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Growing Chives

start growing chives organicallyThough chives may be small, their benefits are plentiful! Both low in calories and high in flavor, these hollow, tubular leaves may appear similar to green onions. However, they are actually an entirely different species of plant. Related to the lily family yet often confused with scallions, the chive is a uniquely beneficial vegetable unto itself. Chives have loads of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

According to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28, one tablespoon of chopped chives (3g) provides 1 calorie and less than 1 gram of fat, protein, or carbohydrate. Additionally, that same one tablespoon also contains 131 international units (IU) of vitamin A and 1.7 milligrams of vitamin C (3 percent of the daily value).

A member of the allium family, they are similar to garlic, shallots, and leeks. Chives make up the “fresh top greens” of the bulb vegetable. From a distance, they may look somewhat like grass. Chive, chervil, parsley and tarragon, are known among chefs as the “quartet of classic French fine herbs.”

There are several varieties of chives, all of which belong to the family Alliaceae. Common or onion chives are known as Allium schoenoprasum, while Giant Siberian chives are known as Allium ledebourianum. Chinese or garlic chives are allium tuberosum and Siberian garlic chives are Allium nutans.

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Start Growing Chives

Chives are also every gardener’s best friend. They make an excellent companion plant to many fruits, vegetables, and herbs. On the other hand, they also thrive alone or in a small container indoors, for instance on a windowsill.

Chives are native to China and the Siberian Highlands of Eastern Europe. However, they are now common in gardens and homes all over the world.

Finally, you can expect chive stalks to be very slender. Typically, they are more narrow in circumference than a standard pencil and stand a foot tall on average. Moreover, they are drought-tolerant perennials. Each year, they will produce spiky, lavender-colored edible flowers.

Continue reading to learn how to grow chives right at home (spoiler alert: it’s super simple!).

When and Where You Should Grow Chives

Chive crops may be grown from seeds, bulbs, and transplants. These may also be referred to as clumps because of their appearance.

For sowing seeds, you will want to plant seeds as early as possible in the spring. Then, for bulbs and transplants, you can plant them in the garden in late April or early May.

If you wish to plant chives in your home garden (or indoors), the easiest method is to plant rooted clumps (transplants) in spring, so that any danger of frost is long gone. Chives may be easily grown either indoors or in a dedicated area of your garden.

Remember that as perennials, chives will come back stronger each year, so if planting outdoors select an area in your garden that will have plenty of room. Also, it needs to be somewhere that you won’t mind the chives calling home for a while because the original plant will likely remain thriving for years.

Regardless of whether you choose to plant though, make sure you place your transplants six or more inches apart. Additionally, you will want to ensure that your plants have well-drained soil and that they receive six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day.

Understanding Seed Germination for Chives

Chives are perennials, meaning they will die back slightly only to then produce new growth each year. You can expect flowers to begin blooming in late May or June. Moreover, the plants will be most productive when divided regularly. You will want to do this at a minimum of every three to four years.

If not divided, the clumps of chives, which form naturally as the chives grow, can become too large. This will result in the center dying. If this happens, divide the plant, select out the healthy portions, and replant those in the soil which has been amended with plenty of organic compost.

Finally, unless you want your chive plants to propagate themselves around your garden haphazardly, you will also want to cut off the heads of the flowers before they go to seed.

Starting Chives Indoors

Chives may be started from seed. If you would like to purchase organic seed to begin your chive crop from scratch, we recommend or Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Seeds should be planted one-quarter inch deep in well-drained, fertile soil which has been properly amended. If you would like more information on soil amendments, we have lots of it!  However, chives do in fact thrive in all types of soil.

If your goal is to grow chives in order to harvest leaves for use immediately, transplants from local farmers are recommended instead of starting from seed. When you start with seeds you can expect to see leaves in the plant’s first year of growth, but they will not likely be large enough leaves to harvest for use. A transplant, on the other hand, is a slightly older plant which has already started the growing process and is ripe for cultivation – it’s just changing location!

