Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2007
Regional Report

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Chives have many uses in the garden and kitchen, and their blossoms add delicate pink to the border.

Chives: The Delicate Onion

Chives are hardy perennials in the onion family that are grown for their mild-flavored leaves rather than for their bulbs. Cultivated for nearly 5,000 years and native to Greece, Sweden, the Alps, and parts of northern Britain, chives are used for culinary, ornamental, craft, and companion planting uses. They are even sometimes used medicinally, such as to aid digestion, and sulfur oil from all members of the onion genus is antiseptic and lowers blood pressure, but only in fairly large quantities.

The slender, tubular, 6- to 10-inch-long green spears grow in dense clumps and lack well-formed bulbs. If not kept clipped back, pinkish purple, 18-inch-tall flowers will appear from midsummer on. The flowers dry beautifully and make splendid additions to dried herb and flower arrangements.

In the Kitchen
In aroma and taste, chives resemble a light and delicate onion. They are used fresh as garnish and fresh or cooked in combination with other ingredients as seasoning. For the most intense flavor and aroma, snip from the clump as needed and use immediately. Whole leaves can be tied decoratively around small bundles of sliced carrots or asparagus. Chives complement just about every flavor except sweet. Because they are fragile and delicately flavored, add them at the very last moment when cooking.

Cut chives can be dried but they will lose much of their flavor. They may also be frozen for later use in cooked recipes. Flowers, too, are edible, with an even milder onion flavor than the leaves, and they are excellent in salads and herb vinegars.

In the Garden
Chives make good border plants or rock garden accents in the ornamental garden, with a neat appearance through spring, summer, and fall. Tops die back during cold weather but resprout in early spring. Foraging bees are greatly attracted to the flowers.

As a companion plant for carrots, grapes, roses, and tomatoes, chives are purported to deter black spot on roses, scab on apples, and mildew on cucurbits.

Plant chives in full or partial sun in moderately rich, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0, and provide plenty of water. They can be started easily from seed, although seed loses its viability after a year. Broadcast or sow seed in rows 1/2 inch deep and 2 feet apart. For best germination (from ten days to three weeks) chive seeds require darkness, constant moisture, and a temperature of 60 to 70 degrees. When seedlings are 2 to 4 inches tall, in four weeks or so, thin them to about six per clump, and plant or eat thinnings. Fertilize liberally with fish emulsion or other high-nitrogen food if you cut them repeatedly.

Snip leaves any time after established plants are 6 inches tall. Cut several blades low to the ground, leaving about 2 inches, rather than mowing down the entire clump at a time, since plants need some leaves to keep growing. Mature shoots lack succulence, and plants seem to grow more robustly with frequent harvesting. After a harvest of blooms, cut plants back, and a new crop of succulent shoots will come up again.

Plants multiply rapidly and are easily divided into clumps of from six to ten shoots each. Mature clumps should be divided every two or three years to rejuvenate them.

Because they grow easily and are a compact plant, chives make an ideal kitchen herb for indoor growing. They can be seeded in indoor pots, or a late-summer clump can be potted and sunk into soil for a few weeks to get reestablished before moving it indoors.

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