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Clay Soil: My Nemesis

Published on August 7th 2018

by Helen_Allsebrook. All rights reserved

I moved into a beautiful house last June which had a really generous sized garden; fantastic! I then started digging; not so fantastic!
The soil isn't just clay, it's interlinked with barbed wire fencing from the 1940's, bits of broken pottery, sharp glass and reinforced concrete from a broken up air raid shelter. I am relentlessly composting to try and improve the soil quality and had 16 tonnes of rubble removed but it's never enough. As a result, I've decided I need to work with the clay rather than against it. Plus, I'm impatient. If you're in a similar position, hopefully the plant recommendations and information below might help you out.
Many new builds or houses built on old farmland can suffer from the same problem but unfortunately, where I live is also a natural pocket of clay. This website can help you identify if your soil type is geological or as a result of building work. If it's the latter, you should regain hope! It's there is the good stuff, it's just below what's been dumped on top so invest in a good shovel.
Soilscapes viewer from the Cranfield Soil and AgriFood Institute (CSAI), supported by Defra
You can also get soil testing kits, which narrow down the exact type of soil in your garden, which is highly recommended as anything can happen on top of the geological bed of soil.
Onto what I promised; for sticky, cracking, water-logging clay, here are my top plants that love it more than I do...
A close up of some Alchemilla mollis leaves and yellow flowers

Lady's Mantle

Alchemilla mollis

Lady's Mantle is a very easy plant to grow, especially wonderful if you can get a few from a friend as they do tend to spread. Water forms beautiful, iridescent balls on its leaves which is extremely pleasing to see after a downpour.
All asters are good for clay soil and most garden centres stock them, so I'd advise going and taking a look to seek your preferred type.
I associate campanula as being quite common in rock gardens and hanging baskets growing up but it does very well in clay. The common blue varieties are better known, but the Chinese Rampion Campanula Punctata can give more height and sway to your border.
The foxglove: always a winner! They really add a spruce of colour when you least expect it as they come back flowering every other year (biennial). When you've just about forgotten they exist, there's their beautiful, waving, flower heads again.
The purple foxglove is familiar to all, but the 'Dalmatian' is a personal favourite of mine at the moment. It looks good teamed with other flowers that make their delicate purple flecks pop out (e.g. pair with contrasting orange colours from the opposite side of the colour wheel or simply colours that go well with the same tone of purple and white).
Droconium Orientale is a nice plant to get if you're looking for some spring colour towards the end of the daffodils flowering. It tolerates shade and is low growing, so it's good for the front of shady clay beds.
The globe thistle is an easy and effective way of adding height, interest and structure to your border. Additionally, its eye-catching, blue, spiky globes are well loved by bees. Recently PeterLillie posted a photo of a white globe thistle named Echinops Sphaerocephalus 'Arctic Glow' which is now on my 'buy list'!
Geraniums or cranesbill are a great way to add texture and movement in big bulbous clumps. They repeat flower and are really easy to look after.
Daylily are poisonous but don't let this put you off; tucked into a bed they can give eye-popping colour and interest.
Hosta's bring lush vibrant foliage into a border and the varieties you can now buy are broad, depending on whether you want delicate tiny leaves, big bold colour or soft minty tones. There really is a hosta which would suit any planting scheme but beware of slugs! Slugs absolutely adore hostas and can demolish a whole plant in one evening. I've found that sheep wool stops them in their tracks, so find a sheep before buying any!
There are many more clay lovers, so don't feel limited to what you can buy if you're unlucky enough to be graced with it.
If you have any beautiful plants you find thriving in clay, please post a photo and tag me @TheImpatientGardener - I'd really appreciate it!
...and if it all gets too much, throw a pot out of the beastly stuff and stick a 'normal' soil loving plant in it!

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