Shrubs for Difficult Garden Soil

Try your hand at growing privacy shrubs and ornamental shrubs, no matter if you have clay soil, alkaline soil, or acidic soil.

| Spring 2018

The homeowner with a yard that consists of fertile, well-drained, loamy soil has the pick of almost any plant available on the market. Although this ideal soil type exists in prairie states like Iowa and Kansas, the majority of homeowners enjoy less than ideal soil structure and pH. Highly acidic, alkaline, sandy, wet, or clay soils limit a gardener's plant choices, but there are plants that do well in tough situations. Following are some shrubs that can be used as hedges, for privacy, or as ornamentals that do exceptionally well in soil that would kill most plants.

Blueberry & Fothergilla

The homeowner living in an area with sandy, acidic soil has the opportunity to grow blueberries — one of North America's most prized native fruits. Blueberries are very cold tolerant, with wild types growing in tundra conditions in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The cultivated varieties grow into neat, 4-foot-tall bushes that are excellent in borders or along a fence line.

In spring, the blueberry bush sports dainty white flowers. When pollinated, the flowers turn into delicious berries that ripen from mid-June through the end of September. After the first light frosts, the leaves of the blueberry turn scarlet red. Blueberry bushes need full sun, acidic soil, and regular watering through the summer in order to be at their best. For optimal fruit production, grow two or more cultivars, as the blueberry plant is not self-fertile.

A second shrub that enjoys acidic soil is the fothergilla, or witch-alder. This little-known bush enjoys slightly acidic soils that are high in organic matter. It prefers a partially shaded location with soil that remains moist, but not saturated with water.

Like its cousin, the witch-hazel tree, it bears fragrant white flower spikes that look like bottle brushes early in the spring, before the leaves emerge. In the fall, the leaves turn color, from bright orange to deep scarlet. Standard fothergillas grow 5 to 6 feet tall, while the dwarf varieties mature at 3 feet tall. Fothergillas are hardy from growing Zones 5 through 8, and can withstand the saline air found along the eastern coastline.

Mock Orange & Lilac

At the other end of the pH spectrum, there are two flowering shrubs that prefer soils that are slightly alkaline. Both of these shrubs bear highly fragrant flowers in the spring, and both make excellent specimen plantings or hedges.

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