This popular garden herb is truly a superstar both in the kitchen and in the garden. Known for its delicate presence in dishes that range from pork to poultry to lamb to fish, it is a tasty complement in vegetable dishes as well as in pasta and risottos and is quite famous for seasoning stuffing. This is a hardy aromatic herb that can readily take its place in your garden beside other often-used Mediterranean herbs like basil or rosemary, but unlike delicate basil that might die with the first frost, sage will prosper.
Versatile sage, “salvia officinalis”, is a low-growing shrub characterized by velvety grey-green leaves that are soft to the touch. It is a member of the mint family and is easily grown either in flowerpots or in your garden bed. It has been used for medicinal purposes and is believed to improve memory and cure digestive ailments. Incredibly, sage can be found in a whopping nine hundred species that are culinary and ornamental. Some of the more well-known species include:
- Garden or common sage is one of the most recognized varieties. It is very hardy, withstanding cold winters to bounce back once spring arrives. It features soft green-grey leaves and blooms with purplish-blue flowers.
- Mexican bush sage is a variety that is drought resistant and grows as much as three to four feet. Its flowers appear in white or purple hues.
- Purple sage is called purple because as a young plant it boasts purplish leaves. It is also used for cooking.
- White sage is also used in culinary dishes and is known as “bee sage”. It grows very slowly to a maximum height of two to three feet. It is a perennial shrub that can take up to three years to grow to its full maturity.
How to Grow Sage
Growing sage from seeds can be challenging. It might be easier to purchase an initial batch of young plants from your nursery center. Afterward, you can continue growing sage by using cuttings or layering.
This is not a difficult plant to cultivate. Sage should be planted when the ground temperature arrives at about 65°F or approximately one to two weeks before the last estimated frost for your area. Sage grows best in direct sunlight or partial daily sunlight. It does do well in a flowerpot so you can grow it inside a container in a sunny kitchen window.
If you live in a very humid zone, your sage will probably end up being an annual, in other zones, it may be a thriving perennial. Sage does not respond well to summer humidity or summer heat. For a happy sage plant, the herb should be grown in loamy, sandy soil that drains well. The ideal pH will be between 6.0 and 7.0. If you plan on harvesting your sage for cooking, do not fertilize it because you may lose flavor intensity due to quick growth. If your area has clay soil, mix in a bit of organic matter and some sand for drainage purposes before planting this herb.
As to spacing your sage plants, given that sage grows into nice round bushes, they should be planted about two feet apart to give them ample space to flourish. Since this is a drought-resistant herb, take care not to overwater. Wait until the soil is dry to the touch before watering thoroughly. Should it wilt a bit, a drink of water will perk this plant up in no time.
If you want to cultivate new sage plants from cuttings, snip a three-inch cutting from the tip of a stem and coat it with rooting hormone. Then plant it in vermiculite or sand. In about six weeks, roots should begin to emerge. Transfer to a flowerpot or container until the root ball forms and then transplant it to your garden or to a permanent container.
To propagate sage through layering, use a long stem of the herb and attach it to the soil bed with wiring, leaving only the tip free. Roots should begin to form along the length of the stem in about a month. Cut the new plants from the original and transfer them to your desired spot.
Sage has a long growing season and doesn’t really demand very much from gardeners. It is also relatively pest resistant and will not lose any of its distinctive flavors after it blooms. Your only concern may be mildew if you overwater. If you care for your sage, prune it, and harvest it yearly, it can survive for many years. As the sage plant ages, it may get woody. To avoid it losing its productivity and flavor, carefully cut back the plant past woody stems at the end of the annual growing season.
How to Harvest Sage
The wonderful thing about this herb is that it can be harvested as needed. It should be snipped just above where the leaves meet and preferably in the morning after the dew has dried off. During its first year of growth, you may want to do light harvesting to stimulate its growth. After, this plant should be pruned in the early spring. You will want to harvest your sage twice a year by trimming half the plant.
How to Dry Sage
Sage can be dried by cutting bunches with the leaves left on the stems. Bind your cuttings together. Hang the bunch upside down in a dry, cool, dark room with good ventilation until it has dried out and the leaves are crisp. You can then remove the leaves and store them, grinding or crushing them only as needed.
How to Dry Sage Leaves
If you just want to dry your sage leaves relatively quickly, after washing and drying the leaves with paper towels, spread them on a baking sheet in a single layer. Set your oven to its lowest setting and place the sheet with the sage inside. The leaves should be dry after approximately two hours but to avoid burning, check every thirty minutes after the first hour. Once dried out, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool. Crumbled or crushed sage leaves can be stored in an airtight glass container in a dark, cool place for several months.
How to grow White Sage
Salvia apiana or white sage may be a bit more difficult to grow in a garden. In the wild, it is a desert plant. Also known as California white sage, it has been used for medicine and food and has a number of Indian tribal names. It can grow up to six inches tall and as much as four feet wide. It loves full sun and is drought tolerant. Needing very little water it will also do poorly in temperatures lower than 25°F. It does not require fertilizing and does well in sandy well-draining soil beds. Plants should be spaced at least eighteen inches apart. Like other species of sage, it can be propagated through cuttings or from seeds.
Germination success for sage seeds is in the very low percentiles, maybe as low as 10 to 20%. If you want to try, place your seeds in seeding trays sprinkling them over the soil, and after covering lightly. Then mist spray with water. The seeds should have full light and an average temperature of 70 to 85° F. Moisten the seeds but allow the soil to dry out a bit before moistening anew. Once the seedlings begin to grow, water no more than once a week. Your seedlings, with two to four sets of true leaves, are best transplanted in the fall. This is because white sage grows from the fall through early spring, then goes dormant in the summer. Prepare your garden soil bed with a sandy cactus potting blend. The new plants should be transplanted at the same depth as in the seedling trays.
White sage is susceptible to pests and diseases including
- Flat mites
- Spider mites
as well as powdery mildew, root rot, and rust.
For the first year of a new white sage plant, water only once a week. Gradually reduce the amount of water as the roots take hold. After a year or two, you will no longer need to water, as the plant will find water on its own. It has deep taproots that search for a water supply independently.