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Your options for planting in clay soil and full sun areas aren’t as limited as they may seem. Several beautiful plants are known to thrive in clay soil and require hours of sun.
Plus, the best way to fix exposed clay soil is with plants that can thrive in it. Both cold and hot have plenty of suitable options!
Plants that love full sun and grow well in clay will improve conditions by covering the crusted surface with their foliage, aerating firm ground with lively roots, and harvesting the sun’s energy to build organic matter over time.
Aeration, coverage, and organic matter are the keys to improving your clay soil so that plenty more plant options can join in later.
In the meantime, clay soil is not synonymous with limited options! Below, you’ll find the best trees, shrubs, flowers, highly-palatable edible perennials, and ground covers for clay soil with full sun exposure.
So, by the time you’re done with this post, you’ll be able to compile the best choices for a clay-soil full-sun pollinator-friendly food forest! If you aren’t looking for trees and such, scroll on to find the shorter plant options including shrubs, flowers, edible perennials, and ground covers.
If you’re looking for full-sun vegetables, herbs, and staple foods for clay; here are the Ideal crops for clay soil.
Before planting any of these options check with your local invasive plant council or regional extension office for guidance on plants that may be invasive in your area.
Best trees for clay soil in full sun
The ideal trees for clay soil and full sun fall under a range of growing zones. First, I share the more cold-climate-based trees for zones 2-9, and the second half of this section will provide hot-climate trees in zones above 10.
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
Hawthorns are deciduous trees that flower in May and produce fruit from August to September. They grow in zones 4-8, grow well in clay and heavy clay, with a preference for moist or wet soil, but can also tolerate droughts.
Hawthorns can thrive in a relatively wide pH range from slightly acidic soils to very alkaline soils. Fruit production is best in full sun, but they can also grow vegetatively in semi-shade. They make good windbreaks or additions to a shelterbelt.
People grow hawthorns because they are easy, multi-purpose, and beautiful.
If you want big fruit, grow hawthorn “macrosperma” in full sun.
Willows are deciduous trees that generally grow in zones 4-8. Flowering from April to May they are pollinated by bees. They require full sun, grow well in heavy clay soils, and prefer moist or wet soil. Willows also make a great windbreak or element to a shelterbelt.
Willow trees grow at a very quick rate producing plenty of useful stems for all sorts of purposes. Basket making, rope, biomass for compost.
Young willow cuttings are being used by Canadian Organic Growers to mulch fruit trees and are displaying amazing results against disease.
White birch (Betula pubescens)
Birches require full sun, can’t grow in the shade, and thrive in a wide range of soils including heavy clay. They prefer dry, moist, or wet soil and can grow in soils between high acidity and mild alkalinity. Birches also make a perfect addition to a shelter belt if height is needed.
Ideal for zones 2-9, they have edible and medicinal uses as well. The inner bark, leaves, flowers, and Sap all have various uses from flour, tea, and syrup. Birch branches also make great art or decorative pieces. The outer bark can make canoes, cups, roofing, and more.
Lastly, they attract wildlife, are a gorgeous addition to a food forest canopy, and are considered a “dynamic accumulator.”
“Hawthorn-leaf” Crab Apple (Malus florentina)
Most crab apples grow well in heavy clay because they prefer moist or wet soil. Good drainage is still ideal for crab apples, but this “hawthorn-leaf” variety is of the least picky, more hardy varieties. Flowering in June, fruit can be ripe by October. You can grow this crab apple in zones 4-8 in full sun for best performance, and it can tolerate partial shade.
People grow crab apples to, secondly, use the fruit and, firstly, enjoy the beauty of this large ornamental.
White Cypress (Chamaecyparis thyoides)
White cypress is a fragrant evergreen that tolerates strong winds. An ideal windbreak or shelterbelt piece as well. This common tree is used as a hedge for privacy and general protection since it is well accustomed to cold and wet places (harsh conditions).
