: 3 to 9
Light: Sun
Bloom Time: Late summer to fall
Height: 6" to 24"
Spread: 18" to 24"

Sedums are succulents that have thick fleshy leaves and star shaped flowers in clusters that bloom in autumn.

They like dry, poorly-fertilized soil and actually prefer not to be watered too much. Which makes them perfect for growing in rock gardens, or in clay or sandy soil.

They are also deer and rabbit resistant.

Depending on the variety, Sedums can be grown as ground covers, on the edges of rock gardens or as a middle of the border plant.

Close up of Sedum 'Autumn Joy' flowers
Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is an easy-to-grow variety with flowers that start out pink and turn to bronze as the weather gets cooler.

Since it is one of the last flowers to bloom before winter, it's a great late-season nectar source for butterflies and bees.

Buy it HERE.*

21 | Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)

Brunnera with patterned leaves | © zgurski1980 - stock.adobe.com
Brunnera with patterned leaves | © zgurski1980 - stock.adobe.com

Zones: 3 to 8
Light: Part Shade to Shade
Bloom Time: Spring
Height: 12" to 15"
Spread: 12" to 24"

Brunnera macrophyla is a low-growing perennial that has pretty blue blooms in the spring, and also has beautiful foliage.

The silver colored leaves really stand out in the shade garden!

If it is kept consistently moist, it rewards with a lovely mounded plant that fairly glows in the shaded environment.

Leave the foliage to protect the crown over winter and trim it back in the spring.

These plants prefer cooler summers, and generally will not perform well in the hot and humid summer conditions of the South.

Brunnera Macrophyla 'Jack Frost'
Brunnera macrophyla 'Jack Frost'

One of my favorite varieties is 'Jack Frost' Brunnera which has gorgeous large, variegated, silver heart-shaped leaves, and sports dainty blue flowers in the spring.

22 | Spider Lily (Lycoris)

Red spider lilies ©HIROSHI H - stock.adobe.com
©HIROSHI H - stock.adobe.com

Zones: 5 to 10
Light: Full Sun / Part Shade
Bloom Time: Late summer
Height: 12" to 24"
Spread: 6" to 8"

Spider Lilies are fragrant, deer resistant, drought tolerant bulbs that have red, yellow, white or pink flowers.

The beautiful blooms pop out of the ground in late summer with no foliage and last for about 2 weeks.

Once the plants have finished flowering, the leaves appear in late fall and stay in the garden until late spring when they die back.

Plant the bulbs 5" deep and 8" apart in their forever home. Spider Lilies don't like to be transplanted.

They will multiply over time and should be dug up and divided every few years.

Buy them HERE.*

23 | Starflower (Ipheion uniflorum)

Starflower (Ipheion uniflorum)

Zones: 5 to 9
Light: Full Sun / Part Shade
Bloom Time: Spring
Height: 4" to 6"
Spread: 2"

Starflowers are spring-blooming bulbs that have purple, white or yellow flowers and narrow grass-like leaves.

They grow 4" to 6" tall, are deer-resistant and grow well under trees.

Starflowers naturalize easily and look beautiful with mid-spring daffodils and tulips.

Plant the bulbs 3" deep and 2" to 3" apart.

Buy them HERE.*

24 | Toad Lily (Tricyrtis hirta)

Toad lily ©mal14 - stock.adobe.com
Toad lily ©mal14 - stock.adobe.com

Zones: 4 to 8
Light: Shade to Part Shade
Bloom Time: Late Summer To Fall
Height: 18" to 24"
Spread: 18" to 24"

Toad lilies are somewhat unusual looking perennial plants that love the shade and bloom in the late summer and fall.

They put on a show at a time when many other plants are fading, and their flowers are much prettier than the name suggests!

I have to admit that I have not had much success growing toad lilies. I have tried a few times and they never seem to survive more than one season.

However they are so pretty that I keep trying! If anyone has any advice on how to keep them alive, I would love to hear it.

Find out more HERE.

25 | Windflower (Anemone sylvestris)

Anemone sylvestris (Snowdrop Anemone or Windflower) | © oksenoyd_irina - stock.adobe.com
Anemone sylvestris (Snowdrop Anemone or Windflower) | © oksenoyd_irina - stock.adobe.com

Zones: 2 to 9
Light: Sun to Part Shade
Bloom Time: Late spring to early summer
Height: 12" to 18"
Spread: 12" to 24"

Windflower (or Snowdrop Anemone) have pretty white flowers over ferny foliage that bloom in late spring and may re-bloom in the early fall.

They are great to plant with tulips and daffodils as the blooms and foliage will distract from the dying bulb leaves.

These anemones will spread so make sure to plant them where they have room to do so.

Learn more about them HERE.

Hopefully you’ve found some perennials that will work for your garden!

Do you have other suggestions for perennials that thrive in clay soil? Tell us in the section below.

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