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Edible crops that can be grown in clay include a large variety of annual and perennial vegetables, herbs, and berries. I’ll cover numerous common and uncommon options for each category including crops that can help improve drainage and how to manage them so they do.
Management practices as well as crop selection are vital for turning clay soil into a rich and workable growing medium over time. The end of this post also contains resources for prepping clay soil for successful planting.
I’ve grown a majority of the plants in clay soil with success using organic amendment and non-disruptive management.
Clay soil, as difficult as it seems (or is for you), is a better foundation for growing nutrient-rich crops than sand. “Clay” references the smallest particle sizes of other soil types. This enables compaction to the point that you can make pottery! Since water has a tough time flowing through clay; it holds a lot of nutrients. So you’ll need to physically aerate it to start, add organic matter to maintain space between particles, and practice no-till grow methods to improve drainage.
While you wait for improvement, focus on experimenting with the suitable crop candidates listed in this post. I’ve included a wide range of growing zones.
For more detail here are 5 Phases to Create Well-Drained Clay Soil for Growing Food.
Staple crops for clay soil
Staple crops make up the predominant part of our diets and a surprising variety can grow in clay soil. These foods generally grow a substantial volume of food or are dense in calories from protein and starch content.
Rice loves growing in water and would be perfect for the lowest spots on your property where water collects most. Rice yields were 46% greater in clay than in sandy soil because of water and nutrient retention. Rice grows best in USDA zones 9-10.
Perennial buckwheat grows delicious seeds that are a good substitute for rice. Eat the seeds raw or cook them to bulk up a hot meal or cling to a fresh salad mix. The pretty flowers attract pollinators to the rest of the garden too. Grows in USDA zones 5-10.
Plantains and bananas can grow in heavy clay if it drains within a few hours. They drink a lot of water but don’t enjoy standing in it for excessive periods. Banana varieties can grow in USDA zones 4-11, be sure to check the species’ soil preferences to give it the best placement!
Red and green lentils can grow in clay soils in areas that receive less rain. They require drainage and prefer lighter soil types, but can grow in all soil types with success. They make great nitrogen-fixer companions and nutrient-rich compost even if they don’t get eaten. Can be grown in USDA zones 5-11.
Sunflowers provide a lot of calories in their high protein and fat content and since they grow so prolifically, I would consider them a staple option. Also because you can grow sunflowers with mammoth-sized heads and seed sizes. Sunflowers grow well in soils that hold plenty of moisture and drain. If your clay drains or you can fix it to drain within an hour or so, sunflowers will work great for you!
Sweet potatoes can grow in heavy clay but do prefer lighter sandier soils. Amending with plenty of organic matter will allow them to produce well in a sunny spot that received more than 6 hours of sun in a day. Sweet potatoes grow best in warmer climates with a long growing season, or they won’t grow to be big enough.
They grow best in zones 9-11, but can also be grown in a season with a minimum of 120 frost-free days. Usually zone 5-11 work, but zones 5 and 6 may need to implement strategies to keep the soil warm enough for sizable harvests. Here in Zone 5b, we haven’t been able to grow large sweet potatoes.
Taro is a staple crop that grows in tropical climates. It grows well in a range of soil including clay. Taro enjoys plenty of water and moist soil to grow well. Drainage is preferred.
Daikon radishes can be cooked and eaten like turnips, except they can actually grow well in clay soil (unlike turnips). While daikon radishes aren’t high in calories, they do produce a large volume of edible roots and greens that bulk up any soup or stir fry.
Daikon radishes can help improve clay soil over time by leaving extra (or all of it) in the ground for the first year or two. Since they have large root sections and fine roots that grow deeper they provide plenty of organic matter that attracts worms which creates even more pathways for future plant roots and passive aeration.
The same rotting concept can apply to any tuber!
Cassava can grow in heavy clay soil and even be used to help break it up faster. It prefers lighter soil types but has performed well for growers in clay too. Cassava grows in USDA zones 8-11 and takes 6-12 months for an adequate harvest.
Beans can be grown as an annual. We grow beans with plenty of success in clay soil and many gardeners have reported they grow well in clay soil even when it’s compacted. Shallow roots benefit from the moisture retained in the clay.
Most of these plants do prefer adequate drainage.
At the end of the day, if you want a greater variety of crops to grow in your clay soil—changing the shape of your land is in your best interest and only needs to be done once!
Otherwise, you can definitely grow these 16 Plants for Wet Clay Soil.
Vegetable crops for clay soil
Clay soil is usually very nutrient-rich which is great for growing vegetables. Vegetables tend to demand far more nutrients than less cultivated plant species.
The problem for virtually every vegetable is when the clay is either waterlogged or heavily compacted. I’ve included a list of vegetables that can tolerate tighter or more water-heavy clay soil conditions. The list of vegetables you can grow in clay is much longer with aeration, organic matter, and drainage.
Water spinach enjoys evenly moist, wet, and nutrient-rich soil—so it may be a perfect fit.