Unlike willow trees, cypress grows quite slowly. They do very well in dry, moist, or wet ground in heavy clay. They do prefer full sun but can tolerate partial shade in zones 4-9.
In warm climates between zones 10 and 11, you can grow eucalyptus in heavy clay and full sun. They prefer dry, moist, or wet soil and can tolerate droughts. Eucalyptus is hardy to a wide variety of conditions and temperatures.
This evergreen has red blooms from early winter to late spring and offers plenty of nectar for bees.
Eggfruit (Pouteria campechiana)
Eggfruit grows in zones 10-12 and cannot grow in shade. This full-sun fruiting tree has evergreen foliage and tends to produce fruit several times throughout the year.
Eggfruit needs full sun and does prefer good drainage. Heavy clay either dry, moist, or wet is ideal, and they can also tolerate droughts.
The fruit is described to taste similar to sweet potato.
Monkey Pod Tree (Samanea saman)
The monkey pod tree is a highly multi-purpose species. They fix nitrogen, attract bees, have edible tasty pods, has medicinal properties, provides shade, and more. When it rains they have a unique function that folds up the leaves so that more rain can reach the ground and potential crops grow under the canopy.
This deciduous tree grows in zones 10-12 and prefers full sun. Many soil types are suitable including heavy clay and they prefer dry, moist, or wet soil. They can tolerate droughts and strong winds.
Mangrove apple (Sonneratia caseolaris)
The mangrove apple is an evergreen that grows in zones 10-12. This tree attracts moths, bats, birds, and humans since many components are edible and useful.
Heavy clay soil is a suitable growing medium and they prefer moist or wet soil and full sun.
If you have any shade-casting trees, corners, or areas to fill, scan over these 16 Plants for Wet Clay Soil and Shady Areas.
Best shrubs for clay soil in full sun
The selected shrubs below grow well in colder climates below zone 9. They range in ways to use and are all worthy of consideration!
Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)
Guelder Rose grows well in heavy clay and prefers moist or wet soil. It grows best in full sun so it’s ideal for your conditions. These deciduous shrubs grow up to 16 feet tall and wide. The spring-long blooms attract a variety of beneficial insects and pollinators in zones 3-8.
Red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea)
Red osier dogwoods grow best and fastest in full sun and zone 2-7. Heavy clay is suitable and moist or wet soil is preferred.
Dogwoods are pollinated by bees, produce edible fruit, and grow branches that can become ropes, baskets, and more.
People grow dogwood for its red fall foliage and beautiful blossoms.
Dog rose (Rosa canina)
Dog rose does prefer well-drained soil in general but grows well in heavy clay when it’s consistently moist and moderately wet. Semi-shade is acceptable for this shrub, but full sun is optimal, and thrives in zone 3-7.
Dog rose typically matures to a 9-foot by 9-foot height and width. It’s low maintenance and tolerates strong winds. Bees, moths, butterflies, flies, and beetles are attracted to their flowers in June and July. It produced edible fruit by October and flowers can be used for tea.
Sitka Alder (Alnus sinuata)
Sitka alder grows up to 13 feet in height at a moderate pace in semi-shade and a very fast pace in full sun. Grows well in zones 2-9 and prefers heavy clay and moist or wet soil.
This shrub is an excellent pioneer species as it grows quickly and fixes nitrogen. It also has edible flowers that bloom from April to June. Its heavy canopy also drops a large volume of leaves each year for soil building.
If you’re wanting to improve your clay soil, alders are one of the better shrub choices of the bunch!
Best flowers for clay soil in full sun
The following flowering plants can certainly thrive in clay soils, but I also encourage you to look at the selection I put together in the “bee-friendly plants for clay soil” article. It will be linked at the bottom of this section!
Italian bugloss (Anchusa azurea)
Full sun is required for these blue flowers to pop open from June to August in zones 3-7. Their roots prefer well-drained moist soil, can tolerate droughts and tolerates heavy clay well. Not only are bees and general wildlife attracted to this plant, but you may also be interested in the taste. Flowers, leaves, and shoots happen to be edible.
