Garden Sage is an all-in-one plant offering both looks as well as functionality. Spires of tubular, lavender colored flowers sit above a sea of grey-green and fragrant leaves in masse each spring. And of course, those leaves become a tasty addition for your kitchen spice rack.
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
Not all sages are good for eating, but Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of the exceptions. It’s unique flavor is well suited for meaty stews, chili beans, and is a traditional seasoning for poultry, especially the Thanksgiving stuffing. It is also a key ingredient in pork sausages, like breakfast links and patties. It’s a good thing that it is so easy to grow and provides an abundance of the tasty leaves!
Garden Sage grows as a short and wide shrub. Plants typically grow up to 3 feet high, but 4-5 feet or more wide. The plant will bloom profusely during the spring and early summer, attracting a variety of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to your yard. Once the flowers fade, you may want to deadhead the plant to prevent self-sowing of the seeds. As the plant ages, the older branches will become more woody while the younger ones will be green and flexible.
Sage can be started by seed, propagated by cuttings, or through a technique known as layering. For cuttings, it is best to have a more woody stem cut to about 6-8 inches, and to place it in moist soil rather than water. Trim off lower leaves, keeping the younger leaves toward the tip. Keep the soil moist, but not drenched. Once new leaves start to form, it is likely a sign that roots have formed and you can safely transplant. Layering is similar, but involves burying a stem still attached to the parent plant to allow for roots to form, then severing the stem from the parent plant. Both processes could take up to a month for success.
Garden Sage tolerates a wide range of growing zones, from colder zone 5 to zone 9’s hot summers. However, it is not happy in a warm and humid environment as mildew and rot are common problems that can plague them. Garden Sage is a drought tolerant plant adapted to dryer conditions. If you live in a more humid zone, you may need to periodically treat the plant with fungicides to reduce the incidence of disease.
Since these plants prefer a dryer environment, it is really important to have your plant in loose soil that drains well. It doesn’t need to be sandy, but freely draining is important. Make sure that any sprinklers you use for irrigation do not hit it directly.
Other problems come in the form of sap sucking pests like aphids and spider mites. Since ladybugs like to eat these pests, it is not uncommon to see them crawling around on the leaves. They are helping you out! Otherwise, Garden Sage is a fairly low maintenance plant to have.
It’s a good idea to prune your sage back once it starts reaching it’s mature size, which may be after a couple of years. This will prompt the growth of more herbaceous stems, which will produce the tastiest leaves. Don’t prune too early in its life, or too hard once it is mature, as this may cause too much stress for the plant to handle. It is also best to prune in colder months to again avoid over stressing your sage.
If you are wanting to keep the plant to a smaller size, consider growing it in a pot, rather than repeated harsh pruning. Just be aware of the fact that potted plants tend to dry out more readily, and the roots will warm up more. Though Garden Sage is drought tolerant, it does not like excessive heat. You could nestle the pot in amongst other plants that will help shade the pot itself, keeping the roots cooler. Avoid plastic pots, as they are not permeable and will retain too much moisture which could cause root rot.
You can harvest leaves any time of the year, even when flowering. Unlike other herbs, the flavor of Garden Sage does not change during or after flowering. Select leaves growing on green, flexible stems since the ones on woody stems become bitter. If you want to have some for drying, it is best to individually pick out the leaves that you want, and the best time is early morning while temperatures are still cool. Rinse the leaves carefully, gently shake them dry, then lay them between layers of towels on a shallow baking pan. I prefer to use muslin cloth “tea towels” rather than paper towels, as they are reusable and don’t stick to the leaves when dry. If you want ground sage like that sold in the store, you can whirl them up in a food processor once they are completely dry, then store it in glass jars.
- Perennial: Plants will live for several years, but are temperamental if grown in conditions outside its preference
- Height: about 3 feet
- Width: about 3-5 feet
- Sun: full sun, can tolerate some morning or afternoon shade in hot areas
- Water: keep soil moist but not overly watered, if you are watering and plants are wilting, STOP WATERING!
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
- Key nutrients: fertilize as you would for other flowering plants if needed
- Planting time: best to start in early spring, or early fall where winters are mild
- Zones: 5-9