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Chives

Chives on a bench

If Basil is like a diva who begs for a sweater at the first sign of a breeze, Chives is the guy who drapes his leather jacket over her shoulders and flexes his tattooed muscles with nary a goose bump in sight at 40 below.

A herb after my own heart, Allium schoenoprasum is the last plant to say die in the fall and the first to poke its green spikes out of the frozen ground come spring. That alone is reason enough to reserve a corner of your garden for this hardy Allium, but that’s only the beginning of chives herbaceous charms.

Chives not only flex their muscles at the frost, they scare the daylights out of aphids and moles. Surround your vegetable patch with these guys and it’s like having a dozen bouncers working 24/7 in your garden patch.

Surround your garden with a chive hedge to keep out aphids

Surround your garden with a chive hedge to keep out aphids

Conversely, when it comes to its culinary qualities, there is nothing overwhelming about this member of the onion family. Unlike it’s cousin the onion where the focus is on the bulb, only the chive’s greens are used for eating. With their understated twang, chives are the jazz to the onion’s rock and roll. Better yet, they won’t make you cry when you chop them.

Since it’s the first fresh herb to gain ground in my garden come spring, I toss handfuls of it at everything. Omelettes, potatoes, solicitors. Once, in a fit of spring fever, I even threw a handful into the oatmeal, but that, according to my family, was a mistake.

Chive’s tender spring shoots are replaced in early summer by wider ones containing the flower bud. Which brings us to yet another reason for growing chives; aesthetics. Their rosy-purple balls bursting with bloom are especially gorgeous when paired up with pink or purple flowers such as lavatera, iris, lavender, salvia and peonies. They also look stunning when mixed with ornamental grasses such as blue oat grass, blue fescue and fountain grass.

Therese Bugnet Rose is a hardy, complimentary companion for chives purple blooms.

Therese Bugnet Rose is a hardy, complimentary companion for chives purple blooms.

Chive and Rose

A few years ago some of my chives wandered over and started hanging out beneath my Theresa Bugnet Rose and for two or three weeks it was pure serendipity when Theresa’s ruffled lilac-pink petals brushed cheeks with Chive’s mauve balls. I have since completely surrounded all my pinkroses with chives. Not only is the yearly result stunning, the roses never once complain of aphids or black spot. Although, plants seldom complain about anything, do they? That’s one of the many reasons gardeners love them. They don’t put up a fight for the remote control neither. Or inquire from the back step as to when supper might be when you’re still in the garden at 8 pm. But I digress.

Not only are chive’s blossoms visually magnetic, they are attractive to the taste buds as well. The flowers are perfectly edible and look fabulous in salads. Keep in mind that the blossoms are at their most scrumptious just as the buds are beginning to open. Poke a couple blossoms into a glass jar of vinegar and you’ll have yourself a lovely pink hued vinaigrette.

One spring, when nothing else was blooming, I even arranged some chive blossoms around the base of a chocolate cake. Let me tell you, the contrast of those purple blooms against the dark chocolate backdrop of frosting was enough to take your breath away. Unfortunately, the taste kind of took your breath away too. The chive may be jazzy and understated, but it’s still remarkable just how much onion flavour those blossoms impart.The only good thing that came of it was my family finally stopped talking about the time I put chives in the oatmeal.

You can easily start chives from seed, but it takes a lot longer to get a harvest that way. The most efficient method is to get a division from someone else’s plant (preferably someone who knows why you’re in their garden with a shovel). Simply nip a slice off the outer edge of the clump, being sure to nab at least five or six of the little white bulbs and then plant the entire cluster to a depth equalling about twice their diameter and you’re set for life. Or you can buy a plant from a nursery. You can tell how many bulbs you’re getting by simply counting the green spikes. Each bulb produces one spike. The more spikes in the pot, the more bulbs beneath, and the sooner you’ll have a healthy established plant of your own.

