Chives are top of my list of easy-to-grow, versatile herbs. As well as being attractive to both humans and pollinators for their globular bright purple flowers, they're flavoursome, not too fussy about where you grow them, and are tough enough to cope with just about any weather conditions. My only complaint is that all of that lovely, oniony top growth dies back in winter.
When that happens I miss having those clumps of knee-high, pencil-thin green leaves available for last-minute dashes out to the herb garden or vegetable garden (I like it so much I grow it in both!) to gather some leaves to snip onto soups, sandwiches, baked potatoes, and more.
Fortunately there is a way to keep chives going for longer, and that's by 'forcing' them. Potting them up and moving them under cover encourages the plants to produce fresh shoots that can be repeat-harvested for much longer than if the plants were left outdoors.
Dividing Clumps of Chives
Bringing chives under cover for winter use is a good excuse to make some new plants for free, so instead of bringing the whole plant indoors, divide the clump instead. Chives can spread out and lose vigour over time, so dividing the plant every few years helps to keep it compact and productive too.
The best time to divide chives for forcing indoors is on a dry day in autumn when the soil is moist but not wet – it shouldn't stick to your boots. Lift the clump with a fork and shake off as much soil as possible. You'll find that, instead of being a single plant, chives are made up of clumps of elongated bulbs. Sometimes you can separate small clumps of chives into pieces using just your hands, but a hand fork (or even better, two hand forks placed back-to-back and forced apart) makes the job easier.
Replant one of the clusters of bulbs back into your garden to die back and rest over winter. This ensures that you will have a strong, established plant that's ready to be harvested next year from spring to autumn, so you don't miss out on the great taste of fresh chives next year.
Pot up the other sections into pots of commercial potting soil, or use your own home-made potting blend. Cut back the existing tired foliage, and water well. Site them somewhere well-lit under cover – a cold frame, greenhouse, polytunnel or even a sunny windowsill indoors are all fine. Keep an eye on their moisture levels, and make sure not to over-water.
Your chives will soon sprout new leaves. Once the new shoots have reached about 10cm (4in) tall, start harvesting and keep doing this to ensure a continuous supply.
It is possible to continue harvesting the plants all winter, although this is by no means guaranteed – but at the very least you should be able to extend your growing season by a couple of months. To extend the season further, you can also freeze the leaves and just snap off what you need at any time.
Being in active growth when they would normally be dormant is exhausting for plants however, so next year give your forced chives a rest from being harvested. If you've replanted one of the clumps as recommended above, you'll still have a good supply over the summer.
It's not just chives that can be treated this way – other perennial herbs such as mint and French tarragon can also be forced for continued use during the winter months.
What to do with the new plants once spring arrives? If you've got the space, you can plant them in the ground or in containers in your garden – chives are ideal for any garden as they will grow in sun or partial shade, and while they prefer rich soils they will cope well with poorer ones, too.
Chives are ideal for growing next to the vegetable garden as bees and other insects are drawn to the purple flowers, or you can use them as low edging for beds or paths in the cottage garden style.
Alternatively, why not give extra plants away to friends and relatives? Thanks to the plant's good looks and easy-going nature, I've rarely had the offer of free chives refused!
By Ann Marie Hendry.