Sempervivums or Hens and Chicks as they are commonly called, are an incredibly hardy, and drought tolerant succulent that can take a fair amount of abuse, yet when I was starting out on my roof, they were the last plant I wanted to grow. I’d come to associate them with the few that had been slapped into the tiny front garden of my childhood home. And while I had fond memories of playing with my dolls on the pretend Martian landscape they created, my overall impression as an adult was that they lacked a certain luster.
I don’t recall how it happened, perhaps nostalgia won out, but I eventually came around to growing a few. That summer they bloomed, creating exotic, alien-like flower stalks. I was hooked and decided I would never be without them again.
Sempervivum ‘Aymon Correvon’
It turns out that sempervivums are anything but pedestrian. Did you know that there are literally thousands of varieties available in all sorts of sizes, colours, forms, and leaf textures? Sempervivums are an alpine plant that grow in rocky, mountain areas at a high elevation. This is what accounts for their tough-as-nails constitution (their name translates to “ever living”). They grow well in shallow pots and can be stuffed into the tiniest crevices, making them an excellent choice for balconies, fire escapes, and other tight spots.
Sempervivum ‘Telebori Zelebori’
Yesterday afternoon I attended a plant sale hosted by the Ontario Rock Garden Society where I purchased several exciting sempervivums to add to my collection. Because I was able to purchase plants directly from local nurseries, the prices were fantastic, far better than some of the outrageous prices I’ve paid at local garden centres. For example, a great number of the plants I bought were 4 for $10. Yes, that’s a little bit more than a typical sempervivum…. but these were not typical sempervivums.
And so, I went a little bit nuts. And now I have to put them all somewhere. I’ve begun potting them up and am very satisfied with what I have done so far.
Here’s how I did it:
Top Row from Left to Right: ‘Aymon Correvon’, ‘Bascur Silver’, ‘Telebori Zelebori’. Middle Row: Unknown, I grew this one last year in a different pot, ‘Hoar Frost’. Bottom Row: ‘Nova’, ‘Hester’, ‘N33’.
Where to Grow: Semps prefer full sun and very free-draining soil. They can tolerate some light shade but will grow leggy and weak if the light isn’t strong enough. They grow well in rock gardens, stuffed into walls and roofs, or in pots.
Growing in Pots: Use a shallow, terracotta pot with holes in the bottom. I used a 14″ X 10″ pot that is 4″ deep. Stone and hypertuffa troughs are also excellent choices that happen to be a bit tougher than terracotta and better suited to over-wintering outdoors in a cold climate. I’ve been growing in the same hypertuffa trough for years with no discernible wear and tear. Some people protect theirs underneath plastic sheets and fleece or burlap for the winter but I have never done a thing. Most of the sempervivums I have grown this way have survived.
Choose potting soil that is very free-draining (30%+ grit and sand). I suggest starting out with a bag of specially prepared cactus and succulent mix. You can also add lots of small grit or more horticultural grade sand to improve the drainage of regular container mix. To further improve drainage, stand your pot on top of bricks, small pieces of wood or rocks so that the pot isn’t sitting directly on top of the ground.
How I Designed Mine:
- I choose four rocks that I happened to have on hand to use as the anchor for the layout of the pot. I tossed them in rather randomly and then slowly added the plants in around them. The plants will propagate and spread through the summer, eventually covering some of the rocks and filling in some of the gaps.
- I chose plants within a similar colour scheme (lavender/red/, dark red and green) and leaf texture (small, soft, leaves with fairly tight rosettes). I wanted every plant to get a fair shake and felt that anything too contrasty (white) or different (big rosettes) would stick out and grab all of the attention.
- Once everything was planted, I added a layer of dark gravel mulch to create a uniform background. Gravel also keeps the squirrels from digging in the pots and helps stabilize the soil when you water.
- To clean it up, I brushed the excess soil off of the plants using a soft paintbrush.
And while it may not be a Strawberry Shortcake doll, I added in a little figure as a tribute to my childhood play.
Here’s another simple pot I grew several years ago using a piece of Mexican pottery I bought at a thrift store for a dollar.
- Cheap n’ Easy Container Idea: Succulent Window Box 2007
- Succulent Window Box 2006
- Barry’s Garden Open House (Scroll about halfway down the page to see the sempervivum pots)
Sempervivum (Hens and Chicks) and Sedum make excellent choices for low-maintenance, outdoor containers and gardens because they’re frost hardy, drought-tolerant, and resilient growers. However, there are a few key points to understand about their water needs if you want to create a lush succulent planting. Read on to find out how to water properly and spot the signs of under- and over-watering.
SHOP HARDY SUCCULENTS
Cultivating hardy succulents is as much about allowing the soil to regularly dry out as it is about watering. There will always be variation in water needs based on geography and cultivar, but it is much easier to revive under-watered succulents than ones that have begun to rot. Fortunately, hardy succulents are very forgiving plants if you remember these key points:
- Plant in sandy, well-draining soil and use pots with drainage holes
- Wait until the soil is fully dry before watering
- Err on the side of deep, infrequent watering
- Check plants and soil regularly for signs of over- or under-watering and adjust accordingly
How much do I need to water?
