Chives are members of the lily family grown for their leaves and flowers, which are equally popular in the garden and in the kitchen. Both onion and garlic chives are grown and used in a similar fashion. Some gardeners use onion and garlic chives as a perennial edging or border plant in a flower border or an herb garden. They also grow well in containers, both alone and in combination with other long-lived herbs such as rosemary.
Growing onion chives? You’re not alone. Many gardeners grow them for their leaves and rosy purple flowers, both of which boast a mild onion flavour. They grow well in the ground or any pot, even a small one, or the pockets of a strawberry jar. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), also known as Chinese chives, are grown for their mildly garlic-flavoured leaves and pretty white flowers. The leaves are flat, not hollow like those of onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum).
Soil, Planting, and Care
When growing chives, it’s best to plant them in full sun, but plants also grow in partial shade, especially in the South and Southwest. Set out plants in early spring in soil amended with plenty of compost or a good continuous-release fertilizer, placing them 8 to 12 inches apart. For fast growth, plant in rich, well-drained soil. (Plants are tough enough to withstand poor soil, but just won’t grow fast.) They need little care other than watering until well-rooted. If you harvest often, fertilize every couple of weeks with Miracle-Gro® LiquaFeed® Tomato, Fruits & Vegetables Plant Food (follow label directions) or fish emulsion. Although the flowers are nice, the plants produce more leaves if you pinch off the flower buds. After a few freezes make the leaves ugly, cut the plants back to the ground. They will come back in spring. After 3 or 4 years, each plant will have grown into a clump of smaller plants; divide them in early spring.
Watch for aphids, especially in spring. Spray with neem or insecticidal soap. Spray will bead up on the waxy leaves, so be sure it comes in contact with the pests, especially down in the crown of the plant. Garlic chives reseed generously if you let the seed mature; this can be a plus, but in the wrong place, you will find yourself pulling up lots of seedlings.
Harvest and Storage
You can begin harvesting leaves as soon as they are big enough to clip and use. Cut from the outside of the clump, about 1/2 inch above soil level, always leaving plenty to restore energy to the plant. Although fresh is best, you can store extra for winter use by chopping and freezing the leaves, or you can also preserve them in herb butters, oils, and vinegars, where they blend well with parsley and tarragon.
Add to dishes at the very end of the cooking process, because their mild flavor is destroyed by heat. The purple flowers of onion chives, which are also edible, float beautifully in soup. In late summer, dig up a couple of plants, pot them, and move them to your windowsill for a nice winter source of fresh snips.
The pot of chives that I bought looks like a tuft of grass. How big will they get?
There are two kinds of chives, those that taste like a mild onion and those that taste like garlic. Both prefer full sun and moist, well-drained soil. However, there is a difference in size. The onion chives reach about 12 inches tall with pink spherical flowers held near the tips of the tubular leaves in spring. Garlic chives have long, flat foliage about 12 inches tall, but the white clusters of flowers stand about 18 inches tall in late spring or early summer.
Where should I put my chives?
Onion chives are nice as a border or as a clump near the front edge of a bed. Garlic chives, because they are taller, can hold their own in the middle of a bed with shorter plants in front and taller ones behind. Most importantly, plant them where you can easily reach their flavorful foliage with a pair of kitchen shears!
Will my chives spread?
Neither onions chives nor garlic chives will spread, though the clump will get larger (like a bunching onion). However, garlic chives will reseed if the blooms are left on the plant long enough for seeds to mature and fall into the garden. Don’t want seedlings? Deadhead the flowers or, better still, cut them for a vase indoors. Don’t worry; they don’t smell like garlic. In fact, they’re fragrant!
It looks like there are a lot of little plants in my pot of chives. Can I divide them?
Yes! You might not want to divide them into individual plants, because some will die in the process. But you can easily make 2 or 3 clumps from the plants in the pot. This is particularly helpful if you are planting a border of chives around your herb or vegetable garden.
Will I be able to cut chives all year long?
If you live in a frost-free area, you will have chives year-round. Otherwise, chives will go dormant with the first freeze. You can cut a handful when a freeze is forecast, take them to the kitchen, and use kitchen shears to cut them into sections. Then put them in a freezer container. Use as needed during the months when there are no chives outdoors to pick.
I want to use my chives, but I also want them to look good in the garden. Can I have both?
Yes, if you cut them properly. Don’t just cut the top 2 to 3 inches of a leaf. Cut an entire leaf all the way to within a half inch of the base of the plant. This prevents having a brown-edged, chopped-off leaf. In addition, this encourages the plant to grow new leaves.