By Gail Reynolds – Whenever I think of growing herbs outdoors here at Timberlakes, I think about growing chives. Chives are about the sturdiest and most dependable herb variety we grow, and they take acclaim for the longest productivity period each year. They’re the first of our field-grown herbs to enter the marketplace in spring and the last to close it in late fall. Because of their culinary versatility, growing chives chocks up reliable and consistent commercial sales for the grower throughout the season and provides countless tasty delights at the family dining table. Easy harvesting and numerous food preservation methods make this herb ideal for winter use, value-added market products and gift items.
Growing chives requires little care (other than watering and periodic fertilizing) as the plant is theoretically disease-resistant and poses no pest problems (at least in our part of the United States). And because they withstand the usual erratic early spring cold spells well (putting on fresh new growth during and in spite of them), chive beds provide the perfect herb garden beginning point each year. While my starter plants are outgrowing their space in the greenhouse in April and May, the established beds of chives provide me with the perfect excuse to get outdoors and dig into the new season. I’ll fill you in on some of the general aspects of growing chives.
History and General Information
Growing chives is easy, and this hard perennial is a culinary staple to most herb gardens in the majority of restaurants. They are the first of the herbs to poke their heads through the soil in the springtime, and have a versatility in the kitchen unmatched by all others, except possibly for curly parsley which seems to be used as a taste ingredient or garnish in almost everything!
While chives have a natural affinity for fish, cheese, egg and salad entrees, the signature dish for this member of the onion family is baked potatoes with sour cream and chives. Gardeners in the U.S. who love growing chives usually grow these two popular types: Alium schoenoprasum (the common variety we most relate to atop a baked potato have tubular, slender, deep green leaves and a mild onion flavor), and Alium tuberosum (also known as Chinese leeks or garlic chives, with flat leaves carrying a delicate garlic flavor and most frequently used in oriental entrees). Of these, the tubular Alium schoenoprasum is in most demand from a culinary standpoint, however both types adorn the herb patch with grace, growing to a height of a foot or so. In addition to the full grass-like almost “weeping” backdrop and centerpieces both chive types offer the garden setting, the flowers are extraordinary.
Common chives sprout tall stalks with round, pale purple blossoms and the Chinese or garlic type sport startling, but most delicate, white flower blooms. Blossoms, flowers and green leaves are all edible. Historians and archaeologists say people have been growing chives for 5,000 years, with the origin reported as Siberia, China, or Greece, depending upon the information source. Nevertheless, after its earliest documented presence in the United States (mid-1600s), chives satisfied the American palate and gained its place as a main player in this country. In our fresh-cut herb marketplace, we find it to be in high demand in almost all of the restaurants we serve, regardless of the specialty or ethnic focus of their cuisine.
From the good health standpoint, the old herbalists place chives on the healing herbs list as a natural antibiotic and an effective antiseptic. Many present-day herbalists attribute to it no medicinal effects. However, for modern purposes, the high nutritional content of chives goes unquestioned. Chives are reported to be rich in calcium, phosphorous, sulfur, folic acid (a B vitamin) and vitamins A and C. In fact, in the 1988 edition of Season To Taste, by Jeanette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer, it is reported that one tablespoon of chopped chives has as much vitamin A as two cups of cabbage! Some people like growing chives as potted windowsill plants (which should be cut frequently for use to maintain space and to prevent leaf crimping), survive well in outdoor planters, thrive in an herb garden setting and do not object at all to being planted row-style (as long as they’re near each other).
Getting Started with Growing Chives
There are a variety of ways to get started with growing chives. While starting out from seed is an easy process, it is a slow one, since germination takes anywhere from 7-14 days. To get a head start on your season, you can start seed indoors, planted 1/2-inch deep into pots or flats of soil mix while keeping them moist at all times, out of direct light, and at a consistent 60-70 degree temperature range for best results. Once they get started, they will grow rapidly and fully and after four-to-six weeks, you can simply knife cut (from top of plant to root bottom) and lift out two-inch chunks of them and transplant into your garden, at the same depth as they were in the flat or seeding container.
