As I was in my garden digging yet another hole into sandy, gravelly soil that yielded a large number of round stones I thought of the sempervivum, aka Hens and Chicks or Houseleeks. If there was ever a plant for my humus-impoverished soil this is it. Sempervivums are incredibly tough evergreen perennials that thrive in poor, dry soils. There are dozens of different types, as they hybridize freely and offer an incredible range of foliage, texture and colour options. Sempervivum (Latin for “live forever”) has been used for centuries on roofs. Tucked into slate shingles or between cracks in thatch, folklore maintains that they would keep the roof from leaking and protect the house against lightning strikes.
Hens and Chicks seldom exceed more than 3 or 4 inches in height. Most have fleshy leaves, with coloured pointed tips. These leaves form rosettes around the “mother” as they slowly spread their way across the surface. Most sempervivum like full sun and well-drained soil. It’s said that the only way to kill them is to overwater them. Although they’ll survive for extended periods without water they will need an occasional drink, and be sure that the soil dries quickly after late winter snow melt, or the roots will rot. You can fertilize sempervivum once or twice a season with a water-soluble fertilizer like 20-20-20 but only mix it at half strength. As the plants expand you can take the offshoots and replant them or give them to your gardening friends.
With their shallow roots Hens and Chicks can be utilized in all sorts of situations besides growing in rock gardens and along sunny border edges. They are wonderful when planted in containers, especially when you mix several different types together. And the container doesn’t have to be a traditional pot or bowl; it can be a boot, a running shoe, a high heel or whatever you have on hand! Plant them in a shallow container to create a living table centre for your outdoor patio table. Sempervivums are perfect plants for vertical wall planters as well as in decorative living wreaths.

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