Growing chives: Smart Gardening tips for success

Smart Gardening practices for growing herbs in your home garden.

Chives, Allium schoenoprasum, is a member of the Alliaceae onion family, and a good plant for pollinators. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.
Chives, Allium schoenoprasum, is a member of the Alliaceae onion family, and a good plant for pollinators. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.

My earliest memories of chives are as a child. Returning year after year, they were a welcome sign in early spring. After learning that the leaves were edible, I would pick off and taste the mild onion flavor of the hollow leaves. Once established, chives can be a garden mainstay providing green foliage, flowers for pollinators, and continual harvest.

Make use of these Michigan State University Extension Smart Gardening practices to find the most success with chives.

Don’t fight the site: Find the right location to plant chives

Chives are a perennial, meaning they come back each year, so plan a designated space for them within your garden. Chives are cold hardy to Zone 3, so you will have success in northern Michigan gardens. Each year they will enlarge in size, growing to a mature height of 10-14 inches. If they get too large, you can divide them by digging out and replanting a portion of them elsewhere.

Spring is the best time to divide. Choose a site that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day. Chives prefer a well-drained soil rich in organic matter that has a pH of 6-7, but they are adaptable to a wide range of soil types. Providing them with soil rich in organic matter will allow them to really thrive.

Have your soil tested every three years to best understand your soil needs. See MSU Soil Test website for more information.

How many plants will you need?

If you would like to harvest fresh chives to use, one or two plants will suffice. Chives are usually available as transplants at local garden centers or greenhouses. This is the fastest way to get them established. Even as transplants, you do not want to harvest too many leaves during the first year of establishment, as this will decrease the strength of the plant and its ability to overwinter.

You can also try to establish chives by planting seeds, but this will take longer. In their first year from seeds, chives will only grow a few inches tall, making it difficult to harvest any leaves.

Chives do best in clumps, so direct seed a circular area with many seeds and, if starting with seedlings, transplant them into a group together. Chives are also great for pollinators, which have declined in many areas. Plant multiple chive plants to create a pollinator border within your vegetable or flower gardens. The bright purple flower heads provide a contrast to the green foliage and can also be used within flower arrangements.

Smart care

Chives, like many plants in the onion family, have few problems. If you establish healthy plants, they will be even more resistant to insect and pest problems. Choose the best site with well-drained soil and enough sunlight.

Chives can benefit other plants, too. According to Pennsylvania State University Extension, they can help prevent apple scab when planted at the base of apple trees and black spot on roses. Try planting chives by carrots as a companion, as they may help your carrots grow larger.

Sometimes chive clumps get too large and the center may die out. If so, divide the plant and select a healthy portion of the clump to replant. If you don’t want chives to spread via seeds and show up in different areas within your garden, cut off the flower heads before they go to seed.

Harvesting chives

Once your chives have been growing for at least one growing season, harvest leaves by cutting them off at the base. As long as you leave a portion of green so the plant continues to make its own food, you can continually harvest the green leaves.

Flower heads are also edible and you can use them to add a bit of flavor and decoration in salads or other dishes. Cutting off the flower heads before they go to seed will prolong the production and future harvesting of green leaves.

Chives can also be used freshly chopped up in sour cream, on potatoes, in dips and in salads. Check out Michigan Fresh from MSU Extension for proper preservation techniques and recipes.

This is a series focused on Smart Gardening practices for successfully growing vegetables and herbs in home gardens. Stay tuned for the next vegetable in this series by signing up for the Gardening in Michigan newsletter.

For more information on a wide variety of Smart Gardening topics, visit the Gardening in Michigan website or contact MSU’s Lawn and Garden Hotline at 1-888-678-3464. 

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