Seeds can also be sowed directly into the soil anytime during the growing season, however they are slow to establish and weeding between the feathery newcomers is a nightmare. In either case, your harvest yield will be minimal the first year and will only be increased by constant cutting. The easiest way to get started with a first-year harvest is to approach your local nursery, friend or neighbor for a clump or two of their already-established second year (or older) plants. Many nurseries sell mature chives in two-to-three inch pots and you can actually take these clumps and divide them into about four plants for transplant into your patch. If you’re “borrowing” from a neighbor, simply take along a long sharp spade or sharp narrow shovel and carve out a portion (or an entire clump, depending on your neighbor’s generosity) to take home for transplant. If you already have some established chives, simply do as we do each spring with all chive plants that have reached two years’ maturity-make divisions of your own clumps and replant for increased volume. This is not only a money-saving measure, the chive plants actually benefit from the experience and your yield will be improved and healthier.
Dividing and Transplanting
Here are some steps we take that work for us which you may want to try.
- With your sharp spade or shovel, first dig down as deep as you can on all sides of either the entire plant or portion you wish to divide.
- Then dig down very deep on the loosest side and lift up the clump.
- Shake off all of the loose soil possible around the roots (which may be entangled and “braided” around each other.
- Cut the roots (with scissors) to one-half inch length from the green bottoms.
- Cut the top green portion 1-1/2 inch above the root portion.
- Gently split the large clump into smaller portions, containing three to six plants each.
- Remove all weeds from your future chives bed and cultivate the soil (with a garden claw) fairly deeply and at least four inches around the area where each plant will be placed.
- Plant these newcomers about eight inches apart, one inch deep, leaving only about one-half inch of the greenery above ground.
- If your soil is not already fairly moist, take along a container of water and fill each planting spot with water before inserting the transplant.
- If you have to add water, this is as good a time as any to enrich your soil with a good fertilizer. Simply add a water soluble fertilizer (Peter’s is what we use) to your water in the recommended amount. (Ed. note: Of course we recommend an organic fertilizer.)
- Firm up the soil around the plant so that the chives are pretty much facing upward on a 90-degree angle. That way you won’t be disappointed later when they’re growing sideways and are difficult to harvest.
As long as you are growing chives that are well-weeded and well-watered, your chives should grow almost before your eyes and be ready for harvesting before you might imagine. In the late fall, we mulch over and around our chives with straw. In the spring, for our existing plants that will not be divided, we lift off mulch; cultivate around each clump; and then place straw mulch completely around the base of each chive clump to inhibit weed growth and retain moisture. Once the transplants are established, we mulch around them with straw, as well.
At Timberlakes, we harvest numerous pounds of chives per season out of several rows. When harvesting, don’t be shy! Always cut chives to within one-half inch to 1-1/2 inches above ground level. Cut the entire clump even if there are only a few strands of green and even if you only need a few strands, to promote growth. Avoid cutting off only the tips as this practice actually inhibits growth and makes for a “trashy” harvest later on. Even if you end up growing chives beyond what you personally need (or your market demands) at any particular time during the season, cut them down to the required level when growth reaches a height of 8-10 inches. (You can clean and preserve your takings for winter use or some creative gift items.)
Harvest can be made fairly easy by gathering the tops of the entire clump in one hand and cutting the bottoms with a sharp knife or pair of scissors. Don’t attempt cutting with anything dull, as it will tear, bruise and shear the greens and you’ll end up having to re-cut, losing some of your valuable harvest in the process. Still gripping the tops with one hand, give the clump a good loose shake, so that all the debris from the bottom falls to the ground. Any remaining debris can be easily detected and you can just pick (or pull) it out with your free hand. Now, with your free hand rubber band the bottom of the bunch about an inch up and place it in your harvest container. Our banded bunches of chives are generally about 1-3/4 inches in diameter (about the width an average-sized female could grasp in her hand comfortably). We use a rather wide but lightweight rubber band on our chives-one that will securely contain the bunch without binding or crimping it too much to avoid bruising the leaves. In the cool of early morning or evening, you can safely harvest two dozen bunches in the field before having to bring them indoors under moderate refrigeration. However, if the temperatures are high (80 or more degrees), or you are harvesting under the direct afternoon sun, use your good judgment on how much of the heat the chives will take, and make the trips to store them in a shady spot as often as needed to avoid wilting. Bunches taken under a roof should be stored temporarily in completely air-tight containers (we use very large plastic bags) and then kept in moderate refrigeration until you are ready for the final “clean and prune” process.