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
A sun-loving evergreen perennial easily grown in zones 4-9 with edible blooms and shoots from June to July. Chamomile easily reseeds itself so harvesting the flowers and using or drying them for tea has helped us contain its spread. It grows very well in heavy clay and preset dry or moist soil and tolerates drought.
Chamomile is also medicinal for you and is considered a dynamic accumulator for feeding the soil upon termination. Annual chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is said to be more potent in medicinal qualities.
Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis)
These fine flower spikes are loved by bees and bloom from June to August in zones 6-10. This plant grows well in heavy clay if not waterlogged, prefers dry or moist soil, and tolerates droughts. They grow well in full sun, or partial shade and make a great ground cover but can eventually become invasive.
Snap dragon (Antirrhinum majus)
Hardy to zones 5-10, snapdragons come in all colors! They generally bloom from late spring to early fall. July to September is the main bloom period. They grow well in semi-shade to full sun and attract butterflies.
Snapdragons are tolerant of clay and prefer dry or moist soil.
False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
False sunflowers are good-looking, prolific, and low-maintenance flowering plants for zones 3-9. They grow only up to 5 feet! Flowers are pollinated by bees, butterflies, and birds. They are also edible.
They prefer well-drained soil that’s dry or moist and can tolerate drought. They grow well in heavy clay and are best suited for full sun. Fibrous roots are also great for preventing erosion.
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Pictured is a double-petalled variety of primrose. In zones 5-10 they heavily bloom all spring, ranging between December to may depending on how quickly spring warms. They come in all sorts of colors and are often grown as showy annuals in colder climates.
Semi-shade and full sun work well, and a light amount of shade is best. They grow very well in heavy clay soils and prefer plenty of organic matter, and moderate to heavy amounts of moisture. Their flowers and leaves are also edible!
This was a shorter list of beautiful flowers well-suited for full sun in clay soil. More ideal choices with pictures are in the best bee-friendly plants for clay soil article, and none of them are repeated in this post!
Best edible perennials for full sun in clay soil
Daylilies are delicious. Particularly the kind in the picture! They come in endless colors, but that buttery-soft thick petaled flower is so sweet and delicious raw or cooked. We like to lightly sautee the closed buds. They are big and definitely worthy of adding to a meal.
They can grow in zones 3-8 and flower from May to August. They prefer moist soil and can grow just fine in clay. Semi-shade is also acceptable.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum)
Rhubarb grows in zones 3-7 and have edible stalks (stems) and flowers. The leaves are inedible and best dropped on the ground since this plant is also a dynamic accumulator of valuable nutrients for soil-building.
Rhubarb grows very well in heavy clay soils and does best in well-drained, moist, and humus-rich soil. Full sun is best, semi-shade works, and shade is tolerated.
Dwarf elderberry (Sambucus ebulus)
You could grow any elderberry variety, but a dwarf is also an option! Elderberries generally grow in zones 4-8 and thrive in various soils including heavy clay. Semi-shade works, but full sun is best for more nutrient-dense fruit.
Elderberry plants can become invasive as they send up new shoots. For a forest garden that relies on self-made fertility, this is a be a bonus for you! More chop and drop material. A small amount of maintenance over a span of time.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
Marsh marigold has edible leaves, flowers, and roots when cooked. It can be used as a saffron substitute. The yellow flowers bloom from March to July and the plant can grow in zones 3-7. Heavy clay is acceptable soil and it prefers heavily moist or wet soil, or water to grow in.
For more full-sun edible plants look through the Ideal Crops for Clay Soil (Vegetables & Edible Perennials) to find more variety. None are repeated from this post!
Best ground covers for clay soil in full sun
Ground covers for sunny areas are pretty endless even for clay soils. These listed are our top 5 picks, but in the next article, you’ll be able to find plenty more.
- Creeping juniper
- Creeping Phlox
For the full list, see: 27 Easy Ground Covers For Clay Soil (Sorted Choices)
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