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How to Grow Roses in Clay Soil

By Bobbi Keffer ; Updated September 21, 2017
Roses need a loose, rich soil known as loam for healthy growth.
rose image by paolapi from Fotolia.com

Growing roses in clay soil can be a challenge because the fine particles in clay soil compact to form a very hard layer that makes the clay almost impenetrable. Without proper drainage, your rose roots will sit in water collecting on the layer of clay and begin to rot. Roses thrive in soil that's known as loam--a nutrient-rich, powdery soil that drains well. If you're dealing with clay soil, amendments can be made to improve the drainage to grow beautiful roses.

Cut straight down into the soil, away from decaying organic matter such as leaves or dead plants if possible, with your hand trowel to obtain a 3-inch cutting of soil from the area where you wish to plant your roses. Place the sample in a clean, plastic container. If you're planting more than one plant, you may wish to obtain samples from each section of the garden and mix them in your plastic container for a more accurate sample of the whole garden.

Take the soil sample to your local cooperative extension office or a full-service garden center for testing. Often the test is free, but it might cost a few dollars. The test will tell the soil's makeup, its pH level, and suggestions on how to amend it for a more balanced consistency. Be sure to mention that you are growing roses, so they can offer any tips for creating a loamy soil right for your growing zone. Purchase the suggested amendments, such as compost, peat moss or sand, among other possibilities. With clay soil, the trick is to add as much organic matter as possible to break up those fine clay particles and keep them loose.

Turn amendments, one at a time, into the garden at least 18 inches deep with a spade. Continue to turn the soil over, adding more amendments as needed until a powdery consistency is achieved.

Dig a hole at least 16 inches deep and fill it with water to test the drainage. If water sits in the hole, continue to add more organic matter such as compost, dried leaves or seaweed. Dig a second hole in another spot to test drainage again.

Add bone meal and turn it in to the soil. Bone meal is a vital component to healthy roses, made up of ground cow bones, that adds a high level of calcium to the soil. Bone meal is available in garden centers and can be found in rose food, fertilizer specially made for roses.

Plant your rose as instructed on the packaging. Planting instructions are different for potted roses than for bare-root plants. Potted roses may have compostable packaging that just requires planting the whole box in a hole twice its size, while bare-root plants require more specific instructions--typically you create a mound inside the hole and place roots in specific areas for planting.


Things You Will Need

  • Hand trowel
  • Clean plastic container
  • Amendments such as compost, sand and other organic matter
  • Spade


  • Purchase roses from local garden centers to ensure plants that right for your particular growing zone and soil conditions. New varieties are available every year that improve the ease of growing roses in different conditions. Don't be afraid to ask questions about types that might take a more poorly draining condition than others.
  • If amending clay soil doesn't work, consider creating raised beds to plant your roses in. Again, ask your local cooperative extension office or full-service garden center for advice for plant varieties best suited for your climate that would overwinter in a raised bed. Also, consider varieties suited for containers that can be moved indoors during the winter months and moved back outside for summer.
  • Continue to add compost and mulch around your roses by hand each spring to continue to build up the loam qualities of your soil.
  • Use a tiller to add amendments to large areas, allowing the tiller to go as deep as possible to break up the clay.

About the Author


Bobbi Keffer attended Kent State University to study education but soon found her true love to be in the garden. She prides herself on her frugal skills reusing, recycling and reinventing her whimsical style in her home and garden.