Clay soil can pose challenges for many gardeners, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a lackluster landscape. If you have clayey soils, adding one or more of these ground cover plants for clay soil can transform your garden into a vibrant and beautiful space by providing early summer color, moisture tolerance, and low maintenance.
Best Ground Cover Plants for Clay Soil
Planting ground covers has many benefits:
- cover bare spots (think flower beds under trees, rocky areas on a hilly yard, etc.).
- prevent soil erosion
- suppress weeds
- create low-maintenance areas that are still beautiful to look at
- create a habitat for wildlife
Below are some of the most favorite ground covers for clay soil.
1. Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
Creeping phlox can create a beautiful ground cover that’s basically a one-and-done effort. It’s easy to maintain and comes in many beautiful colors:
2. Thyme (Thymus)
A few groundcovers in the Thymus genus tolerate clay and drought as long as their planting site is well drained.
Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) forms a low mat of fragrant, glossy, dark foliage that blooms in summer with pink or purple flowers, making it a perfect choice for ground cover.
Common thyme (T. vulgaris) produces white-to-lavender flowers in late spring and has edible, fragrant foliage. It grows best in sun to light shade exposures.
These include juniper thyme (T. leucotrichus), which grows to 8 inches tall and has aromatic foliage. This evergreen prefers sun to light shade and thrives in well-draining sites, even heavy clay soil. Juniper thymes bloom with pink flowers in midsummer.
3. Gro-low sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’)
Growing up to 3 feet tall and spreading up to 8 feet, the gro-low fragrant sumac produces attractive fragrant foliage bees and butterflies love and tiny yellow flowers that turn into red berries in the fall.
If you’re looking for a fiery display of autumn color, sumac won’t disappoint, as it will have bright colors in the fall.
Grows best in hardiness zones 4 to 8, but some can withstand zones 3 to 9.
4. Low scape mound® chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘UCONNAM165’)
The low scape chokeberry is a woody ground cover growing in zones 3 to 9 that tolerates both wet and dry soil and produces white flowers that pollinators love. The dark black berries form in late summer and attract birds, and in the fall, the foliage turns bright red for a beautiful landscape display.
5. Crown vetch (Securigera varia)
Crown vetch is an herbaceous plant with attractive pink flowers that is long-lasting but slow to establish. A single crown vetch can cover 6 feet in 2 to 3 years and usually achieves a height no greater than 3 feet tall.
Crown vetch is widely used for erosion control, but some states consider it invasive, so check your state’s guidelines before planting. Crown vetch grows best in zones 4 to 8.
6. Common periwinkle (Vinca minor)
A fast-growing perennial ground cover, the common periwinkle spreads quickly, is deer and rabbit resistant, and blooms pretty violet blue flowers that are pollinator friendly. It grows best in zones 4 through 10.
Vinca can be invasive in some parts of the country, so check before you plant. If you got it and it’s taking over your yard, here’s how to eliminate periwinkle.
Evergreen Ground Cover Plants
Consider evergreen ground cover plants if you are looking for year-round appeal for areas with clay conditions. These plants maintain their foliage throughout the year, providing color and texture even in the winter. Some evergreen options include:
- Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
- Wintergreen barberry (Berberis julianae)
- Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)
- Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
- Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
Native Ground Covers For Soil With Poor Drainage
Native plants are naturally adapted to the local soil and climate conditions, making them an excellent choice for clay soil. Just check with your state before planting to ensure you are actually working with native species.
Some native ground covers that perform well in clay soil include:
- Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) has low-growing, heart-shaped leaves
- Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) forms a dense mat and produces small white flowers in early spring
- Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana)
- Wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)
- Carolina elephant’s-foot (Elephantopus carolinianus)
- Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus)
Perennial Ground Covers
Perennial plants are an excellent choice for a long-lasting and low-maintenance ground cover. They come back year after year, adding beauty to your garden. Some popular perennial ground covers for clay soil include:
- Ajuga (Ajuga reptans), which has attractive foliage and produces spikes of blue flowers
- Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) is a versatile plant that thrives in both sun and shade
- Hostas are an easy-to-grow, almost maintenance-free ground cover choice for shade gardens
- Coral bells (Heuchera)
I love the set-it-and-forget-it nature of perennial plants.
Drought-Tolerant Groundcover for Clay Soil
If you garden in a drought-prone region with clay soil, selecting groundcovers poses a double whammy.
Clay soils aren’t conducive to plant growth; when soils hold excess water, plant roots can’t access enough oxygen and can suffocate. Dry, clay soil presents even more of a challenge, as it hardens with a lack of moisture.
Amend your clay soil with organic matter or compost and sand to improve its drainage, and choose clay- and drought-tolerant groundcovers to improve the chances of creating a thriving garden.
Here are a few ideas:
- Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
- Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
- Sedum (Sedum) – Zone 3-9
Low Growing Shrubs
Some drought- and clay-tolerant shrub species and cultivars grow as groundcovers.
- The Kirilow indigo (Indigofera kirilowii) spreads 4 feet wide and has dense compound-pinnate foliage. This deciduous shrub blooms with pink flowers in summer and has erect stems. Kirilow indigos grow quickly and prefer sunny sites. This plant may be invasive in some areas, so check with your State Extension before plating it on your property.
- The fast-growing Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinensis) has a spreading, horizontal branching habit. This evergreen has glossy dark foliage and tolerates drought, clay, and severe pruning. It blooms with aromatic, colorful spring flowers in shades of pink.
These versatile plants require little maintenance and grow in various colors, shapes, and sizes. Species that tolerate both clay and drought include
- Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’)
- Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra)
- Blue fescue (Festuca)
When choosing ground cover plants for clay soil, consider early summer flowering plants, moisture tolerance, and the ability to thrive in poor soil conditions. Native and perennial plants are good choices, as are low-growing plants with dense coverage and evergreen foliage.
You can create a beautiful, low-maintenance garden that thrives in clay soil by selecting the right combination of ground cover plants. Remember to provide good drainage and ensure the plants have ample space to grow their deep roots and establish themselves in your garden.