The best plants for poor soil will depend on the moisture (dry or wet), consistency (sandy or clay), and the pH (acidity) of the soil. Some plants will also restore nutrients (such as nitrogen) to the soil.
So, what are the best plants to grow in poor soil? Some of the best plants to grow in poor soil are legumes such as alfalfa, beans, clover, and peas. These plants will restore nitrogen to the soil as they grow. If tilled into the soil, they can also replace organic material and other nutrients.
Of course, replacing nutrients is not the only consideration when deciding what plants to grow. You may also have to contend with soil that is very dry, or perhaps soil that is heavy and acidic.
In this article, we’ll talk about the best plants to grow in various soil types: dry, wet, sandy, clay, and acidic. We’ll also talk about why soil has these properties, and what you can do to improve your soil.
Let’s get started.
Best Plants To Grow In Poor Soil
If you want to restore lost nutrients, some of the best plants to grow in poor soil are legumes, such as:
- Alfalfa – also known as Lucerne, this legume has deep roots to grab nutrients from way down in the soil. This deep root system makes alfalfa drought-resistant.
- Beans – beans like warm weather, and they can grow in a bush (short) or vine (tall) habit. Pole beans, which grow in a vine habit, can get several feet tall (easily 6 feet or more!), and they take up less ground space than bush beans.
- Clover – this legume has distinctive 3-section leaves (4 means good luck!). It is often used as feed for livestock.
- Peas – peas prefer cool weather, and they are a good source of protein.
- Vetch – this legume is related to peas and lentils. It is often used as animal feed or as a cover crop.
All of the crops listed above are called “green manure”, since they are often used to restore nutrients and organic material to soil. Other green manure crops include ryegrass and buckwheat.
According to the Penn State University Extension, a mixture of legumes and grass is a good combination for green manure. These should be planted in the fall, after the other crops in your garden are done growing.
Other Ways To Improve Your Soil For Gardening
Before you resign yourself to growing plants in poor soil, it is worth a shot to try to improve the soil first. There are several ways to do this, including:
- Compost and Manure – adding compost or manure will replace nutrients and organic material that plants have removed over the years. This will improve both sandy and clay soils, keeping them from getting too wet or too dry.
- Soil Amendments – you may need to add specific supplements to your soil if a soil test indicates that it is lacking a specific nutrient. You can also add lime (to raise the pH of acidic soil) or sulfur (to lower the pH of alkaline soil).
- Green Manure – as mentioned above, cover crops can help to restore nutrients and will improve soil texture if you sow them into the soil.
- Remove Rocks – if your soil is rocky, then removing debris such as stones, roots, sticks, and dirt clumps will make it easier for some crops (such as carrots) to grow.
It may be that despite your best efforts, you are stuck growing in poor soil. Luckily, there are plants that can survive or even thrive in certain poor soil conditions.
When choosing which plants to grow, consider the following before you make your decision:
- USDA Hardiness Zone – this tells you where the plant can grow, based on region and climate.
- Ideal pH Range – this tells you how acidic the soil should be for the plant to grow well.
- Type of Plant – the amount of shade depends on whether you grow a tree, a shrub, or something smaller.
Let’s start with a common condition: dry soil.
Best Plants To Grow In Dry Soil
Some soils are dry due to their texture. For example, sandy soil drains quickly and has trouble holding water for a long time.
Without frequent watering, these soils will become too dry to support plants that need lots of water. This can be a big problem if your town or city has enacted watering restrictions due to drought.
The problem is even worse in areas with extreme heat and intense sunlight without shade. You can learn more about why your soil is so dry (and how to fix it) in my article here.
If your soil is still dry after taking steps to improve it, then you can try xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is the practice of setting up your garden so that there is little or no need for watering.
The table below gives some plants that can tolerate dry soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.
Best Plants To Grow In Wet Soil
Some soils are wet due to their texture. For example, clay soil drains slowly and holds water for a long time.
Other soils are wet due to climate and location. If you live in a rainy climate and your garden is at the bottom of a hill or sloping yard, then your soil will be wet more often.
Without proper drainage, these soils will become too wet to support certain plants that prefer drier soil. When the soil is too wet for too long, oxygen is displaced, and a plant’s root system can struggle with root rot.
Adding compost to clay soil can help it to drain better. You can learn more about how to make soil drain better in my article here.
If your soil is still wet after taking steps to improve it, then you can choose some plants that will survive or even thrive in wet soil.
The table below gives some plants that can tolerate wet soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.
Best Plants To Grow In Sandy Soil
Out of all soil types, sand particles are the largest. Sandy soil drains very well and gets plenty of oxygen, since aeration occurs easily.
Sandy soil is easy to till, and it warms up fast when spring brings higher temperatures. Of course, if your soil is very sandy, it may drain too quickly.
In that case, you can add compost to help the soil to retain more moisture. If this isn’t an option or you want to leave the soil as sandy, you still have some choices about what to grow.
The table below gives some plants that can tolerate sandy soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.
Best Plants To Grow In Clay Soil
Out of all soil types, clay particles are the smallest. Clay soil drains slowly and may lack oxygen, since aeration is difficult in wet, dense soil.
Clay soil is hard to till, but is less prone to erosion, and it is slow to warm up when spring brings higher temperatures. If your soil is heavy clay, it will drain slowly and may stay too wet for some plants that prefer drier soil.
In that case, you can add compost to loosen up the soil so it drains faster. If you are stuck with clay soil, you still have some choices about what to grow.
The table below gives some plants that can tolerate clay soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.
Best Plants To Grow In Acidic Soil
A pH of 7.0 is considered neutral, so any soil with a pH below 7 is acidic. Most plants can survive in soil with a slightly acidic pH (between 6.0 and 7.0).
However, some plants can survive soil that is quite acidic (as low as 4.5!), and some require acidic soil to survive.
The table below gives some plants that can tolerate acidic soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.
*Note: sweet potatoes are perennial in 9-12, but grow as annuals in cooler climates.
Now you know which plants to grow in various poor soil conditions, including dry, wet, sandy, clay, and acidic soil. You also know how to treat your soil to improve it a bit.
You can learn more about improving your garden soil and preparing for the next growing season in my article here.
I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.