If Basil is like a diva who begs for a sweater on a balmy spring morning, Chives is the guy who drapes his leather jacket over her shoulders and flexes his tattooed muscles with nary a goose bump in sight. Hardy down to zone 2 Allium schoenoprasumis the last plant to say die in the fall and the first to poke its green spikes out of the frozen ground come spring. That alone is reason enough to reserve a corner of your garden for this hardy Allium, but that’s only the beginning of chives herbaceous charms.
Chives not only flex their muscles at the frost, they scare the daylights out of aphids and moles. Surround your vegetable patch with these guys and it’s like having a dozen bouncers working 24/7 in your garden patch.
Conversely, when it comes to its culinary qualities, there is nothing overwhelming about this member of the onion family. Unlike its cousin the onion, where the focus is on the bulb, only the chive’s greens are used for eating. With their understated twang, chives are the jazz to the onion’s rock and roll. Better yet, they won’t make you cry when you chop them.
Chive’s tender and tasty spring shoots are replaced in early summer by wider ones containing the flower bud. Which brings us to yet another reason for growing chives; aesthetics. Their rosy-purple balls bursting with bloom are especially gorgeous when paired up with pink or purple flowers such as lavatera, iris, lavender, salvia and peonies. They also look stunning when mixed with ornamental grasses such as blue oat grass, blue fescue and fountain grass.
A few years ago some of my chives wandered over and started hanging out beneath my Theresa Bugnet Rose. For two or three weeks it was pure serendipity when Theresa’s ruffled lilac-pink petals and Chive’s mauve puffs. I copied their pairing and completely surrounded all my pink and purple roses with chives. Not only is the yearly result stunning, the roses never once complain of aphids or black spot. Although, plants seldom complain about anything, do they? That’s one of many reasons gardeners love them. They don’t put up a fight for the remote control neither. Or ask when supper might be when you’re still in the garden at seven o’clock. But I digress.
Not only are chive’s blossoms visually magnetic, they are attractive to thetaste buds as well. The flowers are perfectly edible and look fabulous in salads. Keep in mind that the blossoms are at their most scrumptious just as the buds are beginning to open. Poke a couple blossoms into a glass jar of vinegar and you’ll have yourself a lovely pink hued vinaigrette.
You can easily start chives from seed, but it takes a lot longer to get a harvest that way. The most efficient method is to get a division from someone else’s plant (preferably someone who knows why you’re in their garden with a shovel). Simply nip a slice off the outer edge of the clump, being sure to nab at least five or six of the little white bulbs and then plant the entire cluster to a depth equalling about twice their diameter and you’re set for life. Or you can buy a plant from a nursery. You can tell how many bulbs you’re getting by simply counting the green spikes. Each bulb produces one spike. The more spikes in the pot, the more bulbs beneath, andthe sooner you’ll have a healthy established plant of your own.
Chives grow to an approximate height of 26 centimetres (10 inches) forming an attractive mound that increases in size every spring. After three or four years the centre will sort of fall open, telling you its time get out the spade and rejuvenate it by dividing it up. This is your chance to clone yourself an army of aphid and mole bouncers for every corner of your yard. Simply dig the entire plant up and the bulb clusters will easily separateallowing you to replant half a dozen bulbs per new hole. Or pay it forward by offering division to some poor chiveless soul wandering the neighbourhood with a shovel. Or both.
If you plant chives in the gaps of stone paths the bulbs will spread around them creating a striking pattern. They get a lot taller than say, a creeping thyme, but it’s a whimsical sight even if you do have to lift your feet a little higher when you walk the path. If you have broken pavement in a rarely traversed area, chives are the perfect solution for taking the ugly out of the situation.
As much as I love the looks and taste of this herb and think everyone should grow them, you should know that it can be invasive. Not only does it increase by the bulb every year, it will also self seed with zeal. However, if you’re diligent about snipping off the seed blossoms for salads and vinaigrettes and prevention, this won’t be a concern.
Chives can be dried, but they lose so much flavour in the process that it’s really not worth the effort. They fare somewhat better in the frozen state. Simply chop them up and put them in a freezer bag or plastic container and you’re done. However, in my opinion, the best way of enjoying chives in the winter is to pot up a few bulbs inthe fall and set them on a sunny windowsill. If they start looking tired, splash a little water on them (but don’t overdo it) and then put the pot in a dark, cool room where the chives can pretend its winter and catch 40 winks. After a few weeks return them to the sunny windowsill and soon they will be poking their hardy green spikes out of the dirt and thriving all over again. You can make up three or four pots so you can stagger this period of fake winter dormancy and in this way have fresh chives all winter long. Even in warmer zones, where chives practically grow year round, a pot or two in the kitchen is still handy for snipping.
If your taste buds enjoy a little garlic with its onion, you can include Garlic Chives Allium tuberosum – almost as hardy, with white flowers instead of purple. Or if it’s straight aesthetics you’re going for, try some of the ornamental onions.
Here is a short list of some ornamental onions that might be of interest to flower gardeners:
Giant Ornamental Onion Allium giganteum The cultivar ‘Globemaster’ features a leafless stalk that reaches the incredible height of 120 cm (48 inches) with purple flowers measuring upto 15 cm across (6 inches). Blooms early to midsummer.
Star of Persia Allium christophii (A. albopilsum) carries clusters of silvery-lavender star shaped blossoms forming enormous heads that measure 20 -30 cm (8 -12 inches) across. Reaches heights of 60 cm (24 inches) or more.
Turkestan Ornamental Onion Allium karataviense has large whitish flowers on a tulip type stem. Grows to a height of 25 cm (10 inches).
Persian Ornamental Onion Allium aflatunense (also known as Allium hollandicum) Two favourite cultivars, both about 90 cm (36 inches) tall, are the dark lilac ‘Lucy Ball’ (named for the late entertainer Lucille Ball), and the violet-purple ‘Purple Sensation’.
Tip – for the most spectacular effect try planting odd numbers of each type of allium in groups of three, five, or nine. Then take it further by mixing together a combination ornamental alliums in one area according to height for an impressive display guaranteed to make even the most determined aphid or mole squeak in defeat.
Altogether, there are about 1250 kinds of allium in the world, making it one of the largest plant species out there. Imagine the family reunion onions could have! Not to mention all the crying.