By Julie Martens Forney
Try your hand at growing succulents. These tough-as-nails plants embody low maintenance and don’t need a lot of TLC. In fact they do best when you almost ignore them. Houseleeks are one of the easiest and most forgiving succulents to grow in the Mid-Atlantic. They go by a host of common names, inluding hen and chicks, and cat and kittens.
The word “houseleek” originates from ancient Europe, when the succulent was planted on rooftops. One other name — “live forever” — comes from the botanical name for houseleek, Sempervivum, which translates as “always living.”
Sempervivum in containers. The fun thing about Sempervivum is that it grows anywhere. Shallow roots make them able to thrive in makeshift containers such as a discarded metal tire rim bolted to a vintage light bracket, above.
They can even grow in old boots, pictured. Simply put them in small pots and insert into the boots. Or fill the boots themselves with a quick-draining soil mix.
Houseleeks hail from high altitudes in central and southern Europe. True alpine plants, they’ve adapted to little water and sharply draining soil. When planting houseleeks in pots, mix perlite, sand, or small gravel into a soilless mix at a ratio of 2:1, soil to perlite. Or use a cactus planting mix.
Over 6,000 named Sempervivum varieties offer different leaf colors and plant sizes, all with that same low-maintenance charm. With colorful types, leaf color usually peaks in spring, but color also depends on growing conditions.
Sempervivum in bloom. Houseleeks’ other common name, hen and chicks, describes how plants grow and multiply. A central plant produces smaller plantlets around it. Young chick plants initially attach to the hen with a stem, which withers when the chick is ready to live on its own. It takes three to four years for plants to flower. After blooming, the plant with the flower stalk dies, but its young plants live on, creating the illusion of living forever.
Sempervivum in the landscape. Count on hen and chicks to form a low-maintenance groundcover or living mulch in open planting beds. Just make sure you don’t kill them with kindness. Rich soil and too much water kill them quickly.