Chives, the delightfully flavorful cousin of onions and lilies, have existed for over five thousand years. However, they weren’t used culinarily until the Middle Ages, and It is believed that Marco Polo brought them to Europe from Asia (1). Their botanical name, Allium schoenoprasum, harkens back to a Greek description of their structure being both like a reed and a leek. Later, the French called them cive, which translated to chive in English.
No matter the name, chives have long been beloved for their diminutive stature– the smallest of the onion family– and their distinctive taste. Lacking the large bulb of other Alliums, chive plants resemble grass from a distance. They can grow to over a foot high and are prized for their purple flowers and the delicate character their flavor adds to dishes. What’s more, chives are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients (2).
Chives are used heavily in French cuisine, chopped finely and added as a garnish on bisques, creating colorful contrasts atop scrambled eggs, and bestowing buttery sauces with a touch of mild onion flavor. Not to be mistaken for garlic chives– the Chinese chives Allium tuberosum– common chives have a distinctly onion-like flavor, while garlic chives more strongly taste of garlic (unsurprisingly). Garlic chives can be easily distinguished by their broad, flat leaves and white flowers. Both varieties of chives bring life to any dish they are added to (3).
Common chives are a good alternative for cooks who find the flavor of onions too strong. Chopped finely, they can be added to dishes at the very end of cooking, so that they don’t lose their flavor or color, or they can be added raw as a garnish. Garlic chives are similar in that they are a garlicky alternative to garlic for those who find garlic too strong.
The flowers of both species are edible– the purple common chive flowers are delicious served raw, and the white flowers of the Chinese chive can be eaten raw or fried. The flowers should be harvested and eaten when they are young before seeds have formed. Chive flowers can also be used to infuse vinegar with a delicious, onion flavor.
How to grow chives
Both common chives and garlic chives are easy to grow indoors and are unfussy enough to make even the most inexperienced beginner feel like a master gardener. Chives will grow happily in containers and do not require any special treatment. They are perennial, which means that they have a twelve-month growing season, providing gardeners with a dash of fresh flavor at their fingertips year-round when grown at home.
To grow chives, the first thing required is a south-facing spot that receives full sun for at least eight hours a day, ideally a sunny windowsill. Like most of the plants found in herb gardens, chives benefit from a great deal of direct light, although they can tolerate partial shade. If a windowsill indoors isn’t suitable, consider a window box that is hung outside the window.
Once the growing location has been determined, a few supplies are needed:
Container and tray
An appropriate container for growing chives will be at least four inches deep and can be quite wide. Unlike many herbs, chives do not have an extensive root system and can thrive in more shallow containers than many other plants. The most important thing is to make sure that the container has adequate drainage, as overly wet soil can cause plants to suffer. A tray will be needed beneath any indoor pot, to ensure that surfaces are protected from any overflow from watering.
A well-drained potting mix is perfectly suited for growing chives indoors. It is possible to make a home-made soil using a combination of peat moss, vermiculite, organic matter and a touch of granular, time-released fertilizer, but the advantages of commercial potting soil are that it is ready-to-go and tidy to store.
Purchasing seeds for chives should be straightforward. Any garden center or garden section of a hardware store should have them. If not, there are a multitude of seed companies to order from online. One advantage of ordering seeds online is that it is possible to find organic seeds, which are not always available on the shelves of local retail outlets. Make sure that the seeds are from the current year, as chive seeds tend to lose their viability quickly. Leftover seeds should be stored in a cool, dry place away from sunlight and may be good for a second year.
In areas that lack adequate sunlight in winter months, a grow light can help to maintain plant health year-round. Consider using a 75W grow light to supplement chive plants during winter months when days are shorter. Ideally, chives want at least five hours of direct sunlight each day. If providing supplemental light, make sure they get closer to eight hours.
For best results, sow seeds lightly over the potting soil surface, and press them into the soil lightly. Water the pot thoroughly, and continue to water every day or so, maintaining a high level of surface moisture until the seeds have germinated. Once the chive sprouts are about an inch or so high, thin them out so that they are at least three inches apart. This will give each plant the space it needs to thrive.
Care of Chives
Chive plants benefit from moist soil but will tolerate occasional dryness. The best policy is to check the soil by inserting a finger to an inch deep towards the edge of the container. It should be easy to sense if the soil is dry by testing this way, but there are also self-watering pots and devices that can be used to test soil moisture levels.
Because they are perennial, chives will continue to produce for many seasons, years even! They will, however, need to be divided every few years. After several seasons, the small bulbs beneath the soil will have multiplied and bunched together into clumps. To divide them, gently dig up the bulbs, separate them, and re-plant them, transferring the excess bulbs to a new container or harvesting the whole plant to eat. Fertilize plants at least once a year to keep them producing well.
Harvesting & Storing
Harvesting chives is best done with a pair of scissors. Leaves should be cut about two inches above the base and left until new growth is six or more inches long. If common chives are allowed to flower, the leaves may become bitter afterward. Chives are best fresh, but can also be frozen. Dried chives have some applications, but they lose their color and flavor and are less desirable than their fresh counterparts.
Chives are the ultimate “gateway culinary herb” for reluctant indoor growers. They are versatile and easy to incorporate into dishes and require almost no care– making them an awfully good return on investment.