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The secret life of chives: how to use them in the garden and the kitchen

Chives are one of the most versatile of perennial plants.
Chives are one of the most versatile of perennial plants.
Photo by Sharon Bowles

Let's get the secret out. Although chives are a well-known herb, they are greatly under-utilized in the garden and the kitchen. This versatile perennial herb, with its mild onion flavor, is subtly tasty in recipes, useful outdoors and incredibly easy to grow and harvest.

Secret: The flowers are edible

Each spring, the chives will produce lovely lavender flowers. You can choose to leave them on the plant until they fade, or, because they are edible, you can use them as a lovely garnish on salads, soups and vegetables.

Adding the flowers to white vinegar will give you a lovely light-purple salad dressing. Who knew?

Note: Once you use the flowers, or after they fade, cut their stems close to the bottom, as the stalk does not make for tasty eating.

More Secrets: Chives in the kitchen

Yes, chives are great on baked potatoes, but there are so many more ways to use them. Here are a few.

  • Chives are delicious with fish. Sprinkle on the fish before serving or marinate the fish with a mixture of chives and olive oil before cooking.
  • Mix chives with butter, cream cheese, or sour cream for wonderful spreads.
  • Add chives to ice cubes. They will liven up almost any drink and add its own subtle taste. (It’s also a good way to preserve them over the winter months.)
  • Eggs and chives are delicious together. You can scramble them together, or you can top off your eggs with fresh green chives. They’re also a great garnish for deviled eggs.
  • Add them to soup, potato salad and pasta for an extra taste of mild onion.

Some More Secrets: Chives in the garden

As a pesticide: Great news -- bugs do not like chives, especially aphids. Plant chives around plants that are prone to aphids and you’ll have much less of a problem.

As a landscaping aid: Not only are chives an attractive addition to your garden as a perennial edging or as a plant addition, but they help prevent soil erosion because of their dense bulbous roots.

Growing and Harvesting Chives

Chives are one of the most versatile of hardy perennial plants and extremely easy to grow. You can plant them from seed into a pot, or directly into your garden. You can also buy them as plants from a local nursery, which will give you a good head start on using them.

If growing from seed, start in the spring and plant in well-draining soil in full sun (partial sun in the South is fine). Water the soil as needed, especially when germinating so the seeds don’t dry out and die. That’s it!

Chives grow in clumps from small bulbs, which you can divide approximately every three years. They are not invasive (like garlic chives whose flower seeds plant themselves willy-nilly), so you can plant them 6-8 inches apart. If you cut them a lot, fertilize every 3-4 weeks with a balanced liquid organic fertilizer (like fish emulsion).

You can start harvesting chives when they are about 6 inches tall. As they mature, the leaves will become hollow. To harvest, gently gather a bunch of leaves starting from around the sides of the plant. With a sharp scissors, snip them off about ½ inch above the soil level. Shake out any dead leaves, rinse and roll in a paper towel to dry. Keep refrigerated in damp paper towels until you are ready to use them.

Chives and organic gardening go hand-in-hand as they need very little maintenance and, because insects don’t like them, you don’t even have to think about pesticides (but if you do, please use organic sprays). Remember, organic gardening is good for the planet and organically grown chives are good for your health.

So now that some of the secrets are out, grow some chives and get to know their wonderful versatility. You’ll probably discover your own secrets.