Cleaning, Packaging and Storing
For our customers, we plan on growing chives and offering them in two forms: Bunches evenly cut at both ends (banded on one end); and full-length bunches (banded on one end, but allowing the full length pointed leaves to remain intact). Regardless of the finished product you (or your marketplace) desires, the main thing is that the chives are clean. This requires some diligent work on your part, since washing chives should be avoided at all costs for two reasons: wet chives are a pain to clean; and chives, especially the tubular common variety, retain moisture. Moisture hastens the spoilage process. Attempting to dry the leaves out after a water washing is generally unsuccessful, as chives wilt as they dry, losing their perky texture, taste, flavor and nutritional value. To clean chives, remove the rubber band if you have to, but pull out and remove all yellowish leaves and any other debris. Sometimes, it is necessary to cut above your original bottom-cut to remove any ground debris. Store the cleaned, banded chives in an air-tight plastic container or bag under refrigeration. To give you an idea of the cleaned yield: Four of our bunches (1-3/4 inches in diameter; seven-inch length) clean-cut at both ends yields right at one-half pound. Shelf life for chives packaged as above is about one week.
Chop herbs crosswise (from the opposite end of your rubber band) just before you are ready to use them. Technically, you can use them on anything — from omelets, to cream and cheese sauces, to soups, over vegetables and atop baked seafood-the options are endless. They blend well with most all other herb companions-basil, parsley, dill and marjoram, in particular. However, chives are best added close to the end of your cooking time in order to maintain their flavor, color and texture. Chives are also popular as a garnish, placed on the plate just before serving.
One of best ways to preserve chives is to freeze them. Chives are frozen in the chopped form (not as whole leaves), and can be frozen by two methods: chopped and frozen in water in ice cube containers; and chopped, frozen in airtight containers or bags.
I prefer the second method, as the finished product has superior color, taste and texture (probably because there is very little “thawing” or moisture retention involved). For this method, simply chop up your fresh chives and sprinkle them on a cookie sheet. Place the cookie sheet in your freezer and allow the chives to flash-freeze as single particles. This shouldn’t take too long (five minutes max). The level of flash-freeze you want to obtain is crisp, not ice-frosted. Place the flash-frozen chives in an air-tight plastic container, pop them into the freezer, and they’ll be there for your wintertime meals.
For most purposes, you will not need to thaw the chives when you’re ready to use them. Since you’re going to be adding them toward the end of your cooking time, simply remove the airtight container from the freezer just before using, pour out just the amount needed, and return the container to the freezer as quickly as possible.
Another alternative for preserving your chives is in the form of an herbal vinegar. In this instance you will probably want to gather not only the leaves, but a few of the lovely blossoms, as well.
First select the bottle or jar (clear is preferable) you will be using. Measure your chives against the length of the container and arrange your leaves in a fashion that allows them to be at staggered lengths at the top. Cut the bottoms straight across, so that the longest leaf is 3/4 of an inch shorter than the bottle length. Place approximately four to eight chive leaves (varying lengths) and one or two blossomed stems (one as tall as the longest leaf and one about half that size) upside down into a clean, sterilized bottle. Pour white distilled vinegar (from the bottle, untreated or heated) into the bottle. Seal with a cork or screw cap and then dip the top into hot melted paraffin wax to secure the seal.
These herbal vinegars can be used later over vegetables, over salads, as a meat marinade, or sprinkled over fish to be baked. They make lovely gifts and also are a good after-market, value-added product for your consumer restaurants during the down time between growing seasons. For more immediate use, any over-abundance of chopped chives can be can be mixed with butter and stored in your refrigerator for delicious toppings for all kinds of foods. Be creative and combine the chopped chives with dill, basil, fennel, or garlic with butter for some really nifty new tastes. The same concept is very adaptable to cream cheeses. And if you should be one of those folks who makes your own cheese, add some chopped chives to the cheese close to the end of the process. We make a fairly semi-soft goat cheese, and our cheeses are never without chives. This type of cheese blended with a mix of fresh garlic, chives and sage is about irresistible! The main thing is growing chives results in one of the most user-friendly herbs I know in the garden, in the kitchen, and in the marketplace. Start now to take pleasure in growing chives and all the benefits they offer.
Originally published in 2003 and regularly vetted for accuracy.