Green Patch: Dividing and Growing Chives

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My chives have grown into a very tight clump. How do I divide them? Should I do it now or wait until spring?

Most herbs do best when divided in spring, but not chives. When treated to the rejuvenating effects of division in late summer or early fall, chive plants show their pleasure by popping out a fast flush of new leaves that taste extra-sweet, thanks to cool fall weather. Chives divided in late summer often multiply themselves by bunching a bit before winter comes, too. In addition, chives divided in late summer never fail to bloom beautifully in spring.

Before you begin, make plans for where you will plant your divisions. A clump of chives often consists of dozens of plants, which you can plant in your garden, in containers or both. Examine your clump to get a rough guess of how many plants you have, and divide this number by three. As you divide the clump, you will be separating it into smaller clumps of three to four plants. These can be planted four inches apart in the garden, where informal masses often look better than rows. Or, you can plant four mini-clumps in an 8-inch-wide pot.

Chives need fertile, well-drained soil in a spot that gets at least six hours of sun daily. You will want your divisions to grow a little bit before winter comes, so be sure to work a light application of a balanced fertilizer into the site as you prepare it. Chives grown in containers benefit from being left outside through several weeks of freezing weather, so it’s best to use plastic containers, which are less likely to crack in winter the way clay pots often do. Add a light sprinkling of fertilizer to plain potting soil, or use a product that’s fortified with a slow-release plant food.

Dividing chives is easy, provided the soil is lightly moist. A few hours before you begin the project, water the clump to make sure the plants are nicely plumped up. Then use scissors to snip the tops back until about 4 inches of green growth remain. Loosen the soil around the clump with a digging fork, and lift it from beneath. To remove crowded chives from a container, tap the container several times on its side until the clump jiggles free.

Hold the clump about 18 inches from the ground and drop it on its side to make it shatter. Using your fingers, grasp groups of three to four plants, just below the soil line, and gently tease them away from the mother clump. Don’t worry if some of the roots break off and fall away. Chive plants that have only a few roots attached will waste no time growing new ones.

Replant the divisions immediately — about 1/2 inch deeper than they were growing before — add water, and you’re done. Happily installed in their new home, your chives will likely produce a fast spurt of new growth. This is an excellent sign that the plants are anchored by reliable roots, which they will need to make it through winter. Well-rooted chives are hardy to Zone 3.

When dividing my plants, I always tuck a few into containers. These I leave outdoors through several hard freezes, or until the tops die back into a mass of shriveled tan strings. Then I move them to a cold yet protected place such as an unheated garage, or perhaps snuggled up against the south side of my house. As long as the pots do not dry out completely, the resting chives are just fine. In February, when I’m ripe for a winter boost from something fresh and green, I clear away the dead foliage and bring a pot inside. Within a week, tender green shoots appear, and I have my first taste of spring.

Chives invited indoors in late winter often do not bloom as heavily as those that stick to their natural growth schedule outside, but they still bloom. Chive blossoms are both beautiful and edible, so you can use them as cut flowers or add them to salads or herb vinegars. However, as soon as the blooms become ragged, snip them off to keep the plants from wasting energy-producing seeds. Your deadheaded plants will stay focused on growing into more robust bunches, which you can dig and divide again this time next summer.

Barbara Pleasant lives in the mountains of western North Carolina where she enjoys gardening, garden writing and cooking.

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