By Julie Christensen
If you grow no other herb, you must grow chives (Allium schoenoprasum). These undemanding plants are as beautiful in a perennial bed as they are in the vegetable or herb garden. They have slender, bright green foliage that stays attractive throughout the summer, as well as tufted lavender or white flowers that appear in early summer. All parts of the chive plants are edible, including the flowers, and they add a subtle, delicate onion flavor to any dish. They’re especially tasty in scrambled eggs, salads and sauces.
Unlike onions, chives are perennials and will come back year after year. When cared for properly, you can expect them to live for 10 to 20 years, at least. Plant chives from seed in early spring. You can sow the seeds directly in the ground after the last frost, or start them indoors six weeks before the last frost. Sow them ½ to 1 inch deep in rich, amended soil and keep them evenly moist. Plants grown from seed need one year before they can be harvested. If you’re impatient, grow them from nursery plants or get a start from a friend.
Select a location that gets full sun to light shade for chives. Amend the soil with compost or manure and 2 tablespoons 10-10-10 fertilizer before you plant chives. Space chive plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Chives grow 12 to 20 inches tall and wide, depending on the variety.
Keep the soil evenly moist the first season after planting. Once chives are established, they can tolerate some drought, although they’ll perform better with even moisture. Avoid overfertilizing them, which can encourage rampant leafy growth and a diluted flavor. If growth is slow, apply 1 tablespoon 10-10-10 fertilizer in early spring, but no more.
To harvest chives, cut the outer leaves back to ½ inch above the ground. Don’t cut the entire plant back. You can also snip the flowers to add to salads or to use as garnishes. Don’t leave the flowers standing after they fade. They’ll self-sow like crazy in the garden and the plants will become unproductive. Cut the flower stalks back to ground level.
Over time, chive plantings become thick, tangled and unproductive. Plan to divide them every three to four years. Dig up the plants in early spring and cut them apart with a shovel. Replant the divided plants in rich soil and water them well. Better yet, share plants with friends and neighbors when it’s time to divide them.
Varieties of Chives
Common chives (Allium schoenoprasum) is the type you’re probably familiar with. Common chives have upright, hollow leaves and small flowers. They have a mild onion flavor and die back after the first frost.
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are used as much for their ornamental value as their culinary value. These plants are about twice as large as common chives, with flat, wide leaves and large white flowers. The flowers appear in late summer. Garlic chives have a mild garlic flavor and are often used in Asian cuisine.
Chives: Pests and Diseases
Chives are generally trouble-free, although they are susceptible to root rots, mildew and leaf spots. To reduce the risk of root rots, plant them in a location with good drainage. Use soaker hoses instead of overhead sprinklers and avoid working in a wet garden. Treat severe infections with fungicides.
Thrips and onion flies may also infest chives. Use floating row covers to keep them out or spray with a pesticide if infestations become severe.
Uses of Chives
Chives are best used fresh, although they can be dried for later use. Cut the stalks and wrap them in a paper towel. Store them in the refrigerator for up to five days. You can also place diced chives in ice cube trays. Fill with olive oil or water and freeze them. Use these cubes to flavor soups and casseroles.
Chives can be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill. Make sure the pot has light, well-draining soil and adequate drainage holes. Keep the soil moderately moist. Growth will slow during the winter.
Want to learn more information on growing chives?
Visit the following links:
Chives from the University of Minnesota
Learn how to grow chives on YouTube.
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.