When I was a young boy, one of my favourite books to read was Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.
The obvious attraction was that one of the heroes and I shared the same first name, but what really struck a chord was a storyline that taught me, in a world which often looks to take advantage of people, one could still put in a hard day’s work and make an honest living without exploiting others.
It is a core value that remains with me to this day and it illustrates the value of children’s literature to the well-being of our society – because without a few people working hard and looking out for others, community as we know it would simply not exist.
So whenever I stumble upon someone or something just quietly doing their job, it puts a smile on my face, and on a recent tour of the Colony Farms Community Garden I was grinning from ear to ear.
The sheer size and diversity of this growing space really impressed me. But what caught my eye was the unique displays of succulents in tiny containers, in particular Hens and Chicks. Also known as Sempervivum, this often overlooked evergreen perennial survives in the toughest of environments with the exception of overly moist, which causes it to rot.
Plot after plot was festooned with old rubber boots or hikers planted to the brim with brightly coloured Hens and Chicks, many of which were in bloom.
There was even an old tarnished copper kettle lashed to an entrance arbor with bright red Sempervivum spilling out of its lidless top.
In fact every nook and cranny seemed to have Hens and Chicks tucked into it and they could be found adorning recycled containers of every sort – including tea cups, children’s toys and retired leaky watering cans.
Their uses also go well beyond novelty planters as they are also grown extensively on green roofs and dry rockeries.
Over the years, I have seen several attractive evergreen wreaths created entirely from Hens and Chicks, with little but a ribbon flourish to set them off.
The foliage colour range is quite impressive, with bright lime greens, icy blues, hot reds and oranges, purples and even a greenish-yellow (verging on gold) being a possibility, depending on the season.
Individual plants will often flower after a few years, with starry clustered blooms of pink, white, red or yellow.
But you need to keep in mind that the parent plant dies after flowering, with the offsets (or chicks) quickly filling the empty void.
Sempervivum thrive on neglect and only require full sun (or sun for the most of the day), good drainage (particularly in winter) and lean watering. Fertilizing is not necessary, but I know gardeners who do to get them to fill in faster. Do not use a granular as it tends to get caught in the foliage and cause burning.
A better choice is an occasional liquid application of 20-20-20 (mixed at quarter strength), which is absorbed right through the leaf.
Cold winters are never a problem as most Hens and Chicks are Zone 3 hardy, meaning they survive in Winnipeg (need I say more?).
A few of my favourite species or cultivars include ‘Oddity’ (chiseled tubular leaves with purple tips), S. arachnoideum or Cobweb types, with fine white hairs that look like spiderwebs, and ‘Commander Hay,’ an AGM winner with red/green bicolor foliage.
So if you are looking for garden beauty without maintenance, then the hard-working Sempervivum is the plant for you.
– Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (firstname.lastname@example.org).