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by Pernell Gerver

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"Unique and Unusual Hens & Chicks"

Hens & ChicksHens & chicks, botanically sempervivum, are interesting plants. Their common name refers to how the plants grow. There is a mother plant, or "hen," surrounded by baby plants, the "chicks." They are low-growing, evergreen plants that form dense rosettes of mothers and babies. Because they are evergreen, they are attractive in the garden all year long.

Hens & chicks are succulent, alpine plants that in their native habitat of central and southern Europe grow at altitudes of 3,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. Because they are succulents, they can tolerate dry soil and they look especially nice growing in a stone wall, where they spread out flat to fill in the voids between the stones. They also grow well in a rock garden, as an edging at the front of a flower bed, or in strawberry jars. I've also grown them in a whiskey barrel where I drilled holes in the sides of the barrel and inserted the plants into the holes. They are very easy to grow, needing only a sunny spot and well-drained soil.

Red hens & chickThere are many different sizes, leaf shapes, and colors in hens & chicks. Leaf color includes green, gray, brown, silvery green, blue green, red, and maroon. The leaf color is most pronounced when grown in full sun. Many also change color with the seasons, being red or maroon in spring, then changing to shades of green in summer, then changing back to shades of red or maroon in fall and winter. Leaf shape varies, as well. Some have long, slender leaves that fan out from the center and others have short, upright or incurved leaves that form a tight cluster. Plant size ranges from a few inches across to over a foot wide or more. All stay very short, however, growing only several inches high.

Hens & Chicks flowerWhile hens and chicks are grown primarily for their attractive leaves, many also bloom. The small, star-shaped flowers are borne in small clusters atop short, thick flower stems that rise through the center of the rosette. Flower color is most often pink, although there are some with pale-yellow flowers.

Sempervivum 'Old Copper'There are about 50 different species of hens & chicks and over 3,000 different named varieties. Some of the showiest ones have attractive bronze or maroon leaves. 'Old Copper' forms large rosettes of showy, copper-colored leaves that keep their coloration all year long.

Sempervivum 'Oddity'There are also some unusual hens & chicks and one, aptly named 'Oddity' certainly is odd. Instead of flattened or incurved leaves, this variety has rounded, almost tubular, chartreuse-green leaves. In spring, the tips of the leaves are tinged with maroon. The leaves are held upright in dense rosettes and resemble short cinnamon sticks in spring when their maroon coloration is most pronounced.

Sempervivum arachnoideum tomentosumAnother interesting feature of some hens & chicks is what's known as cobwebbing. Tiny, white hairs stretch across the tops of the rosettes and in some varieties the hairs are so numerous that the very center of the rosette is completely white. The cobwebbing even occurs on the baby plantlets. Sempervivum arachnoideum tomentosum has small rosettes held in clusters with tight webbing across the centers.

Pernell Gerver's Gardening Q & Aby Pernell Gerver

"Control Powdery Mildew on Zinnias with Neem Oil"

Q. For the past three years I have grown zinnia from seed in my garden. I grow the zinnias inside then transplant them in my garden. Every year toward the end of the season - August or so - the zinnias develop powdery mildew. What can I do to prevent this? This year my cosmos developed it too. Do plants catch diseases? I appreciate any help you can give me.

A. Powdery mildew is a fungus that is spread by water, air, and humidity. This year's excessively rainy weather contributed greatly to the amount of fungal diseases on plants. Plants grown close together increase the spread of this fungus. Good air circulation helps reduce the spread of powdery mildew. Next year, try spacing the zinnias further apart. Spraying early and regularly with Neem Oil will help prevent powdery mildew. It will not only wash off the powdery mildew already on the plant, but it will also prevent it from spreading up the plant. Try planting resistant varieties also. Zinnia angustifolia, also known as Zinnia haageana, is one type of zinnia resistant to powdery mildew.

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