Chives can be easily cultivated in a small pot on a windowsill provided that it receives lots of unobstructed sunlight and the pot has plenty of holes in the bottom for drainage. After all, you do not want your soil to become heavy.

Then, over winter, do not expect your plant to grow. In fact, they may die back some at this time. However,  they should return to full health when they begin receiving sun again in the spring. Additionally, you will want to avoid fertilizing during this time.

Moving Outdoors

If you have been growing your baby chive plant indoors and are now ready to move it outside, first make sure it has been indoors for at least six to eight weeks. While chives can do very well when sowed directly outdoors, it is not the same thing as planting them in a pot indoors and then moving them outside. You’ll need to begin acclimating your plant. Also known as “hardening off.”

To do so, about a week or two before you want to relocate your chive plant outdoors, begin taking it outside for increasing lengths of time, beginning at one hour. This helps the plant adjust to the exterior temperature and especially winds. After the “hardening off” period, and once the plant is at least six to eight weeks old, you may transplant it outside.

Prior to digging it up, you will want to water your plant three to four hours beforehand so that the soil is easier to remove. Now, gently remove the plant from its seedling container. You may find a disposable plastic fork helpful for this part of the process.

Then, remove and shake off as much soil as possible but don’t worry if some remains. It is more important to maintain the integrity of the root system than it is to remove the old soil. After this, you will want to dig a hole wide enough and deep enough to comfortably insert the root ball of the chive transplant.

Finally, insert the chives’ roots and cover loosely but generously with soil up to a point that is a half inch deeper than it was buried before. This is the same technique you will use to replant your divisions when periodically separating your chive clumps.

Once they are mature chives can grow in clumps, which can be more than a foot in diameter. After a mature chive plant has been allowed to grow unencumbered for an amount of time, it will need to be divided. If it is not, the center of these clumps may die. Additionally, dividing the chives benefits the health of both the original plant and the new clumps being propagated.

After the division of a clump of chives, the different sectioned chive clumps can be replanted “propagating” the chive plant. These chives clumps are an even easier way to start your chive crop than from seeds! Again, you will want to space your clumps six to twelve inches apart.

You may also choose to plant in a container indoors, but remember to choose a container with excellent drainage, as you never want heavy soil.

However, if planting outdoors, expect the chive crop to expand each year. Because of this, you will want to choose an area where the chive crops will have plenty of dedicated space and where it is sure to receive six to eight hours of direct sunlight. If you have any issues with soil drainage outdoors, consider building a raised bed.

It is always preferable to divide and replant your chives in the Spring unless you are planning to replant the divided sections indoors. When that is the case you may divide your crop in the Fall, plant the clumps indoors, then move them outside the following spring.

Preparing the Soil

Chives will grow in all soil types. For the best results, prior to planting incorporate four to six inches of well-composted organic matter. Additionally, your chives will prefer a pH between 6 and 7 but are highly adaptable.

By planting chives in a soil which is amended with plenty of organic matter, you will help your chives to avoid disease and grow to their full potential. It is also recommended to have your soil tested every three years. There are so many different types of amendments that can help with whatever is going on with your particular soil and crop needs. To learn all there is to know about improving your soil organically, take a quick detour to learn about soil, amendments, and compost here.

Spacing Requirements for Chives

When beginning with your chives, plant each bulb (or clump/transplant) or just a couple seeds approximately six inches apart. We recommend beginning with a total of no more than 2-6 transplants or the equivalent in seeds or bulbs.

Remember chives will expand each year.

Moreover, every three years plan to dig up the plants and divide them into small clumps with four to six bulbs each.

In contrast, if you would like to plant chives as a decorative border and/or attract pollinator bees, which are in decline in many regions and a vital part of our ecosystem, take a different approach with your planting strategy. You may direct seed with many seeds or transplant multiple chive plants. This works to create a border within your existing vegetable or flower gardens, and the colorful blooms also work well in flower arrangements.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

Weed control via mulching is especially important during the first two months of the chives crop growth. During this time is when they are the least able to compete with other neighboring plants.

