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Extension > Garden > Yard and Garden > Trees and shrubs for clay soil

Trees and shrubs for clay soil

Beth R. Jarvis

Planting trees and shrubs in heavy clay soil can be a backbreaking task that may end in disappointment if plants fail to thrive. Success depends on selecting plants that are tolerant of clay soils, then planting them properly.

The following lists feature trees and shrubs hardy to at least USDA zone 4; some are hardy further north. They should grow well in clay soils, providing special requirements such as soil pH are also met. Clay soils are usually alkaline with pH ranging from 7 to 8.5. Have the soil tested if you are considering plants with specific pH preferences, then select plants that will thrive in your soil conditions. Acidifying soil must be repeated annually and is not effective when tree roots spread beyond the treated area. The ideal pH range for plants that need acidic soil is 4.0 to 6.5.

Proper planting is critically important if you want healthy, vigorously growing trees and shrubs.

Dig a hole twice as wide as the rootball. If you're planting a tree or shrub with a main trunk, gently brush soil away from the stem to find the first root closest to the soil surface. Adjust the soil depth in the planting hole so the first root will be just below the soil surface when you refill the hole.

If the soil is particularly heavy, both trees and shrubs benefit from being planted so the top of the rootball is slightly higher than the adjacent ground. The optimum amount to raise the rootball depends on its depth. Add soil to the bottom of the planting hole so the plant's rootball, when positioned, will be raised above the adjacent soil level by one inch for every eight inches of rootball depth. Following are some examples:

Rootball depth Amount to raise rootball
8 inches 1 inch
12 inches 1.5 inches
16 inches 2 inches
24 inches 3 inches

The next step is to fill the hole. If you wish, add compost, peat or composted woodchips to replace up to 1/3 of the original soil volume. Mix the organic matter thoroughly with the clay soil. Never replace all the original soil with black dirt, compost or sand, as distinctly different soils drain unevenly. For proper drainage, it is vital that the soil you use for backfill consists mostly of original soil.

Fertilizer may be incorporated into the backfill soil at planting time. Use a slow-release, balanced fertilizer, such as Osmocote 10-10-10, to prevent injury to the roots and provide nutrients over the entire growing season.

Lists of trees and shrubs for clay soils

USDA Zones in Minnesota

Trees for clay soils

The plants listed below will grow in clay soils as long as any special site requirements are met. Trees marked with an asterisk are particularly well-suited to clay soils.

Scientific name

* particularly well-suited to clay soil

Common name USDA zone Comments
Abies balsamea Balsam fir 3 Prefers acidic soils
Abies concolor White fir 4  
Acer freemanii Freeman maple 4  
Acer ginnala Amur or ginnala maple 3 Prefers acidic soils
Acer negundo Boxelder 3  
*Acer platanoides Norway maple 4  
Acer rubrum Red maple 3 Needs acidic soils
* Acer saccharinum Silver maple 3  
*Alnus glutinosa European alder 4  
*Betula nigra River birch 4 Needs acidic soils
Carpinus caroliniana Blue beech 4  
*Carya cordiformis Bitternut hickory 4 Lighter clays
*Carya ovata Shagbark hickory 4  
*Celtis occidentalis Common hackberry 2  
*Crataegus species Hawthorn 3-4 § Needs well-drained soils
Fraxinus americana White ash 3  
*Fraxinus nigra Black ash 3  
*Fraxinus pennsylvanica Green ash 3  
Ginkgo biloba Ginkgo 4  
*Gleditsia triacanthos Common honeylocust 4  
*Gymnocladus dioicus Kentucky coffeetree 4  
*Juglans cinerea Butternut 4 Tolerates limestone soils, lighter clay
Juglans nigra Black walnut 4 Lighter clay
*Larix decidua European larch 4  
*Larix laricina Tamarack 2  
*Malus species Apple, crabapple 3 Prefers acidic soils
*Phellodendron amurense Amur corktree 4  
Picea abies Norway spruce 4  
Picea glauca var. densata Black Hills spruce 4  
Pinus nigra Austrian pine 4  
Pinus strobus White pine 3 Prefers acidic soils
Pinus sylvestris Scots pine 3 Prefers acidic soils
Pinus ponderosa Ponderosa pine 4  
*Populus species Aspen, cottonwood 2  
*Pyrus species Pear 4-5 §  
*Quercus bicolor Swamp white oak 4 Needs acidic soils
*Quercus macrocarpa Bur oak 3 Prefers limestone soils
*Quercus palustris Eastern pin oak 4 Needs acidic soils
*Salix species Willow 2 Prefers moist to wet soils
Syringa reticulata Japanese tree lilac 4 Needs well-drained soils
*Tilia species Linden, basswood 3  
*Ulmus species Elm 4  

§When more than one zone is listed (eg: 3-4 or 4-5), some species are not hardy in the cooler zone

Shrubs for clay soils

The plants listed below will grow in clay soils as long as any special site requirements are met. Shrubs marked with an asterisk are particularly well-suited to clay soils.

Scientific name

* particularly well-suited to clay soil

Common name USDA zone Comments
Amelanchier species Serviceberry 4  
*Aronia melanocarpa Chokeberry 3  
Berberis koreana Korean barberry 4 Avoid wet soils
Berberis thunbergii Green barberry 4 Avoid wet soils
*Caragana arborescens Siberian peashrub 3  
*Cephalanthus occidentalis Buttonbush 4  
*Cornus alba Tatarian dogwood 3  
Cornus alternifolia Pagoda dogwood 4 Needs moist, acidic soils
*Cornus racemosa Grey dogwood 3  
*Cornus sericea Red osier dogwood 3  
Diervilla lonicera Dwarf bush-honeysuckle 3  
*Elaeagnus angustifolia Russian olive 2  
*Elaeagnus commutata Silverberry 2  
Euonymus alatus Burning bush 3 Needs well-drained soils
Euonymus europaeus European euonymus 4 Needs well-drained soils
*Forsythia x 'Meadowlark' 'Meadowlark' forsythia 3  
*Forsythia x 'Northern Sun' 'Northern Sun' forsythia 3  
Hamamelis virginiana Witch hazel 4  
Ilex verticillata Winterberry 4 Needs acidic soils
Juniperus species (most) Juniper 3 Needs well-drained soils
*Lonicera species Honeysuckle 3-4 §  
*Physocarpus opulifolius Common ninebark 2  
*Potentilla Fruticosa Potentilla 2  
*Rhamnus frangula Glossy buckthorn 4  
Rhus species Sumac 2 Prefers well-drained soils
*Ribes alpinum Alpine currant 2  
*Ribes odoratum Clove currant 2  
Rosa rugosa Rugosa rose 2  
*Salix species Willow 2  
Sambucus canadensis American elderberry 3  
Sambucus pubens Scarlet elder 4  
Spiraea species Spirea 3-4 § Needs well-drained soils
*Symphoricarpos albus White snowberry 3  
*Syringa species Lilac 2  
*Thuja occidentalis Arborvitae, white cedar 3  
*Viburnum dentatum Arrowwood viburnum 3 Prefers well-drained soils
*Viburnum lentago Nannyberry viburnum 2  
*Viburnum opulus European cranberrybush 3  
*Viburnum sargentii Sargent viburnum 4  
*Viburnum trilobum Highbush cranberrybush 2  

§ When more than one zone is listed (eg: 3-4 or 4-5), some species are not hardy in the cooler zone


The author wishes to thank Dr. James B. Calkins, University of Minnesota Department of Horticultural Science, for his assistance.

H408C Reviewed 2/00
Chad Behrendt, Crystal Floyd
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