It depends, but the name of the game is trying to match their native habitat. Hardy succulents are alpine dwellers and will grow best if you can mimic the environmental conditions of the mountains from which they came. Just as they receive regular rainfall when growing in the wild, hardy succulents will need about 0.5″ to 1.0″ of water (including precipitation) once a week to look their best in the hottest, driest periods of their summer growing season. It’s best to water in the early morning or evening to limit water loss to evaporation and prevent beads of water from magnifying the afternoon sun and burning the leaves. This also helps hardy succulents tolerate high heat and sun exposure (full guide on Sempervivum and Sun).
Does it matter what they’re planted in?
Yes, it matters a lot. Sempervivum and Sedum growing atop mountains live with high winds and rocky soil that dries out rapidly. And this is just how they like it! Cycles of drought give succulents a chance to develop large, healthy root systems as they grow deeply in search of water. A raised bed of gritty, well-draining soil is ideal for maintaining air pockets around your succulents’ roots. For container plants, a drainage hole and materials like terracotta and hyper-tufa are will help your soil dry more quickly. Gardeners with the best intentions who keep their soil continuously moist can end up with rotting leaves and insufficient root development. Try a top dressing or mulch 3/16″ grit gravel to keep leaves drier. Succulents getting too much water in low-lying beds or heavy soil will show signs of distress like mushy, translucent leaves. Once the roots have rotted it is difficult to revive succulents, so avoid over-watering at all costs.
Is it possible to water too little?
Even after months of drought mature Sempervivum and Sedum can be revived. If you see signs of over-drying like crispy, wrinkled, or flexible leaves, gradually water more deeply and frequently, giving your succulents a couple of weeks to respond. You can also water up to twice a week to help young plants establish roots and encourage faster growth of both creeping ground cover and tall border species of Sedum.
Do I need to water in winter?
Not as much. In most regions, mature hardy succulents planted in the ground can overwinter without receiving extra water from you. Winter water needs will vary by climate, age of succulents, soil, and where they are planted. Young hardy succulents with unestablished roots or plants in containers, for example, may need a bit of moisture to make it through winter.
After the summer growing season, wild Sempervivum and Sedum happily spend the winter under a blanket of snow. The dormant plants no longer need as much moisture to grow and the snow protects them from rotting in standing water. For gardeners in regions with cold, wet winters but minimal snow, clear rain covers over plants in the ground are a good alternative way to prevent rot. Be sure to keep the cover at least a foot above the plants to ensure there is enough airflow to keep them dry. This is especially important for the webbed, tufted, and velvety varieties that tend to trap water on their leaves. For hardy Sempervivum and Sedum in containers, move them to a covered area to limit exposure. For more information, check out our full guide on Succulents in Winter.
There isn’t one simple answer to the question of how often to water hardy Sempervivum and Sedum. Have no fear though, because with the knowledge of how wild succulents grow and an idea of what symptoms of improper watering looks like, you’re now equipped to respond to any watering issues!
For more information on hardy succulents and other plants with low-water needs, check out Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens by Laura Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden.
SHOP HARDY SUCCULENTS
How to Grow Hens and Chicks
Hen & Chick Plant Propagation
Hens and Chicks produce numerous offspring, thus allowing them to “live forever”. The quantity and speed at which babies are produced depends on the variety. Sempervivums can be divided anytime during the spring/summer growing season. The baby chicks can be re-planted elsewhere or left to grow around the mother hen.
There are three common types of Hens and Chicks: Sempervivum, Jovibarba heuffelii and Jovibarba Rollers. They are all often called Sempervivum, but each type produces offspring in a different manner.
These grow babies on runners. Just pull off the chicks and plant elsewhere. It is best to remove the babies when the runner has begun to wither. Offsets root quickly and contact with soil is enough for them to start growing.
This species does not produce “chicks” on stolons. Instead the offspring of this plant are produced within the mother plant. To propagate it must be split with a knife.
These types of Hens and Chicks produce lightly attached “chicks” that easily pop off and roll away from the mother plant.
Growing from the offsets preserves the characteristics of each cultivar. Seeds taken from the Sempervivum flowers generally produce plants that are untrue to type.
Sempervivum Life and Death Cycle
Once a hen plant produces a chick, that chick will begin producing its own babies after only 1 season. Sempervivum plants generally only live for 3 years, so the plants have 2 productive years before they die. After 3 years and having produced many baby plants a Sempervivum grows a tall center stalk that blooms before the plant dies. Cutting off the center stalk will not prevent the plant from dying.
It is extremely fun to grow Hens and Chicks and watch them mature and produce offsets. Their colors change drastically throughout the season due to maturity, temperatures, sunlight exposure, and other factors. Be sure to give your plants enough space to spread. Ideally they should have 4” for small plants and 6-8” for large varieties. Adequate space produces nicely formed rosettes.
