An attractive ornamental plant, chives are regularly found in herb gardens, edging paths or in mixed flower beds. Versatile and easy to cultivate, both the foliage and the flowers can be used in the kitchen. A member of the lily family, for many gardeners chives are the ideal addition to the perennial or culinary garden.
Attractive and useful, chives are one of the easiest plants to grow.
One of the easiest herbs to grow, this guide will take you through everything that you need to know about adding chives to your flower or herb garden.
Different Types of Chives
Common or Onion Chives have a mild onion flavor type with rosy-purple flowers. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 9 the plants produce masses of tubular blue-green foliage. On average they reach a height of 10 to 15 inches.
Allium tuberosum or Chinese chives, produce bright, white flowers above masses of flat foliage. While the flowers are often larger than those of the common cultivar the plants are, in general, not as densely clustered. Also known as Garlic chives, the plants in this variety average about 12 inches in height. However the flower spikes can reach up to 20 inches in late spring. This cultivar is hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9.
Common or onion cultivars are best used for borders or edging. Garlic cultivars are taller, meaning that they are best used in the middle of a bed.
Whichever variety you select, planting and caring for the herb is largely the same.
For something a little larger, try the Giant Siberian chives (Allium ledebourianum). Ideal for the back of a flower bed, the foliage has a rich taster and blue green tubular foliage. Siberian garlic chives (Allium nutans), also known as blue chives, have a distinct onion-garlic flavor. Similar in appearance to common cultivars, but taller, the plants flower in midsummer. These are ideal for the front of sunny windowsills or as a companion to carrots, beets and other plants.
Seeds and young plants can be purchased from garden stores or plant nurseries. Seeds can also be purchased online. If you are purchasing young plants, select the healthiest possible specimens.
Whichever variety of plant you decide to grow, planting and care is largely the same.
How to Sow Seeds
Sow your seeds undercover 6 to 8 weeks before the last predicted frost. Fill seed trays or pots with fresh potting soil. Moisten the soil and sow the seeds as thinly as possible, roughly 2 inches apart and about a quarter of an inch deep. Cover with a thin layer of soil.
If you are using modular Seedling Starter Trays, sow 2 or 3 seeds per module. If all three seeds germinate pick out 2, allowing the strongest seedling to grow on.
Place the trays in a warm position, the temperature needs to be between 65 and 70 ℉ for germination to occur.
Germination can take a couple of weeks. Following germination place the trays in a cooler position, about 50 ℉, and allow the seedlings to grow on. When they are large enough to handle, thin the seedlings out to a spacing of 4 to 6 inches.
Harden the seedlings off before transplanting outside once the last frost date has passed.
For the best results, plant your herbs in a full sun position. If you are in the South or Southwest you can grow your plants in a partial shade position.
Before planting work the soil over and weed. You can also amend the soil with a good amount of organic matter such as compost. Dig any amendments down to a depth of about 5 inches.
Make a hole in the soil large enough to hold the rootball. Remove the seedling from the pot and position in the center of the hole. When placed in the ground the crown of the plant should sit at soil level. Backfill the hole with a combination of soil and organic matter and water well.
If you are planting more than one seedling space the plants 8 to 12 inches apart.
As well as beds and herb spirals, the plants also thrive in containers and windowsill planters.
For container plants, fill your chosen pots with a well draining, fresh potting soil mix. Plant as described above, one plant per 6 to 8 inch pot. The pot should be about 6 inches deep. Place the pots in a sunny position.
Caring for Chives
These are cold tolerant, cool season perennials. During the summer months apply a thick layer of mulch around the plants to help keep them cool. If the plants get too warm they become dormant and growth ceases until temperatures fall again. Consistently watering can also keep plants cool, just be careful not to overwater them.
Apart from their heat intolerance these are pleasingly low maintenance plants.
Watering your Plants
Water your plants when the top inch of soil is dry to the touch. Don’t allow the soil to dry out any more than this. Keeping the soil evenly moist is vital if you want to encourage a good, consistent yield. If you struggle to know when to water your plants a soil moisture meter, such as the Gouevn Soil Moisture Meter, is a useful device.
