Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sempervivum: Hens and Chicks

I'll be giving a talk on Hens and Chicks at the first Camellia Garden Club meeting of the season early next month and thought I'd share the information on my blog this week.

Sempervivum literally means "live forever" because they grow and propagate so readily. These succulents are called by many names (semps, hens and chicks, houseleeks), but whatever you call them, they are amazing plants.
Hens and Chicks are fun and easy to grow, yet there is enough variety to keep you entertained for a lifetime. With over 3,000 named sempervivum cultivars, these succulents are available in all colors, shapes, textures and sizes. They are suitable for rock Gardens, screes, walls, banks, container gardens and alpine houses. (Scree- Loose rock debris covering a slope. A slope of loose rock debris at the base of a steep incline or cliff.)

Hens and Chicks is a common name for a group of small succulents belonging to the flowering family Crassulaceae, native to mountainous areas of Europe and Asia They grow close to the ground with leaves formed around each other in a rosette, and propagating by offsets. The "hen" is the main plant, and the "chicks" are the offspring, which start as tiny buds on the main plant and soon sprout their own roots, taking up residence close to the mother plant.

These houseleeks grow in symmetrical rosettes of fleshy leaves up to 2 ½” in diameter with a spread of 4” upwards and form hardy ground-hugging mats. They have star shaped flowers on succulent stems and although the rosettes die after flowering they are replaced by numerous offsets.

Climate and Growing Locations
Throughout the US, Extremely Cold Hardy
Hens and Chicks are hardy and can be grown throughout the USA. Sempervivum like cool nights and need a cold-dormant season to be healthy. They prefer growing zones 4-8. In colder areas it may be beneficial to move the plants into a greenhouse or cover during them during severe winter weather. Hairy cultivars also appreciate shelter from winter rain with a piece of glass or clear, hard plastic.

Sun Preferences
Full Sun to Part Sun
Sunlight brings out bright colors in Sempervivums. When planted in full shade many varieties tend to fade to a plain green color. However, in hotter weather during the summer and in the southern United States, afternoon shade can actually help plant colors last longer.

Soil Requirements
Sandy, Excellent Drainage
Good drainage is the most important requirement for Sempervivum. Plant them in sandy soil or add compost, potting soil, gravel or vermiculite to the ground to help with drainage. Hens and Chicks survive in soil where other plants can't grow. They do great with very little soil, even in gravel and cracks in rock walls; however, accumulated water will kill the plants. Ideally the soil pH level should be neutral, between 6.6 and 7.5.

Watering Needs
Low, Drought Tolerant
Immediately after transplanting, water generously. After that let the soil dry out between watering. These succulent plants are drought resistant since they store water in their leaves, but they still need water to thrive. During the summer heat they will need to be watered more frequently. Don’t over water. If you see your plants begin to struggle, make sure the soil drainage is good and cut back on the watering.

Hen & Chick Plant Propagation
Hens and Chicks produce numerous offspring, thus allowing them to "live forever". The quantity and speed at which babies are produced depends on the variety. Sempervivum can be divided anytime during the spring/summer growing season. The baby chicks can be re-planted elsewhere or left to grow around the mother hen.
These grow babies on runners. Just pull off the chicks and plant elsewhere. It is best to remove the babies when the runner has begun to wither. Offsets root quickly and contact with soil is enough for them to start growing.
Growing from the offsets preserves the characteristics of each cultivar. Seeds taken from the Sempervivum flowers generally produce plants that are untrue to type.

Sempervivum Life and Death Cycle
Once a hen plant produces a chick, that chick will begin producing its own babies after only 1 season. Sempervivum plants generally only live for 3 years, so the plants have 2 productive years before they die. After 3 years and having produced many baby plants a Sempervivum grows a tall center stalk that blooms before the plant dies. Cutting off the center stalk will not prevent the plant from dying.
It is extremely fun to grow Hens and Chicks and watch them mature and produce offsets. Their colors change drastically throughout the season due to maturity, temperatures, sunlight exposure, and other factors. Be sure to give your plants enough space to spread. Ideally they should have 4” for small plants and 6-8” for large varieties. Adequate space produces nicely formed rosettes.

