Baby chicks seem to be everywhere this time of the year. Plush animals, greeting cards, marshmallow candies and even the real thing chirping under lights and in tubs at the feed stores. Yes, spring and chicks go together.
I could write forever about my grandfather’s chickens — feeding, gathering eggs and more, but today I’m thinking of a different kind of hens and chicks — the kind that grow in the garden.
Hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) are succulents that can be grown indoors or outside. The beauty of growing them outside is that they do not need to be pampered. They like poor, gritty soil because the water drains easily. They like dry roots, they like full sun, and they don’t need to be fertilized.
Seriously, these are low-maintenance plants.
I bet you have seen them. The thick, green leaves form what looks like rosettes tipped in a reddish-purple color. They are low-growing plants, barely 3 inches tall. Although they don’t get tall, they spread across, maybe up to 6-8 inches wide.
Once the “hen” is established, she will spread underground roots and produce “chicks” from all sides. These chicks can be replanted to a different area or left to settle near the hen or mother plant.
The traditional way to showcase hens and chicks outside is to plant them in a strawberry pot, often about 3 feet tall with openings or holes around the sides. The plants can grow from the top or the cutouts in the body of the container. This works because it adds height to this low-growing succulent.
If not planted in a container, consider the edge of your beds, where they can be seen and have room to spread. Creeping sedums are a good companion plant to hens and chicks.
Do you have a rock wall or rock garden? This might be the perfect spot for hens and chicks. Remember, they don’t like or need perfect soil to grow; tucking them into a rock crevice makes them happy. They get the required drainage for their roots to stay dry, the rocks capture the sun’s heat and keeps them warm, and they can reproduce and drape over the rocks, creating interest in your garden. Oh, did I mention they also stay green year-round?
The plants may go dormant in the winter but should survive the cool temperatures and begin to produce chicks when the summer heat warms them up.
Mature hens will produce a flower. This was a surprise to me; I didn’t know what was happening when my hen grew a strange, 6-inch stalk with tiny flowers on the end. They were pretty, just unexpected.
What I learned and experienced is that after producing the flower, the mother plant will die. But don’t be sad; she produced many chicks to keep the family going. After all, the Latin name even means “live forever.”
You can start hens and chicks from seed, but the plants are easy to find in nurseries, and most anywhere you buy garden supplies.
If you decide to grow them indoors, a long shallow container works best. Just like outside, you don’t want to plant the roots too deep, and the plant needs room to produce chicks. Place them in a sunny spot and be careful not to overwater.
Back to the baby chicks and rabbits in the garden centers: They are adorable and can be tempting. Unless you are prepared to care for them as they grow into mature animals that could live for years, raising “hens and chicks” in the garden and getting your peeps from sugar-coated marshmallows and chocolate might be the best plan.