Best Plants To Grow In Poor Soil (Dry, Wet, Sandy, Clay, Acid)


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.
clover
Clover is a legume that can serve as green manure to replace nutrients and organic material in your soil.

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.

You can learn more about green manure in my article here.

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.
compost bin
Compost made from grass and leaves will add nutrients and organic material to your soil.

You can learn more about how to improve your garden soil in my article here.

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.

sandy soil
Sandy soil has large particles and drains fast.

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.

Plant NameUSDA
Zones
Ideal
pH
Plant
Type
Amur maple3-84.5-7.5tree
Tatarian
maple
3-84.5-7.5tree
Common
hackberry
3-97.2tree
Green
ash
3-96-8tree
Eastern
red cedar
3-94.7-7.8tree
Gray
dogwood
3-85-8shrub
Sumac3-94.5-7.5shrub
Juniper4-95.5-7.0shrub
Sweet fern2-56.1-6.5shrub
Yucca5-95.5-6.5shrub
Bugle-weed3-94.5-6.5ground
cover
Daylily3-116-6.5ground
cover
Sedum
(Stonecrop)
4-96-7.5ground
cover
Periwinkle4-86-8ground
cover
Dwarf
nandina
6-116-7.5ground
cover
Plants that can tolerate dry soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.

The Penn State University has a more extensive list of trees, shrubs, and ground cover plants that will tolerate dry soil.

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.

clay soil
Clay soil tends to retain water and stays wet for longer.

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.

Plant
Name
USDA
Zones
Ideal
pH
Plant
Type
Red maple3-94.5-6.5tree
River birch3-94.5-7.5tree
Green ash3-96-8tree
Common
persimmon
4-96tree
Winterberry3-93.5-6shrub
American
Elder
4-95.5-6.5shrub
Redosier
dogwood
2-76-7.5shrub
American
cranberrybush
2-74.5-7shrub
Common
buttonbush
6-96.8-7.2shrub
Japanese
sweet flag
4-116.5-7.5ground
cover
Daylily3-116-8ground
cover
Yellowroot3-95.5-6.0ground
cover
Bleeding
heart
3-96-6.5ground
cover
Primrose3-86.5ground
cover
Plants that can tolerate wet soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.

The Penn State University has a more extensive list of trees, shrubs, and ground cover plants that will tolerate dry soil.

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
Sandy soil gets plenty of air, but it may dry out too fast in hot climates.

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.

Plant
Name
USDA
Zones
Ideal
pH
Plant
Type
Juniper2-94.5-8.5shrub
Arizona
cypress
7-95.5-7.5tree
Camperdown
elm
4-75-7.5tree
Common
hackberry
3-97.2tree
Hawthorn3-86-7.5tree
Tatarian
maple
3-84.5-7.5tree
Red
mulberry
4-84.5-7tree
White
mulberry
3-95-5.7tree
Red oak3-84-7tree
Sage5-96-7ground
cover
Serviceberry4-86-7.8tree
Plants that can tolerate sandy soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.

The Utah State University Extension has a more extensive list of plants that tolerate sandy soil.

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.

illite clay
Clay particles are small and fine, meaning this soil type retains water but does not aerate as easily as sand.

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.

Plant
Name
USDA
Zones
Ideal
pH
Plant
Type
European
alder
3-75.5-7.2tree
Oriental
arborvitae
6-116-7tree
River
birch
4-94.5-6.5tree
Siberian
elm
4-95-5.8tree
Red
maple
3-94.5-6.5tree
Sawtooth
oak
5-95tree
Willow5-96.2-7tree
Plants that can tolerate clay soil conditions, along with the ideal USDA Hardiness Zone and pH range for each one.

The Utah State University Extension has a more extensive list of plants that tolerate clay soil.

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.

Plant
Name
USDA
Zone
Ideal
pH
Plant
Type
Azalea5-94.5-5.5ground
cover
Rhododendron4-84.5-7shrub
Highbush
blueberry
4-74.5-5.5bush
Birch3-85-6tree
Crabapple3-85-6tree
Holly3-114.4-5.5shrub
Saucer
magnolia
5-95-6tree
Red oak3-84-7tree
American
bittersweet
3-84.5-6tree
Scotch
Heather
4-64.5-6shrub
Sumac3-85-6tree
Balsam fir3-55-6tree
Juniper4-95.5-7shrub
Sweet
potatoes*
9-125.2-6ground
cover
Plants that can tolerate acidicsoil 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.
blueberry bush
Blueberries are a common crop to grow in acidic soil.

Clemson University has a more extensive list of plants that tolerate acidic soil.

Conclusion

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.

You might also be interested in learning about pindo palm trees, which can survive in a wide variety of soil types.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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