Additionally, tilling methods for weed control are poorly advised. Doing this will destroy shallow roots and slow down plant growth.

Besides quality soil, chives require minimal additional fertilization when planted. A soil rich in organic matter should provide sufficient nutrients, and it’s important to remember that slower growth leads to more developed flavors and healthier plants. If desired, topdress in May and July with one teaspoon of 21-0-0 (NPK) organic fertilizer (“Ammonium Sulfate”) per square foot to benefit growth and yields.

Chives need maximum watering to achieve maximum production. Soils should be thoroughly moistened each time the chives are watered. Though chives can survive times of drought stress, growth and yields will decrease. Organic mulches, such as compost, grass clippings or ground up leaves will help conserve water in addition to reducing the need for manual weeding.

Finally, if the plant appears stressed, you can begin applying diluted liquid organic fertilizer each spring. Use a very light application of a 5-10-5 (NPK) organic fertilizer at one-half the recommended strength every four to six weeks for plants grown both outside in the garden or inside in unfiltered sunlight.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

Chives pair well with so many neighbors in the garden that it is difficult to list them all. Some of the more notable are onions, beets, and carrots.

When planted near or with carrots that have been allowed to bloom, the flies that are typically attracted to both carrots and onions become confused. Additionally, the growth and flavor of the carrots are improved. Nearly everything from parsley and mustard to broccoli and kohlrabi is listed as a companion to chives. Even tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, rhubarb, strawberries and squash get along with chives!

Additionally, chives repel aphids, beetles, and even some types of worms and slugs. If that wasn’t enough, chives can also prevent apple scab disease when planted at the base of apple trees. Then, after a few years, you can even prevent black spot on roses with chives. Just remember that plants may need to be several years old before this benefit is noticed on roses.

You can even make chive tea from chopped chives in boiled water. This is used to cure mildew on cucumbers and gooseberries.

The only crops that are not advised to plant with or near chives are asparagus, beans, peas, and spinach.

Harvesting and Storing Chives

Before the chives go to flower, you should harvest the outer leaves. Start with a clean garden or kitchen shears to trim the chives approximately two inches above the soil. While the chives are blooming, you can pick the flowers and add them to dishes as an edible garnish. They have a mild onion-y flavor. After the chives are done flowering, cut back the rest of the plant including the flower stalks.

Chives are ready for harvest as early as thirty days after transplant or sixty days after seed. If the chives have been planted from seed, there will only be small leaves for harvest and not likely enough to use for a meal until the next harvest.

Some gardeners will harvest their chive plants three or four times during the first year. This is done by cutting the plant back monthly in the following years. Nevertheless, the plant will still only flower in May and June. The chives themselves are best when used fresh, or they may be dried and stored in an airtight container. Just be sure you put the container in a cool, dry place for later use.

Also, you may chop the chives and freeze them in plastic containers or freezer bags. In this way, the pieces will last longer, and it is not necessary to thaw them out before using in most recipes.

Additional Growing Tips for Organic Chives

  • Aphids hate chives. You can use chives as a natural pest repellent by planting them next to any plants and vegetables that you want to keep free of these pests.
  • Chives have super dense root systems. Planting chives strategically can help strengthen your soil and secure areas where soil erosion has formerly been an issue. In time, the chives will help the area fill in more solidly.
  • If any of your plants are suffering from mildew, chop up some chives’ leaves and boil them in water for several minutes. Put this water into a spray bottle once cooled. Spray the affected plants and watch the mildew disappear.
  • Remember that those pretty purple (or white!) chives blooms can be eaten! They have a flavor similar to the chives themselves, but it may not be for everyone. Regardless, it is still an attractive and safe plate decoration. You can also bunch together the flowers for a small bouquet, or add the blooms to plain white vinegar to make a pretty (and tasty!) salad dressing!