Most herbs are better fresh from the garden, but we sprinkle them dried from spice jars for convenience. You’ll rarely see dried chives in the store, and it’s always tiny mince of fresh chives topping baked potatoes at restaurants. There’s something about fresh chives that just isn’t the same dried and bottled.
It’s simple to grow your own fresh chives year round, indoors or outside. Chive plants grow readily in sunny spots and pot up quickly for winter use.
One of my first jobs after college was as a nanny to a group of 3 young kids. They’re the ones that fed me fresh chives for the very first time. The 5-year-old had a taste for chives, and he’d go out into their unmowed backyard and search through the tiny “hayfield” for the rogue patch of chives. It was tricky to find it in the dense high grass, but he knew right where it was.
He’d harvest off chives and snack on them while playing outside. He handed me a few, and I was amazed at how sweet they are right off the plant. Still, there’s quite a bit of spice and hints of garlic flavor, so it’s a country kids treat.
My kids do the same thing these days. We have a huge patch of chives in the garden, and my 18-month-old helps himself to the sweet/spicy shoots. The blossoms are a bit too spicy for baby palates, but they harvest them and save them for mama.
How to Grow Chives
Chives are a perennial herb, and they’ll come back year after year once they’re established. Patches can get dense, and they’ll need to be divided every 3 years or so. In most cases, they can withstand heavy harvests and keep producing year after year.
Chives are hardy to zone 3, and will self-seed even in colder zones. That means once you start growing chives, you’ll have a near unlimited supply of plants.
Since they’re a green herb, they’ll need plenty of nitrogen to thrive and produce more plant matter. Chives prefer moist fertile soil that has been amended with a healthy amount of compost.
Starting Chives from Seed
Chives grow readily from seed, and they’ll also self-seed each year and expand outward if you don’t harvest the flowers for salads or chive blossom vinegar.
Start chives indoors 8-10 weeks before the last spring frost. The young plants can be delicate, so you’ll want to give them a good head start before transplanting into the garden. If you’re not set up for seed starting, chives can be direct seeded into the garden a few weeks before the last frost.
Once chives are established, they’ll come up very early in the spring each year. They’re frost tolerant, and the chive shoots will come up right through the snow.
If chives are started indoors, be sure to allow them to grow for at least 8 weeks before transplant. The tiny grasslike chive shoots are delicate when small, and they are easily damaged. Once they’re bigger, chives are robust and can easily withstand transplanting.
Chive patches need to be divided every 3 years or so to maintain robust health and prevent overcrowding. The transplanted chive bundles can be moved to another location, gifted to a friend of potted up for use all winter long.
Overwintering Chives Indoors
Since chives are frost tolerant, they can be kept productive all winter long in warmer locations. We potted up a bundle and overwintered them in our attached greenhouse. It gets well below freezing on mid-winter nights, but the chives just kept on growing once things warmed up again.
Chives do well indoors, and a small pot on a windowsill can keep producing fresh chives even in the coldest climates. Ideally, they want full sun, but they can tolerate lower light indoor growing conditions for a few months. They won’t grow as quickly as they do outdoors, but they’ll still be plenty to harvest for winter meals.
If you started out by planting your chives in a container, then you’re ahead of the game. Just pick up the pot and bring it indoors to a sunny windowsill. Potted chives can be left outdoors for the first few hard frosts, but after that they’ll do better in a more sheltered location and keep producing all winter long.
Chive Companion Planting
Since they’re naturally aromatic, chives help deter pests. They’re especially good when planted next to pest susceptible fruits such as strawberries. Growing chives next to strawberries is a strategy I learned from one of my favorite permaculture blogs.
Chives can also be used as a green manure since they bioaccumulate micronutrients. Chopping down chive greens and using them as mulch around heavy feeders helps both fertilize and repel pests.
Chives and onions are good companion plants for most things in the garden, except legumes like beans and peas. Chives can hurt the symbiotic bacteria that are present in legume roots, and they should be kept separated.