Growing Sempervivum in Containers
An easy and inexpensive way to get started with sempervivums is to grow them in containers. But that’s not the only reason to plant them in containers.
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Sempervivums will grow in a smaller amount of potting mix than most plants, so it’s not necessary to use large containers. Containers come in an amazing variety of colors, sizes, shapes, and materials, but don’t think you have to plant your sempervivum in a conventional pot. Try old shoes or boots, dishes, topiary forms, in wood, on rocks, and in baskets, old toolboxes, etc. Plastic pots work well too, or build your own wooden containers.
A nice thing about containers is that you can just pick them up and move them until you find a spot where your sempervivums are happy. They enjoy being in the sun, but appreciate some shade during the hottest part of the day. Sempervivums come in a wide range of colors, so you can also move your pots as needed to complement or enhance other areas of your yard.
At times, you may want to move your containers to get them out of the rain or away from hot drying winds, or to put them in a warmer/drier environment for the winter. I have some sempervivums that don’t do well in the constant moisture from melting snow, so I move those into the garage for the winter.
The most important thing to consider when planting your containers (or even if you’re planting in the ground) is to provide excellent drainage. Without good drainage, they will rot. When you plant in containers, it’s easier to create an ideal potting that provides an environment for them to live up to their full potential.
A purchased cactus mix will work if you absolutely can’t make your own, but it’s not the best choice. It’s easy enough to make your own mix. Your location will determine which ingredients are available for you to use, and which ones will work best for your climate.
Here are some potting mix recipes used by our members:
valleylynn, Oregon, zone 8b: 1/3 potting mix (such as Miracle-Gro), 1/3 compost (I use forest compost), 1/3 pumice
Sometimes I change the ingredients, depending on what I have available, and sometimes I use the Miracle-Gro with the water beads for retaining moisture. It depends on the location of the container and on the size and type of container. The larger glazed ones retain water longer than non-glazed or smaller containers do. The smaller hypertufa containers tend to dry out quickly here during summer, so I include the Miracle-Gro containing the water beads in my recipe. In the winter I need to give those some protection from the constant rain because of the water-retaining beads. This recipe is easy to adjust to your growing conditions. Sempervivums seem to really like the pumice in the mix.
Tabby, Colorado, zone 5: I did a bit of research years ago which indicated that semps didn’t like acidic soil and didn’t do well in peat. Also, I noticed that the semps which were planted straight into my sandy clay alkaline soil did quite well. So, I use a mixture of my own backyard clay soil, mixed with sand and perlite to give it more drainage. The clay holds the water, which is actually not a bad thing in this dry climate. I can water the pots once every week or so in the hot weather and they do fine. The hypertufa breathes from the sides and wicks the water so the roots don’t drown. This soil doesn’t wash out of the pots if we have a horrific driving rain, but I doubt that it would work well in a wetter climate.
serse, Tennessee, zone 7a: My most recent combo is nothing special, but so far it has worked well! It is very light and drains well, but it still seems to get my plants the water they need.
4 parts Organic Potting Mix
2 parts Perlite
1 part Chicken Grit
goldfinch4, Wisconsin, zone 4b: I generally use Miracle-Gro potting mix (not potting soil) amended with perlite and chicken grit. I use 4 parts MG potting mix, 3/4 part perlite and 1 part chicken grit. Most of my containers aren’t in full sun. I use mostly hypertufa containers and my sempervivums are very happy in them.
Hypertufa and sempervivums seem to have been made for each other. Hypertufa is very porous and allows for the required drainage. I like the organic look of hypertufa with these plants too. One of the fun things about hypertufa is that you can pretty much make it any shape that you want.
Terra cotta is another porous type of container that works well with sempervivum. Terra cotta is molded and baked clay, generally left unglazed. It comes shaped as flower pots, strawberry pots, dishes, animals, etc. You’re sure to find something you like.
Sempervivums can be planted with many other succulents and alpine plants. The combinations are infinite and so much fun to put together! Feel free to add a little garden art to your pots too. Rocks, sticks, marbles, mirrors, critters, and tiny pots all produce an interesting container.
As a rule, sempervivums don’t need fertilizer. If I use a container and the plant remains in it for several years, however, I sprinkle a bit of general purpose slow-release fertilizer in the pot in the spring. Alternatively, I water with a weak Miracle-Gro/water fertilizer solution once or twice a year.
The only pest problem I’ve come across with my sempervivum containers is chipmunks or squirrels digging in them, and the occasional bird stopping by to pull out a plant or pull off a chick. I’ve found a product called Plantskydd that does a good job of repelling the furry creatures. Birds don’t really do much damage, so I try to ignore their interest in my container plantings.
It’s a good idea to use a layer of chicken grit or small gravel as a top dressing in your sempervivum containers. It discourages critters from digging, looks nice, keeps weeds out, and keeps potting mix from splashing on the leaves when it rains.
Chicken grit (a very close-up picture to show how sharp it is)
So gather up some fun containers, pick up some pretty sempervivums, and see where your imagination takes you. Bet you can’t make just one!