Chives grow to an approximate height of 26 centimetres (10 inches) forming an attractive mound that increases in size every spring. After three or four years the centre will sort of fall open, telling you its time get out the spade and rejuvenate it by dividing it up. This is your chance to clone yourself an army of aphid and mole bouncers for every corner of your yard. Simply dig the entire plant up and the bulb clusters will easily separate allowing you to replant half a dozen bulbs per new hole. Or pay it forward by offering divisions to some poor chiveless soul wandering the neighbourhood with a shovel. Or both.

If you plant chives in the gaps of stone paths the bulbs will spread around them creating a striking pattern. They get a lot taller than say, a creeping thyme, but it’s a whimsical sight even if you do have to lift your feet a little higher when you walk the path. If you have broken pavement in a rarely traversed area, chives are the perfect solution for taking the ugly out of the situation. As much as I love the looks and taste of this herb and think everyone should grow them, you should know that it can be very invasive. Not only does it increase by the bulb every year, it will also self seed. However, if you’re diligent about snipping off the seed blossoms for salads and vinaigrettes – but not cake decorations – you can easily keep it in control. There is also a seedless chive available from Richters Herbs www.herbs.com that is worth seeking out if you don’t want to bother with deadheading. The blurb from their catalogue reads as follows:

Profusion® Chives 
Allium schoenoprasum ‘Sterile’
Uses: Culinary/Medicinal Duration: Perennial (hardy in zones 3-9)
Wonderful new strain of chives noted for its prolific production of flowers and tender leaves.  Flowers remain edible much longer than other varieties because they do not develop seeds.  A godsend to gourmands who love to sprinkle the visually appealing and tasty chives florets with  abandon over everything where the leaves are used.  Ideal for commercial edible flower producers.  Best variety for potted plant and indoor growing. RICHTERS INTRODUCTION.  Profusion is a trademark of Richters; all rights reserved. RICHTERS EXCLUSIVE. Profusion is a registered trademark of Richters; all rights reserved. 

Chives can be dried, but they lose so much flavour in the process that it’s really not worth the effort. They fare somewhat better in the frozen state. Simply chop them up and put them in a freezer bag or container and you’re done. However, in my opinion, the best way of enjoying chives in the winter is to pot up a few bulbs in the fall and set them on a sunny windowsill. If they start looking tired, water them (but don’t overdo it) and then put the pot in a dark, cold room where the chives can pretend its winter and catch 40 winks. After a few weeks return them to the sunny windowsill and soon they will be poking their hardy green spikes out of the dirt and thriving all over again. You can make up three or four pots so you can stagger this period of fake winter dormancy and in this way have fresh chives all winter long. Even in warmer zones, where chives practically grow year round, a pot or two in the kitchen is still handy for snipping.

If your taste buds enjoy a little garlic with its onion, you can include Garlic Chives Allium tuberosum – almost as hardy, with white flowers instead of purple.

Altogether, there are about 1250 kinds of allium in the world, making it one of the largest plant species out there. Imagine the family reunion onions could have! Not to mention all the crying.

CHIVE TALK RECIPES

Chive Butter

15 ml (1 tbsp.) freshly chopped chives

15 ml (1 tbsp.) freshly chopped basil

15 ml (1 tbsp.) freshly chopped parsley

1 250 gram (9 ounce) package of butter left on counter to soften

1 clove of garlic – finely chopped

Extra herbs and edible herb blossoms for garnish

Mix chives, basil and parsley and minced garlic into the butter. Form a ball, garnish with more herbs and edible blossoms such as nasturtiums, rose petals or violets.

Chive Blossom Vinaigrette

500 ml (2 cups) white wine vinegar

250 ml (1 cup) chive blossoms

Pop the chive blossoms into a sterilized glass jar. Heat the vinegar to boiling point and pour over the blossoms. Cap with a non-metallic lid. Leave the infusion for one or two weeks, then strain and rebottle the liquid, this time into a more decorative glass container if you prefer. If you like, you can pop some fresh chive blossoms back in at this time for decoration. The vinaigrette will turn a lovely shade of mauve. Only use the pink-lavender chive blossoms – the white blossoms from garlic chives will not have the same effect.

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