Keep the soil evenly moist to ensure a regular, healthy supply of foliage.
For a truly low maintenance supply of fresh foliage, try growing in self watering pots.
When to Fertilize
Apply a regular dose of water soluble or liquid plant food to encourage healthy foliage and better flowers.
If you want a regular supply of fresh foliage, fertilize weekly. Fish emulsion can also be used.
If you are growing in poor soil, apply a nitrogen rich fertilizer in late spring or early summer to further boost foliage production.
Pruning your Plants
After a cold spell the foliage may become unsightly. Prune the plants back to ground level. New growth will emerge the following spring.
You should also deadhead spent flowers before they go to seed. Garlic cultivars in particular can reseed easily. Deadheading prevents the seeds from spreading around the garden.
How to Divide the Plant
After 3 to 4 years of consistent growth the plants will need to be divided. Dividing plants stops large, unproductive clumps from developing. It also helps to keep them healthy and productive. This is best done in early spring. If you are growing plants in a colder climate and have to lift them for overwintering, divisions can also be taken in the fall.
Water the soil before dividing. This helps to make lifting the entire plant and root system easier. Cut the foliage down to a few inches above the ground. With a shovel dig down deeply all around the plant. As you dig deeper try to dig under the plant and roots. This helps you to lift as much of the plant and root in one piece as possible.
After lifting the plant, brush away any remaining soil. You can now inspect the entire root system and clump. The clump is made up of a number of small bulbs.
Use a shovel or your hands to separate the plant into smaller healthy sections or divisions. Each division should have at least 10 small bulbs. Replant the divisions as described above. Allow several weeks of healthy growth to develop before harvesting.
Overwintering your Plants
In cold climates, where frosts can strike, dig up and divide the chives in early fall. Replant the divisions in small pots filled with fresh potting soil. Overwinter in a greenhouse or on a south facing windowsill before planting out in the spring. Plants in containers can just be moved indoors.
Common Pests and Problems
Aphids can be particularly troublesome during the spring. Apply neem oil or insecticidal soap directly onto the pests to remove infestations. It is important that you spray the pests not the foliage. The solution can mound on the plant’s waxy foliage, particularly down towards the crown.
Other pests such as onion fly and thrips can also target the plants.
Planting in a favorable position, helps to encourage lots of healthy growth.
Often appearing after prolonged wet spells, leek rust causes yellow spots to appear on the foliage. Mild attacks are unsightly but cause little damage. Badly affected plants should be dug up and destroyed. Avoid growing garlic, onions or leeks in this position for at least 3 years. A simple crop rotation system can help to avoid these issues.
Be careful not to plant in poorly draining soil. Root rot is a common problem for plants growing in wet or poorly draining soils.
Harvesting your Chives
You can begin harvesting foliage as soon as it is large enough to handle and eat. This is usually about 30 days after transplanting or 60 days after sowing the seeds.
In the first year after planting, harvest the plant no more than 4 times. This limited harvest helps the plant to establish itself. In subsequent years the plants can be cut back once a month.
Use a sharp scissors, or small garden scissors, to harvest the foliage. Always cut the foliage from the outside of the plant in, about half an inch above soil level. Cut only what you need. Allowing plenty of foliage to remain on the plant helps to maintain healthy growth.
Remember that the flowers can also be harvested and eaten. The flowers taste best just after opening, when they are still full and bright.
While best used fresh, you can store chives by chopping up the foliage and freezing it. The foliage can also be preserved in herb oils, butters or vinegars with other herbs such as parsley and tarragon.
Versatile and reliable, the plants will draw scores of pollinators to your garden.
Popular with pollinators and butterflies, chives are a good companion to many herbs and vegetables including:
As well as being a popular member of the herb garden, chives are also great ornamental plants. This versatility, coupled with their easy going nature, makes them ideal for almost any garden.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.