Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Everyone knows what chives look like - or should do! - because they are an essential part of an English herb garden. This upright mini member of our native onion family has long tubular leaves that shoot heavenwards like grass and in spring produce elegant globe-shaped, mauve flowers which attract pollinators like bees and butterflies to your garden. Once settled in, chives will spread outwards to fill in any gaps between plants. Chives are one of those herbs that you will really use because no self-respecting soup should be served without a snippet of chives as a garnish, and woe betide the potato salad that lacks this crucial ingredient while it adds oniony oomph (without the tears) to salads, risottos and almost any egg or cheese dish.
A herb garden staple
The erect habit of the chive makes it a stalwart edging plant to divide areas in your herb garden or just to run along edging stones or brick walls. As with all herbs, grow at least some close to your kitchen so that you can dash out and grab a handful when required. An accommodating herb, they will thrive in a pot or window box with only a modicum of tlc and will transform the appearance and taste of most dishes. In a herb garden, chives contrast beautifully with some of the more spreading herbs like any of the thymes or marjoram. Employ the beautiful purple flowers to make an edible salad cum table decoration that then is eaten with cheese at the end of the meal. A quick warning though that if you let the chives flower, the stalk that the flower emerges from will have become rather tough and hard so best practice is to do a Chelsea chop and cut down half of your chive plants to 5 cm tall in mid spring when they look like they are beginning to form flower heads and let the other half form flowers. That way you will soon have another crop of lush new growth from the chopped half and you get to enjoy the flowers from the other half too. Alternatively ( and much harder work!) just remove the flower stem individually. Once flowered, cut the plant right down again to prevent self seeding. Keep cutting chives down every couple of months to prolong your cropping season.
Another excellent reason for giving chives a prominent place in a potager is because they make wonderful companion plants. Their strong smell deters aphids and blackfly from around roses ('Chives next to roses makes posies!') or tomatoes and can help to confuse any carrot fly from finding your carrots. Chives are also meant to prevent scab in apple trees if planted around them. Allium schoenoprasum is the most common chive but you can also search out garlic chives which have (needless to say) a garlicky flavour and a white flower.
- Height: 40 cm
- Spread: 25-30 cm
- Colour: green foliage, purple flowers
- Flowers: May-July
- Uses: culinary, herb garden, companion plant
- Spacing: 20 cm
- Scent: mild onion
- Habit: upright
- Life: hardy perennial
Unlike some of the more aromatic herbs like rosemary or sage, chives do not dry well so use them fresh or freeze some chopped in ice cube trays for using over the winter months. The names schoenoprasum comes from the Greek meaning sedge leek. Vita Sackville-West the doyenne of gardening chose only four herbs as utterly vital ingredients for her herb garden: chives, tarragon, lovage and chervil. Chives were first brought to the west by Marco Polo from China where they had long enjoyed a place in their cuisine and as an antidote to poison - surely these facts are not connected....