Hens and chicks are becoming trendy

Anyone who has spent time browsing gardens on social networks lately, particularly Pinterest and Facebook, may have noticed a large number of creative succulent garden photos being posted to the Internet.

Everyone, it seems, wants a tabletop, picture frame, strawberry pot or any unusual container filled with colorful and interesting-looking succulents.

Who can blame them?

A friend of mine who owns a garden center in Rosendale, N.Y., Victoria’s Gardens, has a wall-sized succulent garden around the entrance to the garden center’s store, complete with the store’s logo fashioned from the colors of the plants.

But the backyard gardener doesn’t have to try to create a wall-sized display to enjoy the unique characteristics of a succulent garden.

You don’t even need a container. A small mound of earth, a few rocks placed here and there and an exciting trip to the garden center can be the start of a garden that will be a fascinating and attractive addition to any garden. Although, once you start planting succulents, it won’t be long before you’re sticking these little plants in any small container, broken pot, spilling out of tipped half-barrels or in any crack and crevices in the garden wall. They are that addicting.

My mother called them “hens and chicks.” More than 50 varieties and over 5,000 species of Sempervivum carry this nickname because of the runners, or stolons, that grow from the crown beneath the main, thickly-fleshed rosette. At the ends of the stolons are baby Sempervivum plants. When they reach a sufficient size, the stolen can be cut about an inch or so from the new plant and pushed into the soil to encourage root growth.

Sempervivum are alpine succulents that naturally grow in the high altitudes of South and Central America. Most will withstand our cold winters but there are a few varieties that need to come indoors.

My mother’s hens and chicks were hardy and after about three years, the main rosette would send up a long stem from which a strange looking flower would bloom on the very top.

Once the plant bloomed, its purpose was served and it would then die. But those runners that emerged from the plant – the chicks – would continue to mature and send out their own runners before blooming and dying.

There are a couple exceptions to this method of propagating new plants. Instead of sending out stolons, a variety called Sempervivum heuffelii splits at the crown and develops five or more new crowns, which have to be cut into individual plants. And another variety, Sempervivum sabolifera produces its young as little balls growing between the leaves. These baby plant balls dislodge from the parent plant and roll onto the soil where they quickly take root.

It isn’t surprising that another nickname for this plant is “always living” or “live forever.” They seem to go on and on with the baby plants filling in the spaces left by the adults.

The thousands of species of Sempervivum make it possible to create an entire garden of just these plants. Not only do they vary in texture, color and size, they can be found in colors that include silver, red, burgundy, green and shades in between. Some are even variegated. For texture, some varieties are wide and round and grow compactly close to the soil, while others are pencil-shaped and stand tall. One variety, Sempervivum arachnoideum, has thin, white threads between the leaves making it look as though it is covered with spider webs.

Sempervivum like to grow in full sun, but most importantly, they must have good drainage. If planted in container, there must be adequate drainage holes so the plant isn’t sitting in water, otherwise it will rot. When grown as a house plant, the most common cause of death of these plants is overwatering.

I like to give my succulents a top-dressing of compost each season, but if you prefer to fertilize, make sure it is a weak solution.

Sempervivum are not fussy and do well when neglected.