Shrubs for heavy clay soil

luvtosharedivsApril 18, 2008

I have an area of lawn that I'm planning to develop into a garden, but with more shrubs, small trees, and native plants, rather than a perennial flower garden.

I'd like some ideas what will grow in heavy clay soil, , with one edge close to the canopy (is that the right word?) of a Black Walnut tree. I am willing to amend the soil somewhat, but I won't go overboard, trying to plant something exotic. So far what works there are Redbud trees, a Syringa vulgares, and a snowball Viburnum. I lost a Kerria japonica, rugosa roses, and crabapple trees.

Any suggestions?



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Really, you lost a crab apple? There goes my idea ;-) I used a crabapple to replace a birch that just refused to grow in an area.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2008 at 8:17PM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

You do have two things going between the clay and the Black Walnut. In my clay soil, albeit amended somewhat over the years with compost, and in the shade of my neighbor's Black Walnut I have Serviceberry, Viburnums and American filbert.


    Bookmark   April 18, 2008 at 8:24PM
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Don't give up on your Crabapple yet. Crabs are tolerant of Black Walnut trees. But my clay might be heavier than yours, and you may get better drainage than I have. I may not have watered well enough in our drought conditions, which stressed it enough to cause it to give up and wither away.

Thanks for your ideas. I had considered Virurnums, but there are so many different species/cultivars, I'll have to do more research! Serviceberry should do great, since it's a native around here. Never thought of American Filbert....I'll look into that one.



    Bookmark   April 19, 2008 at 2:42PM
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pondwelr(z5 WI)

All varieties of Cornus grow in poorly drained soil. (like clay) Also Clethra. And elderberry,(sambucas) and Aronia.(chokeberry)

And, to my mind, nothing beats Virbunums. They seem to adapt to anything.

You didnt say the purpose of your plantings. Is it screening from neighbors, feeding wildlife?

    Bookmark   April 19, 2008 at 3:45PM
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My Crabapple isn't actually gone. It's still there, only about 5' tall, and doesn't put on much growth each year. I consider it gone, because I'm about ready to cut it down! In 7 years it has only grown about a foot, and the leaves get apple scab every year. I suppose I should spray them?

I don't need to attract any more wildlife, since we are surrounded by woods, and alreay have plenty of trees. I just want to fill up more lawn space with more garden area, and less grass to mow. We have huge lawn areas - usually takes me 4 or 5 days to complete all the mowing, if you count the edges of the 500' driveway, and the ditches by the road. ( an hour or two every day in the summer - hubby also helps).

I will definitely look into the Viburnums that produce berries - the more birds, the better! We have native Elderberries all over. They provide wonderful fragrance when in flower!

Thanks for all your ideas!


    Bookmark   April 19, 2008 at 7:34PM
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milwdave(Zone5 Milwaukee)

I have the same heavy clay as many others but my suggestions are to dig a wide, WIDE hole...about double the size of the container or rootball but no deeper, plant about 1/2 inch higher than the surrounding soil, mulch well with peat and manure...then woodchips. It's the drainage, not so much the native soil. Just my 2 cents worth, but it works for me.


    Bookmark   April 23, 2008 at 8:23AM
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Thanks for your two cents worth.

But I've never mulched with so many different layers of ingredients as you mentioned. I do, however, amend the soil a little with peat and manure, then put wood chips on top.

I have read that you shouldn't amend the native soil much at all.....something to do with the roots not reaching past the amended soil into the native soil, but rather curling around in the amended soil until they choke themselves out.

I like your idea of planting 1/2" higher than the surrounding soil. Now all I have to do is keep everything well watered, (and deeply) for the first year.

I'm thinking of trying Weigela in the heavy clay. I grow several cultivars in a different, more loamy soil where they do fantastic. Do any of you grow Weigelas?


    Bookmark   April 23, 2008 at 11:19PM
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leftwood(z4a MN)

For planting in heavy clay, unless the "victim" was already in heavy clay or it is bare root, always plant at least a bit above grade and as Dave suggests. In general, any plant that grows in wet places (waterlogged) will have roots that tolerate low oxygen in the soil, and should do well in heavy clay, usually even if the clay is dryish. That includes most viburnums, but not those related to V.carlesii, V.carcephalum and V.utile. So other options might be the smaller willows and alders.

I am guessing weigela won't do well, but I really don't know.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2008 at 7:13PM
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I like Dave's suggestion of above the grade and wide hole. I also have clay and do one step further. In many places I have been able to dig thru to the gravely subsoil for drainage as well.