Artichokes have vigorous root systems and are great for busting through heavy and compacted clay. They won’t do well if the clay doesn’t drain after about an hour.
Leave all root systems in the soil when they’re done growing. Do this with all plants. Pulling roots out of clay soil (any clay soil) sets back the progress of growth, rehabilitation, and stabilization. Always chop at the base to terminate plants and only pull up roots if you’re going to eat them.
Hostas grow delicious asparagus-tasting shoots. They can grow in clay and prefer plenty of moisture. Hostas are a suitable alternative to asparagus (since asparagus actually isn’t very appropriate for clay—as some bloggers have claimed).
Our asparagus grows great in loose and well-drained soils with plenty of structure. We have not attempted to grow them in clay because this source recommends avoiding it.
I’ve seen bloggers cite sources that say the opposite of what they claim in their posts. So it’s ideal to refer to experienced-based content or content that cites sources with parallel findings.
Mustards (brassicas) such as cabbage and brussels sprouts require plenty of moisture and nutrients. Both qualities are typical of clay-based soil. Drainage is ideal to avoid rotting, so water shouldn’t stand for too long. Brassicas prefer the stability that clay provides, unlike sand. You can grow a large variety of brassica varieties, give your favorites a try!
Chives can grow in heavy clay and prefer moisture. Bees love them and they are flavourful additions to food. You can get ‘garlic’ or ‘onion’ chives.
Herbs that grow in clay soil
Fragrant herbs and herbaceous perennials offer a large number of edible and highly nutritious options.
Many of these I’ve grown, dried, and use daily as morning tea (to replace drinking coffee for good!)
White clover (flowers for tea)
Red clover (flowers for tea)
Water mint and cat mint (leaves for tea)
Dandelion (flower jelly or spring leaves for salads)
Self-heal (flowers for tea)
Comfrey (chop and drop for soil building in permanent gardens)
Yarrow (leaves and flower for tea, also a prolific nutrient accumulator to build soil in gardens with chop and drop)
Rosemary (leaves for tea, one of my favorites)
Lavender (leaves for tea)
Parsley (highly nutritious addition to plenty of meals)
Calendula (flowers for tea)
Sage (leaves for tea, one of my favorites)
Bee balm (Flowers for tea)
Dill (fresh flavoring for some meals and fermenting dill cucumbers from the garden!)
Burdock (leaves for tea)
borage (leaves for tea or refreshing summer water, tastes like cucumber!)
Mullein (leaves for tea and helps the respiratory tract, one of my dad’s favorites!)
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Most of these plants have deep taproots and help improve clay conditions. For this reason, they may be perfect pioneers to grow before swapping them out for something you couldn’t grow successfully before.
Related: Best Bee-Friendly Plants For Clay Soil Improvement
Berries that grow in clay soil
Seabuckthorn grows in zones 3-7 and is said to be one of the most nutrient-dense super-food berries to consume. We haven’t yet tasted fruit from our sea buckthorns but look forward to the day as they are growing well in our clay. They can grow in dry, moist, or wet soils including heavy clay conditions. Beware that they do have thorns and you need male and female for fruit.
Raspberries are not the most ideal berry for clay, but well-drained clay soil amended with plenty of organic matter does work! I wouldn’t recommend planting raspberries in waterlogged or wet clay. Grow them in USDA zones 3-10.
Blackberries grow in USDA zones 4-9. They are thorny but have meatier, easier-to-pick berries than raspberries do. Blackberries also prefer well-drained soil but can grow in clay. I also don’t recommend growing them in waterlogged conditions.
Hawthorn, the Crataegus pedicellata variety is particularly palatable to consume compared to other varieties. Grows in USDA zones 4-8. It can grow in heavy clay and excessively moist soils especially after adapting when establishing.
Azarole grows in USDA zones 5-9 and can grow in heavy clay. It prefers moist or wet soils and also tolerates droughts. It makes a good hedge and windbreaker and berries can be eaten fresh or dried.
Juniper (Juniperus communis) is a vital ingredient to gin! Tea from the berries has a similar flavour to gin but you can also steep the greens for earthy evergreen notes. Other juniper varieties can be poisonous! Be sure you’re growing the edible kind if you plan to consume it. Junipers can grow in heavy clay but prefer moist or dry soils. Grows in USDA zones 4-10.
Thimbleberries have pretty purple flowers and grow in USDA zones 3-7. They are buttery but seedy berries that make amazing flavored jam and a mouth-melting snack when walking by.
Cranberries grow in USDA zones 3-8. It grows at a medium pace and supplies the most popular berry served annually at Thanksgiving. It can grow in heavy clay and prefers moist or wet soil conditions.
Related: Evergreens & Perennials to Improve Poor Draining Clay Soil
Setting clay soil for success
My clay soil is different from your clay soil. My rainfall and freeze-thaw patterns, as well as all other conditions, are different from yours. These factors will affect the outcome and results of growing any of the crops mentioned in this post!
I recommend picking out your favorites and to start experimenting to see what works best for your property!
Most importantly, shape and amend your landscape to the best of your abilities.
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