Popular varieties include: Sempervivum arachnoideum (cobweb houseleek) is a hardy succulent perennial. Evergreen, vigorous and mat-forming, with numerous small green rosettes with a fine ‘cobweb’ of white hairs joining the leaf tips. Sempervivum calcareumis an attractive species with grey-green leaves with purple tips and pink flowers. Sempervivum tectorum is a very variable species, with shades of green and brown with or without contrasting tips. It grows 2-5” tall. It has rosettes that are 1” in diameter upwards and has a spread of 4” upwards. Colorful cultivars have been bred, such as “Caramel” a delicious warm caramel color, along with reds, pinks, bronzes and greys.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adding A Butterfly Garden

When I started landscaping my yard I used the NWF Backyard Wildlife Habitat model concentrating on encouraging birds to my yard. I have a number of nectar producing plants because I planted them to attract the Ruby throated Hummingbird. So Butterfly Bush, Purple Coneflower, Marigold, Aster, Zinnia, Butterfly Weed, Lantana, Daisy, Hibiscus, Glossy Abelia, Yarrow, Black-eyed Susan, Coreopsis, Daylilies, Redbud, Rosemary, Lavender, Verbena, and Phlox have been in my yard for a while (and others too many to name). Different species of butterflies have different preferences of nectar, in both color and taste. By planting a wide variety of food plants I hope to attract a larger diversity of visitors.

Last year I decided I would add some host plants to my garden this year in order to increase the amount of butterflies that come to my yard. Partly from spending time working in the Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens I learned host plants are as important as nectar plants. It will be a slow process to add host plants; but I made a start this year by adding Milkweed, Cassia, and Passion vine for butterflies to lay eggs and provide food for the caterpillars. Some females are picker than others about the plant they will use as host for their eggs. It turns out that my Tulip Popular tree I brought from Georgia is a host plant for the Tiger Swallowtail and the parsley I plant for my own use (and extra) attract the Black Swallowtail as does Queen Anne's Lace that is already in my plantings.

There are other ways to attract butterflies to your yard.

Fruit Feeders:
I've started using overripe fruit, allowed to sit for a few days to attract some butterflies. Some species that like rotting fruit: Red Spotted Purple, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Green Comma, Malachite, Red Admiral, Hackberry and Tawny Emperors, and the Viceroy. There are many ways that you can serve up the fruit to butterflies. Some people use a bird suet feeder to hold over-ripe rotting fruit hanging from a tree branch. Others have taken a plant saucer or flat bird feeder and used a plant hanger to hang the saucer/feeder from a tree branch. You could also place an old dish or flat bird feeder out on a deck railing or table with some old fruit cut or lightly smashed in it. I put my fruit in a flat bird feeder tray and hang from my bird feeder in the sun/shade away from the house; because the fruit will also attract insects. The fruit has sun part of the day and shade part of the day. The fruit needs to remain moist so I add a little water, Gatorade, fruit juice or even beer to the plate of fruit. I don't a flood the plate, just make a moist fruit mush.

Mud Puddles:
Butterflies, especially the males, are attracted to moist mud where they will often congregate to find minerals and salts that supposedly increase their fertility (this is called "puddling"). I've tried making a puddle by filling a plant saucer with sand, rocks and water. Not making a "lake" of water but rather a moist muddy type spot. Adding some compost (or a little bit of manure) can help attract butterflies. The biggest challenge is keeping it moist during the hot summer. I've never seen the butterflies there but just this week I saw them at a natural puddle in the yard after a hard rain.

Basking Stones:
Butterflies need heat to fly and they use the sun to warm themselves. If you see a butterfly just "resting" with its wings open toward the sun, it is almost certainly basking in the warmth. I haven't had to add these to the yard because our waterfall and paved paths already provide this type of resting place. I've only seen butterflies basking on the stone occasionally though but the rocks and paths do add some visual interest to the garden.

I don't uses butterfly houses for over wintering butterflies or for providing protection. They can be quite beautiful, but they are rarely used. Butterflies prefer to use trees, shrubs, logs, wood piles and other natural settings for winter and storm protection. This doesn't mean you shouldn't add a butterfly house since they can be a thing of beauty and interest in a garden, but don't be disappointed if it is never used.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Summer Yard Chores

In the south August is a cruel month, Hot, Humid and Hazy and it just wears me down! But I can't give up, I must not give up! Every weed pulled now prevents many more in the future, letting them go to seed makes for bigger problems later! But there is much more to do in August. A weekly walk through the garden helps identify problem areas.

WATERING: Lack of rain in August (so far) has not been a problem this year. As things dry out from the daily rains I will need to watch plants like my hydrangea in case they get too dry. The real problem for me now is plants like my succulents that received too much rain!