It eases my mind of the, giant clay pot, effect. :)

    Bookmark   April 24, 2008 at 7:33PM
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led_zep_rules(5 WI)

I would recommend highbush cranberry. They seem to grow well in most of in my yard. They have white flowers and then red berries that often hang on through winter. I have walnut trees in many places, and still things manage to grow near them. Actually I have lilacs near a few of them. I have one old weigela near a small walnut tree (that I am trying to kill - the tree I mean.)

I of course have a heavy clay soil like most people in SE WI. Where are you, Julie, if you live nearby I could give you some small highbush cranberries. Birds like to eat them so they come up all over the place. I am at the north edge of Racine County near 94. Send me an email if you're interested.

Oh, and honeysuckle grow anywhere, but I consider those weeds since I have to pull the wild ones out all the time.


    Bookmark   April 24, 2008 at 11:56PM
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Thanks for explaining the low oxygen level in soil. And thanks for narrowing my Virbunum search - now I know what to avoid. Added /willows & alders to my list.

I just finished researching a variety of different weigelas, and some need well drained soil, others are not fussy. Usually at the end of the nursery season when plants are 50% off, we find plants worth buying, that we wouldn't-dare-pay-that-much-for in the beginning of the season, and weigelas are always among them - so might try planting one late summer-early fall.

If I need a huge hole like you described, I will definitely enlist DH's help!

I'm on the east Frontage Road, due west of Sturtevant, directly across the "I" from Sylvania Airport. I also have a couple of Highbush Cranberry shrubs, but they grow in partial shade in the open woods area. Thanks for the offer though! I know what you mean about the Honeysuckle, although I don't mind them, because they're mixed in with all the other native understory around here, and so far are not invasive. The burdock is what's horribly invasive.

Anyway, thanks everyone for your helpful responses!


    Bookmark   April 25, 2008 at 9:54PM
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led_zep_rules(5 WI)

Since the birds drop seeds a lot while sitting in trees, I have a lot of highbush cranberries coming up under trees. However, my largest, nicest specimens are out in the sun, and were actually planted there by humans. :-) The birds also plant red currant bushes, but alas those are also coming up under other trees.

The real weed tree/shrub in our yard is gray dogwood. Spreads through roots as well as seeds, we cut it down everywhere but it is still everywhere else . . . The red twig dogwood is much nicer looking and not such a menace. Obviously they both grow well in heavy clay as well.

Julie, I have driven by your house a few times this year. Sometimes when I am on Hwy 11 headed home and I want to get milk at Kwik Trip near Hwy 20 I just take the frontage road instead of getting on and off the freeway.


    Bookmark   April 26, 2008 at 1:19AM
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daddylonglegs(z5 WI)


I have several different Weigelas in clay soil, they are doing well. Also have potentilla, might want to try that for a long flowering shrub. Vibernum, holly, also seem to work.

For something more exotic, how about a trumpet vine and some sort of trellis?

If you have problems, build up, mound your soil.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2008 at 10:26PM
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If you'd like to stop by sometime, I'd be glad to give you a look-see, and I'd give you some divisions if you'd like - it's what I like to do, after all. I don't do veggies, though. Just send me an e-mail first if you want to drop in.


Hey, that's great to know about the Weigelas you're growing in clay soil. They are such tough shrubs! And again, the mounding up/building up of soil may solve all my previous drainage problems. I'm adding that point to my list of new ideas for this new shrub area I'm developing.

I forgot to mention that this area receives a lot of wind, so I can't have anything that will get ripped to shreads, or topple over during heavy wind storms.

Thanks for your input!


    Bookmark   April 29, 2008 at 5:53PM
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Potentilla is iffy - it's on the intolerant list.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2008 at 8:14AM
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Potentilla is iffy - it's on the intolerant list.

...intolerant of what...juglone?
I looked on my lists of plants that are either tolerant or intolerant of juglone, and potentilla is not on neither list. Can you share what list you're speaking about?



    Bookmark   May 3, 2008 at 9:21AM
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There are a few different lists out there. Sometimes a plant will appear on an intolerant side and another list will show it as being tolerant.

I have a potentilla growing about 50 feet from a black walnut and it does fine.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2008 at 9:35AM
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Thank-you for that site!
I copied and printed the list of sensitive and tolerant plants of juglone, to add to my "Black Walnut" folder.

I guess there is still much research/trial & error going on, and what work for some will not always work for others. I have several potentilla shrubs around the yard, and sure do love the long-flowering habit. I may try one or two in a location away from the BW trees.


    Bookmark   May 4, 2008 at 1:52PM
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