Sempervivum, otherwise known as “houseleek” or “hens and chicks” is a genus that contains several dozen varieties of cold-tolerant succulents. These attractive and resilient plants have compact round rosettes of leaves in a variety of colors.
Outdoors, Sempervivum adds interest to a winter garden, fills in rocky spots where other plants won’t grow, and produces flowers in summer. It is also a great addition to your indoor houseplant collection, as long as you provide it with sufficient sunlight.
Quick Guide to Sempervivum
|Botanical name (Family)||Sempervivum (Crassulaceae family)|
|Sun requirements||Full sun preferred, partial shade tolerated|
|Hardiness/Zone||Hardy in zones 4+|
|Primary growth season||Winter dormancy when planted outdoors in colder climates|
|Typical sizes||Rosettes are typically shorter than six inches tall until it flowers; the plant can spread laterally, as ground cover, indefinitely|
Growing Requirements for Sempervivum
Where to Plant
Unlike most succulents, which need to be planted in a pot and brought indoors for the winter, Sempervivum is cold tolerant in zones 4+. That means you can grow healthy Sempervivum right in the ground.
These are extremely undemanding plants. They have such shallow roots, you can grow them almost anywhere, even in areas with very poor, rocky soil. I’ve seen them grow happily for decades on an old tree stump.
Plant your Sempervivum in an area with as much sun as possible.
Note: Direct sunlight is very important. Without sufficient sunlight, Sempervivum will become leggy, meaning that they will stretch out and become tall and sparsely leafed, rather than remaining compact as they should.
Although there are three ways to fix a leggy succulent, not all can be saved.
Another reason sunlight is important is to maximize your Sempervivum’s leaf colors. A plant with inadequate sunlight will remain a weak green instead of developing attractive coloration. However, as long as they get at least a few hours of direct sunlight each day, they should be fine.
Sempervivum can grow indoors, although it is usually found outdoors. They will do best in the direct sunlight of a south-facing window.
A healthy Sempervivum is compact, shaped a bit like a dahlia head, except in the summer when the mother plant grows dramatically and then dies after producing offsets. If, at any time other than the summer, your Sempervivum seems to be getting leggy or loses the colorful tint to its leaves, move it to a location with better sunlight.
Sempervivum is considered a pet-safe succulent. In addition to not being toxic for people or pets, they typically don’t attract the interest of curious or hungry pets.
Sempervivum Container and Soil
Sempervivum has extremely shallow roots, and grows best in rocky ground or in a shallow planter.
If you have a normal-to-tall pot you really want to use, you can try using our ‘pot in a pot’ method:
- Find a plastic pot that is shallow but the same diameter as the decorative pot you want to use.
- Plant your Sempervivum in the plastic pot, and then nest it inside the decorative pot.
- To support the plastic pot at the top level of the decorative pot, simply add rocks inside the decorative pot to rest the plastic pot on.
Note: If your decorative pot doesn’t have a drainage hole, make sure to remove the plastic pot before watering, and let it drain before returning it to the decorative pot.
Commercially available cactus/succulent-specific potting mixes will work fine for Sempervivum, but we encourage you to make your own potting mix.
Sempervivum thrives in rocky soil with a low proportion of organic matter. Plus, making your own potting mix with extra gritty material is also cheaper than buying potting mix.
We have a couple of easy DIY succulent potting mix recipes that would work perfect, but feel free to add extra sand and gritty amendment (such as perlite or pumice), as Sempervivum has very low organic matter needs.
Sempervivums need well-draining soil and limited watering to avoid root rot.
The “soak and dry” method works well with potted hens and chicks. However, you’ll need to water your Sempervivum more frequently than other succulents because having it in a shallow planter means that its soil dries faster.
When in doubt, only water your indoor Sempervivum on as-needed basis or if the pot dries out. During periods of dormancy, they need even less water than normal.
Outdoors, they will likely not need any watering except during a hot dry summer.
For more information on the “soak and dry” watering technique, among others, check out our post on watering succulents. It includes a tracking card for watering, fertilizing, and other succulent care.
Fertilizer and Maintenance
Sempervivum are accustomed to poor, rocky soil, so they don’t need much fertilizer. If you repot a Sempervivum in a planter with fresh potting mix, don’t bother fertilizing the first year. The fresh soil will have plenty of nutrients. In later years, fertilizing now and then can’t hurt.
When you do fertilize your succulent, perhaps annually, use a liquid fertilizer.
Stick with an organic fertilizer specific to cacti/succulents and follow the package instructions in terms of dilution. If you use a chemical liquid fertilizer meant for houseplants and not succulents, dilute to half-strength.
Sempervivum doesn’t need a lot of maintenance other than propagating the offsets. The one thing you’ll want to do is to remove the dead mother plant after it finishes its summer bloom and offset production.
Sempervivum is one of the most reliable succulents for self-propagation. Simply wait until the summer when your mother plant produces offsets, and each can become a whole new Sempervivum.
You have two options for using your offsets.
- Option#1: If your Sempervivum is growing in the ground and you want it to expand or grow a denser ground cover, leave the offsets attached to the mother until the mother dies. Then remove the mother plant.
- Option#2: If you want to propagate your Sempervivum offsets to create new plants, you’ll remove the offsets from the mother plant and replant each in its own pot (or outdoor location).
If you do option #2 early enough, there is, reportedly, a chance the mother plant may not die because she won’t have to give all her energy to the offset. Personally, I have not had success using this technique to preserve the mother plant.
Check out our propagation guide for a more detailed explanation of how to propagate offsets and other propagation techniques.
Common Sempervivum Problems
Even more than most succulents, houseleek is very resilient and low maintenance, but there are a few problems to watch out for.
- Stretching: It is normal for a mother plant to become tall and leggy during the summer when she is producing offsets. However, if your Sempervivum becomes leggy at other times of year, you need to move it to a location with more sunlight.
- Losing color variation: If your Sempervivum was once beautifully variegated but is now a uniform pale green, the problem once again is inadequate sunlight. Move your plant to an area with at least a few hours of direct sunlight daily and the coloration should improve.
- Mealybugs: Hens and chicks’ compact rosettes are attractive to mealybugs. Fortunately, mealybugs can often be controlled using organic products.
- Brown and mushy leaves: Rot is the result of some combination of overwatering, inadequate drainage, and insufficient sunlight. You may need to address all three issues by repotting, relocating, and reconsidering your watering schedule.
If you have a sunny spot in your garden or room for a shallow pot in your sunniest windowsill, you can grow a happy Sempervivum. Even in cold climates, Sempervivum makes a great outdoor plant. Meet its basic needs, and your Sempervivum will thrive, expand, and fill whatever space you allow it to occupy.