Whether you garden many acres or grow a few herbs in a window box, you should reserve a little space for growing chives. Allium schoenoprasum, the smallest and mildest-tasting member of the onion family, was well-established in Chinese cuisine as far back as 3000 B.C., and was also popular in Egyptian and Roman dishes.
Unlike its cousin the onion, the chive is not raised for its bulbs, but for its 8- to 12-inch, hollow, spear-like leaves. Snipped into small pieces, they add flavor to stews, casseroles, egg dishes, soups (they’re a must for vichyssoise), potatoes (sour cream and chives are the topping for baked potatoes), salads, salad dressings and dips. They can also be combined with other herbs for making herb butters, sauce verte and tartar sauce.
For chive butter, whip two tablespoons of fresh, chopped chives into a pound of room-temperature butter, refrigerate, and then serve on hot breads or potatoes. To make chive salt, add the herb to noniodized salt. Remove the leaves after several weeks, and use the flavored salt on meats and vegetables.
Chives are good for you, too. They are mildly antibiotic and contain high concentrations of vitamins A and C, with measurable amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine and niacin. Herbalists have used them for centuries to tone the stomach, reduce high blood pressure and strengthen the kidneys. Chives were even used by Romanian gypsies to tell fortunes, and clumps of the herb were hung from bedposts and ceilings to drive away evil spirits.
These perennials are also quite pretty. Mauve-pink, globular flowers appear in profusion from early to late summer, making growing chives perfect for garden borders and knot gardens. However, so few plants are needed to provide for a family’s culinary needs that many people grow chives in pots. And if you are growing them strictly for food rather than for decoration, nip the flowers before they bloom. In fact, chives will grow thicker if they’re picked often.
You can easily start this herb from seed or buy it in small clumps from a nursery. While chives will grow in most soils in sun or partial shade, they prefer a fairly rich soil high in humus with a pH between 6 and 8. Don’t cut from plants until their second year, and keep them free of weeds (which harbor aphids). Divide clumps every three to four years in spring or autumn. Some other care tips are to supply moisture in dry weather to prevent your chives from being attacked by aphids, and, after repeated cuttings, to fertilize with a fish emulsion. The plant also likes coffee grounds and does well if planted close to comfrey.
Unfortunately, chives don’t dry well, but — if you want them year-round — they can be quick-frozen for use in winter dishes. You can also transplant a clump into a pot in late fall, let it stand dormant for a few months in a protected spot outdoors, then bring it in to a sunny window and water it well.
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