Herb Profile: Chives

Easy to grow and use

A well-known culinary herb, chives (Allium schoenoprasum) & its lesser-known cousin, garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), are two of the easiest herbs to grow and use. Chives are members of the Allium genus, a large group of over 500 species (edible and ornamental) worldwide. Onion and garlic are the most well-known species of Alliums.

Botanical illustration of a chive plant
Botanical illustration of the chive plant

Originating in Asia, legend has it that Siberians offered chives to Alexander the Great because it was the only green plant available. Designed to be pruned frequently throughout the growing season, chives can be cut and trimmed throughout the summer producing new growth several times. 

Garlic chives, also called Chinese chives, grow in the same manner but their leaves are flatter and offer a subtle garlic flavor and aroma. Garlic chives are often used in stir-fries, sprinkled over the cooked ingredients just before serving.

Though the Romani people hung bunches of chives on their bedposts to ward off evil spirits (and perhaps spouses!), their most common use is culinary. Chopped finely, chives can be added to salads, salsas, soups, eggs, cheese dishes, and seafood.

A lovely bouquet of chive flowers
A lovely bouquet of chive flowers (photo: SK)

Fresh chives add plant-based nutrients to your meals. They are high in vitamins A, C, and K and like other members of the Allium (onion) family, they offer antioxidant benefits.  

In the Garden

A hardy perennial herb (zone 3), chives are one of the first herbs to show up in early spring, growing in grass-like clumps with green hollow leaves. They produce pink to purple globes of many tiny flowers from April through June. Chives are easy to grow, requiring regular watering, decent garden soil, and pruning to maintain both their health and production.

Five Additional Benefits of Planting Chives

This simple herb offers multiple benefits to a garden or edible landscape.

  • Its strong volatile oil deters pests and fungal diseases, making it a good companion plant to broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and strawberries. Plant along the edges of beds.
  • Those same oils are also unattractive to deer so chives can serve in unprotected gardens as a pretty landscape. Some of the cultivated Allium ornamentals are gorgeous landscape plants.
  • The flowers attract and support pollinators. Pollinators face many threats and they need all of the help they can get and in return, they will increase flower sets and the yield in your food gardens.
  • The highly nutritious leaves can be “chopped and dropped” to serve as mulch. Many herbs make nutrient-rich “chop and drop” mulches.
Old seed packet for chive
Seed packet for chives (Source: Wikimedia)

How to Grow Chives

Propagating by seed is easy: prepare a flat, pot or container with seed starting mix. Sprinkle seeds, tamp them down, and water. Keep damp and warm (60°F – 70°F) until seeds germinate. Once the spears pop up move to a window for direct light. Transplant after the last frost date by pricking out small clumps of spears. Seeds can also be direct sown into a garden bed after the last frost date.

Dividing a mature clump is another way to propagate chives. Dig out a plant in early spring or early autumn and divide it into several smaller plants. Chives do excellent in a pot and can be brought inside for fresh snips of the hollow green spears, though they need more sun than a northern winter generally provides.

As a perennial, chives return year after year – always a benefit for the busy gardener. Chive clumps can become dense and that affects the quality of the herb and the health of the clump. Plan to divide them every three years or so. And if you don’t harvest the flowers to make Chive Blossom Vinegar or to add to a salad, the seeds will provide additional plants randomly planted in your garden. The seeds are easy to save and plant next season.

Chive flower stalks are bit tougher than the leaves so I chop and drop them when I harvest the flowers. (Photo: SK)

How to Harvest Chives

The spear-shaped green leaves can be harvested throughout the summer by snipping the outer leaves of the plant an inch above soil level. Don’t pull the leaves out or clump out unless you are dividing them. The flowers should be harvested as soon as they bloom; they fade quickly. The entire plant can be pruned to soil level after flowering and usually, it will regrow and likely flower again. At the end of the growing season, chives can be trimmed to just a few inches above soil level, mulched with compost or straw for their winter’s rest.

Looking for ways to use chive leaves and flowers? How about chive butter and chive blossom vinegar?

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