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What can I plant in a clay bed?

Hi all!

There is a walled bed in my dad's garden, which he built some years back. He has no interest in gardening though, so all it does is grow weeds. I've decided I'd like to grow something meaningful in it, but I'm a very inexperienced gardener and need some help.

Unfortunately the soil is quite a heavy clay.

The garden is south-facing, and this bed is on the eastern fence. It gets a fair bit of sun during the day, and in the summer the soil can really dry out and go hard. 

When there's a lot of rain, it gets waterlogged.

Is there anything I can do to improve the soil? I've read about turning it through and adding grit. Is that worth a try, or do you think I'm on a hiding to nothing trying to grow anything in a bed that seems to face such extremes in moisture?! Should I even dig everything out and put potting compost in?!

If it's worth a go, what plants would you expect to do well here?

They'll need to be low maintenance - I'm around at his a lot, but sometimes I'm not there for weeks at a time and he won't do anything other than water.

Thanks for any advice. :)


  • LoxleyLoxley Posts: 5,690
    How deep is the soil in there? Is the drainage just down through the soil or are there weepholes in the little wall?
    "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour". 
  • It's about five inches above the level of the patio. 

    No drainage holes, regrettably - all drainage is just down into the earth!
  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 54,844
    Manure and any other organic matter is the answer. Without doing that, it's difficult.
    Clay is a brilliant growing medium, but unless it's amended to help with drainage in wet seasons, and moisture retention in dry ones [if you have them] it makes planting more difficult.
    Grit is largely a waste of money, even in a small bed, unless you only want to grow plants which like very sharp drainage, and you have tons of it.  :)

    When you say 'on the eastern fence' do you mean the bed faces east, or the fence is on the eastern boundary? The latter would mean the bed faced west   :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • Sorry, it's facing west! My bad.

    So to give anything the best chance of growing here I need to dig lots of manure through it? What else can I add? Home-made compost? Straw? Bark chippings?

    I've read the latter can take too long to break down.

    Thanks for your advice!  :)

  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 54,844
    Home made compost is also good. I wouldn't use straw, and bark chippings are ok, but if you wanted to plant up fairly soon, I'd stick with other materials.  :)
    Plenty of things will be happy enough there too - it's a question of deciding on whether you want shrubs or perennials etc. You can plant bulbs later, for spring, as well. 

    Your general climate is a factor though. If it's on the drier side, don't pick plants that will prefer lots of watering, and vice versa. There are lots of fairly easy plants though  :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • Jenny_AsterJenny_Aster Posts: 936
    Last November I created a new bed, I removed the turf and turned over the soil. It was so disappointing to see how sticky and unworkable the clay was. I just left the clay clumped in big lumps straight off the garden fork. Today I stuck a trowel in the bed and found beautiful loamy rich soil. It was so easy with the hand cultivator to work the soil. The rain and frost from November must have done it's work making life a lot easier. 
    Trying to be the person my dog thinks I am! 

    Cambridgeshire/Norfolk border.
  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 54,844
    Unfortunately that doesn't work here, regardless of the amount of frosts we might have, and that's usually upwards of 50 or 60. Not this winter though  :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • All organic matter will help, even if you aren't in a position to dig it in. For no-dig success, apply lots of mulch every autumn and let the worms and rain work it down. After experimenting with different sorts for some years, I'm now a fan of Melcourt Composted Fine Bark--it's more expensive but it's really improved my soil texture, also heavy clay, with a few years' use. It also seems to deter slugs and snails, hurrah!

    I grow a lot of plants in my clay soil; so too does my sister who has more sun. Fuchsias, hydrangeas, viburnums, clematis, trachelospermum, Phormium, Daphne (not the rock garden ones but D. odorata, D. bholua), Agapanthus, hardy geraniums, hardy begonias, Crocosmia, Thalictrum, Doronicum, Rudbeckia all seem very happy there. Once you've established a perennial and shrub fabric it will require little weeding, and the mulch discourages weed seedlings to an extent as well. I never bothered digging mine deeply--instead I went only for plants that liked my conditions.
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