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Plants that do well on poor soil

Val Bourne / 19 December 2014

Read our guide to choosing plants that will do well on poor soil.

Achillea plant
Achillea is one of our 12 plants that do well in poor soil

Look at local gardens to see what does well in your area. Most poor soils tend to be alkaline so all aromatic Mediterranean plants will thrive, once established. Lavender, dianthus, rock roses, cistus, ballota and salvias all adore a sunny position.

Tap-rooted plants like verbascums, oriental poppies (Papaver orientale), eryngiums and mallows can seek out their own water.

When it comes to roses opt for Gallicas, Albas and Rugosas because they are adapted to poor soil.  

Finally, all bulbous plants (including dahlias) will love your conditions.

Read our guide to growing dahlias

12 perennials that do well on poor soil

The following perennials do well on poorer soil, despite the fact that most named forms wouldn’t thrive.

Border phloxes, for instance, mostly demand rich fertile soil that holds moisture. However Phlox paniculata ‘Alba Grandiflora’ (an airy white phlox) is excellent on chalky and lighter soils. ‘Monica Lynden-Bell’ (discovered as a seedling in Hampshire) is also a good performer on poorer soil, as is the variegated pale-pink  P. paniculata ‘Norah Leigh’.

Read more about how to grow border phloxes

Variegated plants are often drought-tolerant because the paler parts of the paler foliage doesn’t contain chloropyll so the variegated leaf can’t photosynthesize as well as the green one. Similarly, variegated box Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’ is happier on drier soil than green-leaved box.  

When you have a garden that’s very free draining plants tend to grow hard and become wiry and shorter. However this is not a bad thing. Silvers will sparkle and stems will be woody, so staking is not a problem.

You can add a gravel mulch to conserve moisture, as Beth Chatto has done in her Dry Garden in Essex.  However gravel gardens are labour intensive because everything seeds into the gravel. Adding a mypex layer is a mistake. It will show through the gravel and also trap water. If you’re a keen gardener, South African plants do well in gravel gardens. Dieramas love having cool roots, for instance.

Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flower’

A unique, hybrid helenium that repeat-flowers throughout summer and early autumn. This will grow in gardens that won’t support other heleniums. (3ft plus/ up to 1m)

Read our guide to growing heleniums

Eryngium x oliveranium
A softly strokeable eryngium with silver-blue feathery bracts. E. x zabelii is a similar hybrid, with bluer and spikier flowers. All deciduous eryngiums will do well. (2-3ft /up to 90cm)

Anthemis ‘Susanna Mitchell’
A sprawling pale-yellow daisy that flowers in flushes from May onwards. Always cut this back by late August so that it produces a cushion of foliage and that way it will endure through winter. Any anthemis will love you. (2ft/60cm)

Achillea ‘Moonshine’
Alan Bloom’s best plant, probably, with acrid-yellow heads and silvery filigree foliage. Flowers from May in flushes until late. Not long-lived though, so do pull away cuttings from the base, or replace after three or four years. (2ft/60cm)

Geranium x riversleaianum ‘Mavis Simpson’
A low-growing pale-pink sterile geranium that flowers for months on end.  Dainty, grey-green lobed leaves and masses of sugar-pink flowers (the size of a 10p piece) held on long stems. (1ft/ 30 cm)

Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’
A beautiful hybrid between two European alpine species, this aster is one of the earliest of all. Large, lavender-blue flowers appear by July but are still very much in evidence in September. Good dark-green foliage and a floppy habit. (3ft/ 1m)

Read our guide to growing aster x frikartii 'Mönch'

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’
A new deliberately-bred hybrid with G. chiloense blood, this long-flowering geum produced longs wands of tangerine flowers from May, repeating through the summer. Brown furry heads follow- although this plant is sterile. (3ft/ 90cm)

Origanum laevigatum ‘Herrenhausen’
August-flowering with two-tone pink and purple flowers that are packed with nectar. Good next to acrid yellows.  (2ft/ 60 cm)

Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’
A dark, dusky sedum with a neat habit, crimped fleshy foliage and pink-red insect-friendly flowers in August. A superb sedum, but all fleshy leaved plants would do well as they store their own water. (2ft/ 60cm)

Nepeta grandiflora ‘Bramdean’
An upright catmint with whorls of soft-blue flowers on grey stems that darken as summer progresses. The foliage also develops hints of red on poorer soil.  (3-4ft  up to 1.2m)

Verbascum ‘Pink Domino’ (The Cotswold Group)

Too many verbascums set seed and die, but sterile verbascums repeat flower, aren’t a nuisance and can go on for several years in well-drained conditions. (3ft/90cm)

Stipa gigantea
The golden oat grass sends a fountain of golden heads out from midsummer onwards, splaying outwards above silver foliage. It will persist through autumn and break up in winter, but will always provide a golden veil. (5ft/1.5m)

Four trees and shrubs that do well on poor soil

Daphne odorata ‘Aureomarginata’
The easiest daphne, although it makes a wide evergreen shrub when mature covering four to five feet of ground (up to 2m wide and Im tall). Heavily-scented spring flowers sit above the cream-edged foliage.

Ceanothus ‘Concha’
A dense, evergreen Californian lilac, with dark, glossy foliage and mid-blue flowers that appear from reddish buds. Cut growth back by a third after flowering, to keep compact. (9ft 10ft x 10ft / 3m x 3m)

Buddleja ‘Lochinch’
Any buddleja will do well, but ‘Lochinch’ is refined with narrow grey leaves that persist through much of winter and fragrant orange-eyed lilac flowers in slender racemes.  (4 ft x 4ft/1.2m x 1.2m)

Read our guide to growing buddleja

Crateagus orientalis
A cut-leaved hawthorn with grey-green leaves and heads of cream flowers that produce orange haws that are generally ignored by birds. (6m/ 20ft)


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