Learn how to grow chives and use them in cooking.
The leaves are shaped like tiny tubes that taper to a point. They grow in clumps and emerge in early spring from winter dormancy, followed quickly by the lilac-to-rosy pink, clover-like blooms on 12- to 24-inch long stems.
Photo by Barbara Pleasant
Snip fine-flavored, crispy green chive leaves over a salad or a baked potato, or into a bowl of piping hot soup for a colorful garnish that punches up the taste a delicious notch, or maybe two.
The most delicately flavored member of the onion family, chives have been hardy garden plants and tasty kitchen staples for more than 5,000 years. Regular (or "fine") chives (Allium schoenoprasum), are native to northern Europe, Asia and North America. The leaves are shaped like tiny tubes that taper to a point. They grow in clumps and emerge in early spring from winter dormancy, followed quickly by the lilac-to-rosy pink, clover-like blooms on 12- to 24-inch long stems.
Both leaves and flowers are edible; the fresh blooms may be served whole or separated into petals; they can be added to vinegar, to which they impart a lovely pink hue; and they make nice cut flowers, too. When in full bloom, a mature clump is so pretty that you may be reluctant to gather the flowers, yet removing them often prolongs the bloom time while encouraging the plant to expend more energy producing new leaves.
Garlic chives (A. tuberosum) are the other common garden chives and are similar in height to regular chives. Also known as Chinese chives or gow choy, garlic chives are native to eastern Asia and are as hardy and easy to grow as regular chives. The plants have flat, strap-like leaves with a distinct hint of garlic rather than onion, and the delicate, white blooms grow in clusters that appear in late summer after many other flowers have come and gone.
Both leaves and blooms of garlic chives are edible, too, but do not be misled by the tuberosum species name; the roots are knobby but hardly bulbous, and not at all tasty. In this part of the world, garlic chive blossoms are not nearly as popular for eating as those of regular chives. But garlic chives are so pretty and long-lasting that they're often grown as garden ornamentals or for cut flowers rather than as a culinary ingredient. Many beneficial insects also feed on nectar found in the flowers. Garlic chives bloom all at once and seldom complain, even if you gather almost every stem to enjoy indoors.
Sun-loving, extremely cold-hardy (Zone 3) perennials, chives ask only for regular water and reasonably fertile soil to be contented garden residents.
In the garden, let chives help bring out your painterly side. They're pretty enough to include among your flowers, and they may be good companion plants in both the flower and vegetable gardens, too. According to a 1999 report in the Journal of Chemical Ecology, interplanting garlic chives with tomatoes helps suppress bacterial wilt, a real challenge for tomato growers in the Southeast.
Sun-loving, extremely cold-hardy (Zone 3) perennials, chives ask only for regular water and reasonably fertile soil to be contented garden residents. Early spring is the best season to start a new planting of either regular or garlic chives. Both are easy to grow from seed, but be sure it's fresh because germination rates can fall below 50 percent after only one year. Also, be aware that seedlings are apt to remain small through their first year, so if you want good-sized clumps in short order, purchase the plants or trade with a friend for some pass-alongs; chives multiply by bunching as well as by seed, so digging and dividing established clumps every few years is good for the plants, too.
The grassy texture of chive leaves also makes them a welcome addition to container plantings of herbs, where they do exceedingly well. If you live far enough south to leave a planted container outdoors all winter, try this: Bring one inside in late winter, while the weather is still cold and the plants are dormant. Within a few days, a tuft of green chive shoots will spurt up, their growth triggered by the warmer temperatures. Chives forced to grow early indoors often do not bloom as enthusiastically after they go back outside as those allowed to follow their natural rhythms, but you need not worry about killing them. Whether forced indoors or grown outside, clumps will continue to produce nonstop all summer and into fall. As the growing season progresses, a mulch of nitrogen-rich grass clippings will help the plants continue to flourish, especially those in containers.
In very hot weather, the leaves of regular chives may wither, but after a short rest, heat-stressed plants that are given regular water usually rebound and produce a new crop of tender young leaves in the fall. Garlic chives hold their strappy green leaves well through summer's heat, though the leaves often become tough and fibrous. The best-quality garlic chive leaves are gathered in late spring; by the time they bloom in late summer, these plants are best appreciated as a lovely perennial. Both species die back to the ground when freezing weather comes but need no special protection to insure their winter survival.
Snip chives into little pieces using scissors or mince them on a cutting board with a sharp knife. Many people enjoy loading up baked potatoes with fixin's that include mounds of chive greens. The combination makes a delicious culinary partnership, but it marks only the beginning of this herb's tasty uses. The mild flavor of chives makes them acceptable to most palates, even raw — a claim that cannot be made for other onions. Both regular and garlic chives are rich in vitamins A and C, calcium and phosphorous and, as members of the Allium family, they may help prevent such diseases as cancer, and lower blood pressure and control bleeding, too.
You can add chives to such naturally mild-flavored cooked dishes as omelets and cream sauces with good effect. For a beautiful presentation of long, cylindrical vegetables such as asparagus, carrots or green beans, tie the vegetables into small bundles using chive leaves as strings. Then, steam the tied bundles until the vegetables are tender. For a tasty herbed spread, mix 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh chives into half a cup of softened butter, reduced-fat cream cheese or a mixture of both.
To make a delicately flavored and colored vinegar with regular chive blossoms, begin with 2 cups of mild, white vinegar such as white rice vinegar, and add 2 cups (packed) fresh blossoms. Let stand at least a week; then strain, discarding the faded blooms, and transfer the flavored vinegar to storage bottles. Add a few fresh blossoms on their stems for a decorative look.
To preserve your garden chives for winter cooking, chop and freeze the leaves in ice cube trays. Home-dried chives usually lack flavor; the commercial, freeze-dried product is better tasting.
Adapted from Barbara Pleasant's forthcoming book, The Whole Herb, to be published by Square One Publishers.