Best Plants for Compacted Soils

Many clayey soils suffer from severe compaction problems. Soil compaction interferes with the ability of plants to grow roots and thrive.

However, if you are just starting out and have not yet had time to implement a soil improvement program, you may need to plant garden, orchard, lawn, field, or pasture plants on badly compacted soils. The good news is that there are some plants that have the ability to resist compaction and its associated problems.

Please note that the plant recommendations below will not help you if you have a true hardpan soil to deal with. Hardpan is a layer of compaction so dense that plant roots can no longer penetrate it. You will need to take remedial action before planting if you have hardpan.

For less severe cases of compaction, however, consider the following plants.

Vegetables & Herbs

The vegetables and herbs that tend to perform best on compacted soils happen to be the most weedy. Brassicas usually perform well. Plants with normally shallow root systems can also adapt with ease. Consider the following options:

  • Artichoke.
  • Broccoli.
  • Cabbage.
  • Cauliflower.
  • Chicory.
  • Comfrey.
  • Dandelion.
  • Kale.
  • Lettuce.
  • Potato.
  • Swiss chard.
  • Yarrow.

Fruits & Nuts

Compaction can be particularly hard on orchard plants, as they typically prefer to grow extensive root systems. However, you still have a few options:

  • Black walnut.
  • Pecan.
  • Persimmon.
  • Saskatoon.

Flowers & Landscaping Plants

You will notice that a fair number of these plants are native:

  • Amaranth.
  • Arborvitae.
  • Aster.
  • Bee balm.
  • Black-eyed Susan.
  • Blazing star.
  • Bur oak.
  • Common hackberry.
  • Coneflower.
  • Coralbery.
  • Coreopsis.
  • Daffodil.
  • Dogwood.
  • Eastern cottonwood.
  • Eastern redbud.
  • Eastern red cedar.
  • Eastern sycamore.
  • Ginko (maidenhair).
  • Goldenrod.
  • Impatiens.
  • Iris.
  • Juniper.
  • Lantana.
  • Lilac.
  • Marigold.
  • Milkweed.
  • Pin oak.
  • Siberian elm.
  • Silver maple.
  • Smooth sumac.
  • Spiderwort.

Turfgrasses

A lawn that is slowly going to weeds is usually suffering from compaction, often due to heavy foot traffic from people and pets. While the compaction problem must be remedied if the lawn is to be saved, the plants listed below have a higher compaction tolerance than average:

Field Crops

Compaction takes a heavy toll on cash crop productivity. For this reason, it is best to correct a field compaction problem as quickly as possible. However, a few crops stand out as being more tolerant of compaction than most:

  • Canola.
  • Cereal rye.
  • Sunflower.

Forages & Cover Crops

The following list of plants can not only persist despite compaction but can help break up the soil. Note that grasses and brassicas typically thrive better on compacted soils than legumes, although there are a few exceptions. Consider some of these options:

  • Cowpea.
  • Forage radish.
  • Forage turnip.
  • Indian grass.
  • Little bluestem.
  • Mustard.
  • Rapeseed.
  • Ryegrass (either annual or perennial).
  • Sudan grass.
  • Sweet clover.
  • Switchgrass.

Helpful Resource

Soil Quick Start
Want to learn more about dealing with compacted soils and hardpan? This page collects our favorite soil improvement resources into one place.

Improving Your Garden Soil

By hsotr

Pulling from nearly 20 years of experience, Michelle Lindsey started Homestead on the Range to help Kansans and others around flyover country achieve an abundant country lifestyle. Michelle is the author of four country living books. She is also a serious student of history, specializing in Kansas, agriculture, and the American West. When not gardening or pursuing hobbies ranging from music to cooking to birdwatching, she can usually be found researching or writing about her many interests.