OK, so this is a risky one. For Plant of the Week, I mean. Firstly garlic chives – Allium tuberosum – is a cheap and easy herb. Once a plant has proven useful we seem to habitually see it in that light. Secondly even if you can manage to change lenses, and evaluate it as a stand-alone ornamental, garlic chives lacks a degree of class. And thirdly, it has serious weed potential.
But I’ve come to realise that the whole Plant of the Week idea has a natural leaning towards hero plants – plants about which one can sing individual praises. It doesn’t really allow for humble plants whose primary value comes from their contribution to a planting as a whole – to plants as team players, so to speak.
And it’s only in that light that garlic chives should get a guernsey.
For a start, garlic chives flower in late summer or early autumn, at a time when there are very few new arrivals in the dry-gardening palette. And it arrives with bells on. It flowers at the same time as Allium carinatum ‘pulchellum’, but by this time of year, the foliage of the latter has pretty much dried up, and gives off a slightly stressed vibe. Garlic chives never does. The foliage is green and happy, and the sparkling white flowers sit up perkily, clearly wondering what all the surrounding heat- and drought-fatigued planting has to complain about.
It’s also a really useful height, with flowers hovering at about 70cm, and well above – but proportionally above – the leaves. It’s the height I wish Allium ‘Millenium’ was – tall enough to mingle with the surrounding planting, and not just sit there like a tidy, lonely bun, as Allium ‘Millennium’ mostly does.
So the big plus is a fresh input of clean, happy white just when you were starting to lose the conviction that clean, fresh and happy were words you could never again apply to your garden. The big minus is that garlic chives sets seeds, and self-sows, incontinently. So far that hasn’t become a problem in my garden, but it may yet. And dead-heading isn’t a simple matter. A clump will produce a succession of blooms, so there’ll be heaps of fresh flowers as the first ones are setting seed. You can’t bring yourself to cut the whole lot down when the later flowers are still looking really good, but in gardens in which there isn’t the time for finicky dead-heading (ie ALL gardens), then that’s probably exactly what is required.
Both the leaves and the flowers of garden chives are edible. I can’t say I love them. If I nibble one of the flowers while wandering around the garden, I’ll still have a lingering onion flavour in my mouth hours later – long after I’ve stopped enjoying it. But the flowers look sweet sprinkled on a salad, and in the flavour-context of lots of background greenery, and nearly as persistent on the tongue. The foliage is also a useful substitute for chives when the chive goes into seasonal decline in autumn and early winter. Some friends of mine really love it, and use it as a primary ingredient. I might get there in the end, but meanwhile I’m alert to the dangers of that lingering onion-iness.
All up, I’d call garlic chives a seriously underrated contributor to the late-summer/early autumn garden in summer-dry zones. If you’ve overlooked it, look again.