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Gardening: Hens and chicks a perennial favorite

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

When I took over the stewardship of the OPC garden in Rochester, one of the garden spaces I inherited in front of an enchanting tiny stone cottage was filled with nothing but a ground cover of hardy sedum.

During the past three years, we’ve broken up some of the monotony by adding a flotsam and jetsam of perennials and small shrubs, mostly plant samples sent to me for trialing. But there are still large patches of ground cover in need of interesting plantings, so I was thrilled when given a half a dozen flats of mixed hens and chicks — end of season leftovers from a nursery that would have otherwise ended up in a compost pile.

Chances are your grandmother or great-grandmother grew Sempervivum, commonly called hens and chicks, as they were staples in gardens long ago and favorites of kids because of their growth habit. The mother plant, usually a 3- to 5-inch rosette of thick flat leaves — the “hen,” reproduces by growing tiny rosettes — the “chicks,” on stems that cluster around the plant. When broken off the plant, these tiny “chicks” are quick to root and start new plants if the stem end is allowed to dry and form a callus before planting. Gifting children with a small handful of “chicks” to start their own garden was the perfect way to pass along and grow the love of gardening.

Sempervivums have been around for centuries. These rugged little charmers, some hardy to Zone 3 and also called houseleeks or live forevers, were often grown on the roofs of farm houses and thatch cottages to prevent lightening strikes and fire.

Semps do flower, but most blossoms are nondescript and because the mother plant dies after blooming, gardeners often remove the flower buds.

Grown for their leaf colors (shades of green, red, orange and silver), texture and form, designers often recommend mixing three or more varieties in a planting and allowing them to intermingle in an interesting tangle. Though you often find Semps in rock gardens and tufa troughs, garden designers suggest they also be used as a ground cover and bed edgings.

Unlike tender succulents that are currently all the rage, planters and troughs that contain Semps should be left outdoors in winter, as they need a cold period to thrive.

These plants need little care and the secret to success is six or more hours of sun daily and fast, well-drained soil. Standing water or sodden soil is the kiss of death.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at