DEADHEADING: By deadheading perennials, annuals and blubsr now I may get a fresh flush of blooms when our weather turns a little cooler. Later in the fall I'll leave some seed-heads for birds or to collect seeds for next year. I cut perennials like Guara back pretty hard and still get more blooms.

RE-EDGE BEDS: I like to clean-up the edges of my flowerbeds at least twice a year, making a clean line to define them. Then my husband Jim can the keep edges clean with regular fine-tuning with our weed-eater.

PRUNING- Selective pruning of out of control vine is at the top of my to do list. Carolina jessamine, cross vine, and jasmine are the big ones needing attention after our hot, wet weather. A few shrubs have had growth spurts as well and need some light pruning.

REPOT: I like to change my pots (Hanging & ground) at least seasonally. My front porch petunias were replace with Moss Roses as soon as temperatures reach 90 degrees, but I hadn't rescued my hanging strawberries in the arbor. So yesterday I moved the strawberries to a raised bed and replanted the pots with Potato vine.

LAWN- We have a warm season grass- Centipede and mid-August is the time for a final fertilization for the grass this year. I'll need to apply a post emergence herbicide as I try to control a "spotted Spurge " takeover of my front yard. This is also time to check for white grubs, spittlebugs, mole crickets, and others; though they have not been a problem for me so far this year.

And if I can get all of this list done I could prepare my garden bed for a fall garden, replant my herbs, take cuttings to overwinter plant in my greenhouse.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Extended rainy spells in the garden

Here we were in a moderate drought and then a tropical wave brings us days and days of heavy rains and thunderstorms. Soggy, saturated soil will kill plants over time just as well as successive hot days with no rain can shorten a plants life. You need to recognize excess water as a problem. Normally, pooling water between will gradually seep into the soil and nourish roots. But after consecutive days of heavy rain, pooling water that remains above the surface for long periods of time indicates that below the surface is extremely waterlogged. The roots are drowning! Here are some tips and tricks for spotting and solving problems in your garden after heavy rains.

Look for any leaf or stem damage that may have occurred and stake up any plants that are leaning over. If there is only slight damage to leaves, you may be able to just remove them. Keep an eye on plants that have received moderate or heavy damage over the next couple days, the plant might be able to recuperate. Branches that are heavy with fruit may have broken, it’s often best to harvest then and try to ripen on a window sill and remove the broken limb. If the main stem of a plant has snapped then more than likely the plant may not survive and need to be removed from the garden.

Root systems are very vulnerable to damage when saturated. Walking near plants in saturated conditions can also cause soil impaction, which can limit root growth. If you have well designed garden beds or raised beds where you can reach each plant without stepping near them this won’t be a problem. If you find any exposed roots due to soil erosion, cover them with soil, mulch or compost as soon as possible. Do not let the roots dry out – this can be disastrous to the plant.

Heavy runoff can carry nutrients from the soil. Make sure to replenish these nutrients with fish emulsion or an organic fertilizer.

As soon as possible after stormy weather look for areas that may be draining poorly in your garden. You want to correct the areas of long pooling water in the garden. This can be very bad for plants, and leads to root rot. If you find areas that drain poorly, create ways to get the water to drain away from the vegetable garden. You could implement dry creek beds (rock beds), French drains, swales, perforated drain pipes or use plastic water drains to redirect water from the garden. Rain barrels are a good way to collect and divert rain water. A rain garden will also provide a place for the water to drain. (More about rain gardens later.)

Eliminate possible slug or snail hiding places. Slugs and snails love damp places. Remove any boards, stones, or other items that are lying around in or around the garden.

Keep an eye out for emerging weeds. Weeds will often pop up soon after a storm. The sudden charge of moisture to the soil will encourage weeds to spring up almost overnight. Mulch will help to prevent weeds in flower and vegetable gardens and to help with soil erosion.

Empty any containers that have collected water. Overturn any buckets, wheelbarrows, or pot saucers that contain rainwater. These are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and we sure don’t need more of those in our gardens!

Keep an eye out for fungal or bacterial diseases. Damp, humid conditions are perfect for fungal and bacterial disease development. Diseases, such as powdery mildew, will spread very quickly in these conditions. Treat these diseases as soon as they are noticed.

Remember never work clay soil when it is soggy. If the soil is too wet, it will pack into hard clods. Test the soil by squeezing a handful into a lump, and then push your thumb into the lump. If it dents like modeling clay, it is too wet. If it crumbles, then it is perfect to work.