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Lawn & Garden

‘Ask Dayle’

4/26/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Dayle Davis

The succulent plant hens and chicks is easy to grow and will look its best in the heat of summer.
Photo courtesy of MetroCreativeConnection
Q: Can you tell me more about hen and chicks? This plant grew in my grandmother’s garden and seems to be popular again for container gardening.

A: Ah yes, any gardener who is long in tooth will recognize this plant name from the distant past. Sempervivum spp., a succulent plant commonly known as hens and chicks, is a perennial with fleshy leaves arranged in clusters of rounded rosettes. A larger plant segment referred to as the “hen” produces small offshoot plantlets known as the “chicks,” which surround the base of the hen.

A succulent is a plant that stores water in its fleshy leaves. This means it is drought tolerant but will still perish in extremely dry soils. Hens and chicks will look its best in the heat of summer and resist shriveling leaves if situated in slightly moist soil.

About 40 species of Sempervivum exist today. One interesting trait is that each hen blooms only once and then dies. This process takes place over time, however, and the hen will have produced lots of chicks before bloom is finished. These plants are quite easily grown and are at their best in sandy loamy soils. However, they are adaptable to a variety of garden sites as long as the soil drains well and the site receives at least four hours of sunshine. Shady spots with soggy, wet soils will spell certain death.

Hens and chicks are especially well suited for sunny, dry sites, rock gardens and the crevices formed by dry-set stone walls. It can also be grown as a ground cover.

These days, container plantings of a variety of succulents are quite popular. Hens and chicks is an excellent plant for container gardening outdoors. It will not fare as well as a houseplant because it requires winter dormancy to maintain health and vigor.

To plant, situate the hens and chicks in the soil so that the base of the leafy rosette is even with the soil surface. For plants with an obvious root system, plant at the same depth and in the same direction as grown before. The root system of the chicks can sometimes be sparse. In this case, simply nestle the chick firmly onto the top of the soil to make good contact and encourage root growth. Water gently and a bit sparingly.

Keep the bed weeded and well groomed as it develops. Remove every plant that has finished blooming by digging or cutting it out.

Q: There are large hostas planted just inside the woodland perimeter of my yard. They have been there for about 10 years and are fertilized every year. Now they appear to be getting smaller. Why? What can I do to keep them growing large?

A: A couple of things could be contributing to the diminishing size of your otherwise large hostas: water or lack of light. But a lack of light on its own shouldn’t cause a hosta to dwindle in size. Sometimes hosta leaves may even increase in size to compensate for lower light levels.

I suspect the problem is — since your hostas are planted in a woodland — a lack of water due to root competition. This is often the overriding issue in really shady areas. Since the hostas have grown in this woodland setting for a decade, surrounding trees have also gained an additional 10 years of growth. Couple that with the trees’ needs for a larger drink of water. A mature tree averages a water uptake of 50 to 100 gallons per day. Smaller plants nearby may be unable to withstand the competition for moisture.

You might consider snaking a soaker hose through your hostas to supplement moisture. Or, consider installing drip irrigation, which will aim a low volume trickle of water directly at each hosta’s root system. Both methods help to conserve water and are more efficient than sprinklers.

Q: A tree fell on my pink dogwood last year, killing most of the trunk but leaving two side shoots that stick out at odd angles. The tree is leafing out, but did not flower this year. Can I cut the entire tree down to the ground and let it regrow?

A: Rather than cut down the entire tree, why not wait to see what develops. I am not sure if you mean the tree is multi-trunked, or that the two side shoots actually emerge from the sole damaged tree trunk itself.

In either case, remove the dead wood immediately. The faster you remove the dead portion, the faster the tree can start to heal over the pruning cut. Since anthracnose disease is always a threat to dogwood, apply tree wound dressing to the completed cut immediately after you remove the dead wood.

If the tree is multi-trunked, cut on an angle to remove the one dead trunk entirely, leaving the other two trunks in place to develop and fill in over time.

If the side shoots emerge from one damaged trunk, cut off the dead wood at an outside angle just above the uppermost living shoot.

Now give the shoots a chance to develop. They will compete to become the new main trunk. Observe the growth and select the largest, healthiest shoot to develop into the main trunk, and remove the other. This will concentrate resources to the remaining shoot.

If your tree has multiple small sprouts leafing out, the tree’s root system may need all of that foliage for photosynthesis and food production to help heal the tree and accomplish future growth.

For more information, call The Ohio State University Summit County Extension Hotline Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon at 330-928-4769, ext. 3, and request Fact Sheet HYG-3311-09, “Pruning and Care of Tree Wounds.”

Dayle Davis is a freelance writer and avid perennial gardener, with a B.A. in communications and course work in botany, geology and wildflowers. Davis is certified as a Master Gardener under The Ohio State University’s Horticultural Extension. Readers can send in questions regarding lawn and garden issues, which could be featured in a future edition, as well as about the OSU Master Gardener program. Questions can be emailed to kcollins@akron.com, faxed to 330-665-9590 or sent to Leader Publications, 3075 Smith Road, Suite 204, Akron, OH 44333. Please do not send any leaves, seeds or other organic material. Inquiries about area garden clubs or groups should be sent directly to the particular organization in question.

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