Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are among the most popular herbs for home gardeners to grow. They are easy to plant and care for, and since they are a hardy perennial, they return to the garden year after year. The fragrant and flavorful leaves of the chive plant are delicious to people, but the deer and rabbits leave them alone. To add yet another benefit, chive flowers are a favorite nectar source for many of the pollinators who also help pollinate other edible crops. Learning how to harvest chives for use in the kitchen is key to enjoying this easy-to-grow herb. Let’s take a look at several different ways to harvest chives for both fresh use and for preservation.
The best time to harvest chives
Before we get to the information on how to harvest chives, it’s important to understand when to harvest chives. Harvesting at the wrong time will not result in plant death. It could however limit future growth and reduce the amount of leaves you’re able to harvest.
Thankfully, chives have a long harvest period. Their tiny green spikes pop out of the soil in early spring. Harvests begin as soon as those early leaves are 3 to 4 inches long. If the plant is treated properly throughout the growing season, the chive harvest continues. You’ll be able to pick until the leaves succumb to fall’s first frost. Yes, that means if you play your cards right, you’ll have up to 8 months of chive harvests! Gardeners in warm climates that don’t receive killing frosts can even harvest chives year-round.
How to harvest chives to stimulate new growth
Since young chive leaves are the most tender and flavorful (older leaves are a little tougher to chew), knowing how to harvest chives in a way that stimulates lots of new growth always yields plenty of juicy young leaves. Here are two chive-harvesting tips that result in lots of new growth:
Tip 1: When you harvest chive leaves, remove the entire length of the leaf. Don’t just snip off the tip. Instead, snip off the whole leaf all the way down to the soil line. This encourages a flush of new growth and can be done many times throughout the growing season.
Tip 2: After the plant blooms and the flowers fade, cut the entire plant back completely to the ground using a pair of pruners or a long-bladed hedge shears to stimulate new growth. Getting rid of the woody flower stems and the “old” leaves generates a whole new parade of tasty leaves.
There are two methods of harvesting chives: using your hands and using an herb snip or scissors. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of each technique.
How to harvest chives using your hands
Hand-harvesting chives seems to be the most common method, simply because gardeners tend to harvest just a few chive leaves at a time for fresh use. Chive leaves are always easy to pinch off the plant with nothing more than your thumb and forefinger. Grab a little bundle of leaves close to the base of the plant, and using a quick snapping motion, sever them with a flick of your wrist. It’s easy, and no, you are not hurting the plant. Never pull upwards on the leaves or you may end up tugging the plant right out of the soil. Instead, break the leaves by snapping them sideways.
If you’re just harvesting a few leaves, pinch them off between your thumbnail and the pad of your index finger one or two leaves at a time. This is the type of harvesting I do if I’m just using a few chive leaves to garnish an omelet or a cup of soup. But, if I’m harvesting a whole slew of chive leaves for preservation, I use the next method.
How to harvest chives using an herb snip
A few times a year I harvest an entire chive plant all at once so I can preserve the leaves for winter use by freezing or drying them. I typically do this to the early emerging leaves, just before the flower buds appear (usually sometime in early April in my Pennsylvania garden). I then do it a second time about 3 weeks after the plant was cut down to the ground after flowering. Both of these harvests are big ones and both also stimulate even more leaves.
A word of caution, though. If you’re going to harvest the entire plant like this two times in a single season, stop harvesting after that second big harvest. This allows the plant time to recover and photosynthesize for the rest of the growing season.
To make these big harvests, use an herb snip or garden snips to cut the leaves off at the base of the plant. I make it easier on myself by first securing all the leaves together using a ponytail holder. If you don’t have one of those lying around, use a piece of twine, a pipe cleaner, a long twist-tie, or a rubber band to gather the chive leaves into a bundle. Try to get the ponytail holder as close to the base of the plant as possible. Then, use the herb snips to cut the leaves off just above ground level. The ponytail holder keeps all the leaves together, making it super easy for me to cut them into small pieces for drying.
Harvesting chives when the plants are in flower
You may also wonder if it’s okay to harvest chive leaves when the plants are in bloom. The answer is yes. However, all those woody flower stems do tend to get in the way. It makes it slightly more challenging to get a “clean” harvest of leaves. In other words, you’ll have to sift through the flower stems to get to the leaves. I don’t recommend making heavy harvests while the plants are in bloom. However, you can certainly steal a few leaves for fresh use in the kitchen. Remember, you’ll be cutting the entire plant back after those blooms fade. As a result, there may be a gap of 2 to 3 weeks where you won’t have new leaves to harvest.
Harvesting chive flowers
One of the most fun things about chives is that the entire plant is edible. So, while your focus might be on how to harvest chives for their leaves, don’t forget to harvest the flowers, too. The edible blossoms of the chive plant are a beautiful pale-purple, and they taste like a mild chive. Chive flowers make great additions to soups, salads, and can even be used to flavor homemade hummus or salsa.
To harvest chive flowers, pop the flower head off its stem using your thumbnail and the pad of your index finger or an herb snip. Intact flower heads can be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for several days. When you’re ready to enjoy them, simply snap the individual florets off the larger flower head and sprinkle them into your recipe. Beautiful and tasty!
Should you harvest chive bulbs?
Remember when I said the entire chive plant is edible? Well, that means the small underground bulbs are edible, too. However, if you harvest all of them, the plant won’t return. If you’re looking for some intense chive flavor, you can use a soil knife or narrow trowel to sneak out a few bulbs from time to time and cook them with scrambled eggs or use them in place of onions in other recipes. They’re not a personal favorite of mine and they’re pretty small, but maybe you’ll find them to your liking.
As you can see, learning how to harvest chives results in repeated harvests of this delicious perennial herb. Plant multiple chive plants so you’ll always have plenty on-hand. They make great partners for another perennial herb that’s easy to grow and harvest – thyme!
For more about growing and harvesting herbs, check out the following articles:
- 10 herbs to grow in shade
- Harvesting oregano
- The best herbs to grow from seed
- How to trim basil for bushy growth
- Parsley growing tips