Allium schoenoprasum are the chives most used for culinary purposes and the chives that have the beautiful pink flowers. They have a delicious, mild onion flavour, the linear leaves are snipped and used primarily fresh, stirred into uncooked foods, such as soft cheeses or salads; or added to cooked foods during the last few minutes of cooking, or as a garnish. The attractive flowers, mauve in rounded heads, are edible and make a very pretty garnish.
Chives are easily raised from seed; they will soon produce strong clumps that grow to 30cm (12in) in height. Regularly harvesting the tops of the leaves helps to stimulate further new young growth, which has the best flavour. They are perennial bulbs that spread to form neat tufted clumps, ideal for edging beds and paths. They are particularly attractive when in flower and are a favourite of bees and other pollinating insects.
Chives are a good source of vitamins A and C.
Position: The ideal soil is well-dug with the addition of well-rotted compost or organic material. Work in a handful or two of bonemeal per square metre (yard). Chives are not greedy, so it is not necessary to feed throughout the year if the soil has been prepared as described. Full sun or partial shade suit them equally well, and although they are fairly tolerant of drought, don't plant them in very dry places. Chives are the ideal herbs to plant in a container, which can be in your garden or on a windowsill. Keep chives out of full sun if they are in a pot outside and water well.
Sowing: Sow indoors at any time, Sow directly outdoors from November. The ideal germination temperature is 19°C (68°F). Make sure the compost remains moist. The seedlings will appear a week to ten days. Transfer them outside a month after sowing. Space 10cm (8in) between each plant.
Water in dry spells otherwise the leaves will turn yellow and die. Chives produce a mass of purple flowers in late spring, and a second flush may well occur between December and January. If you are growing the plants for eating only, these flowers should be removed as soon as possible - if left, they restrict the growth of new leaves. If the flowers are required for eating or for their colour, it is best to keep separately a couple of chive plants for this purpose. When the flowers are starting to fade, cut the whole plant to 5cm (2in) from ground level and you will then have a second set of leaves produced and probably a second flush of flowers.
Chives are perennial evergreen plants, and keep their leaves in most winters. In colder winters, the leaves may die back completely, but don't despair - their roots are still alive and they will begin new growth next spring.
Propagation: Chives are very similar to onions. They have a bulbous root and green leaves. Simply dig up the clump of bulbs in September or April, carefully separate them into individual bulbs and replant with the tips of the bulbs level with the soil surface. They thrive on this method of propagation, because it relieves the congestion in the bulbs.
Harvesting: Cut the chive leaves with scissors when required, starting with the outside leaves (those nearest the edge of the pot) and working your way inwards. Always leave 5cm (2in) of leaves remaining. The leaves rapidly grow back and can be cut several times in the growing season. Plants grown from seed should be left alone (although remove the emerging flower heads) until January in the first year to allow a good root system to establish itself. Remember when cooking that overheating will destroy the flavour.
Chives are one of the herbs that do not dry well so keeping chives fresh is the key to keeping the flavour and the colour. Seal bunches of chives in a plastic bag and keep in the fridge for up to seven days. Chopped chives can be frozen in ice cube trays. Dried chives can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to six months.
Companion Planting: Chives improves growth and flavour of carrots and tomatoes and is a friend to brassicas and many shrubs and trees. Planted among apple trees it helps prevent scab and among roses it prevents black spot. Plant around the base of fruit trees to discourage insects from climbing the trunk. A tea of chives may be used on cucumbers and gooseberries to prevent downy and powdery mildews. Useful when planted near to carrots, as a member of the allium family, they will help to deter aphids, moles and weevils. Avoid planting near beans and peas.
Chives are one of the most ancient of all the herbs and the first record of chives dates back 4000 years to China when Marco Polo reported his culinary appreciation of chives to the West. Chives were used in China to stop bleeding and as an antidote to poison. There are also records of chives being used in the Middle Ages but strangely, chives were not found in European gardens until the 16th Century. Chives are a cultivated crop in the Netherlands, Germany and China. Dutch farmers used to feed their cows chives in order to produce milk with a fresh flavour. They grow wild in Europe, Australia and North America where they thrive in the warm and hot regions.