How to Grow Sage
A perennial with powerhouse properties as a companion plant in the vegetable garden and as a staple in the kitchen and apothecary, sage deserves a spot in your in-ground garden and in containers.
Perennial herbs in this corner herb garden include thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender, sage and mint. Sage is the mid-level plant with larger, oval-shaped, soft-textured leaves.
Stock your garden with fresh herb flavors by growing common sage. This shrubby plant is known botanically as Salvia officinalis and also goes by a host of common names, including garden sage and garden salvia. This is the culinary sage that’s used to season poultry and stuffing, and its scent and flavor are a hallmark of the Thanksgiving table. Whether or not you love the flavor, common sage has gray-green pebbled leaves that add a lovely texture and tone to the garden and landscape.
Botanical Name: Salvia officinalis
Common Name: Sage, Common Sage, Garden Sage, Culinary Sage
Plant Type: Perennial herb, semi-shrub
Light Needs: Full sun
Soil Needs: Drier, well-draining
Hardiness Zones: 4 to 8(9)
Plant sage as a small transplant rather than from seed. Starting sage from seed is a tricky proposition: The seeds don’t store well, they have spotty germination, and it takes about two years to grow a mature sage plant from seed that does germinate. Growing from cuttings or division of a mature plant is far preferable; if you purchase transplants at a garden center, this is most likely how they were grown. To make your own new transplants from a mature plant, take a 4-inch cutting in the fall and root it for planting out the following spring.
Soil and Growing Conditions
Culinary sage is a Mediterranean herb, which means it likes soil on the dry side that drains well. Rocky, not-too-fertile soil is just right for garden sage to thrive. Wet, poorly draining soils can actually deliver a death blow to common sage. This salvia plant thrives in containers, too, and grows well in terra-cotta pots, which wick moisture from soil.
Heat is sage’s friend, but plants don’t perform well in high humidity. In the sultry, tropical conditions of Zone 9 and warmer, mildew can develop on sage leaves. In these areas, grow Salvia officinalis as an annual. Otherwise, this sage plant is hardy in Zones 4 to 8, although its lifespan as a perennial usually winds down between three and five years. In colder zones, cover sage with loose mulch to add protection in winter.
Pruning, Harvesting and Drying Sage
Garden sage grows 24 to 36 inches tall and wide and benefits from annual pruning. Plants produce green shoots each year that turn woody as they mature. Prune plants annually in early spring before new growth appears, cutting stems back to 4 to 6 inches. Aim to remove the oldest growth to make room for new shoots.
The first year that common sage is in the garden, harvest only lightly, taking a few leaves at a time. After the first growing season, harvest freely from plants. Pick individual leaves or snip 6 to 8 inches of green stem with leaves. Garden sage flowers in summer and it’s best to harvest leaves prior to flowering.
Garden sage dries well for long-term storage. For best flavor, harvest garden sage in midmorning to late morning, after dew dries. Essential oil concentrations are greatest in leaves near noon. Air dry leaves on stems spread on screens or laid in baskets, or bundle a few stems together and hang upside down in a dark place. Once leaves are dry, store them whole in air-tight jars with tight fitting lids. Flavor remains more intense if you don’t break up leaves until you need them.
Companion Planting With Sage
Common sage is a valuable companion plant in the vegetable garden. Plant sage near any cabbage-family plants, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale, to deter cabbage moths and their dreaded cabbage worms; these pests are put off by the strong scent of sage. It’s also known to deter carrot rust fly on carrot crops and to benefit tomatoes and strawberries.
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Popular Varieties of Culinary Sage
Look for different varieties of garden sage. While there’s little difference in flavor among varieties of Salvia officinalis, you can get distinctive looks for the garden and containers using colorful varieties.
‘Berggarten’ sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’) is more compact than other varieties and has large oval leaves. Chefs like this culinary sage variety for its pungent flavor and aroma, and the large leaves are good for frying.
National Garden Bureau at ngb.org
Golden sage's variegated leaves look beautiful alongside French tarragon and English thyme in a container planting of herbs on this outdoor table.
Golden sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Aurea’) is grown for its small variegated leaves that feature a striking combination of dark green and bright yellow-green. Golden sage is beautiful en masse or in large containers as it can get up to 2 feet tall and wide.
Purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) is another compact option, growing to just 18 inches with lovely red-purple and blue-purple foliage. The striking color and smaller habit make it a nice choice for container planting.
‘Tricolor’ sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’) brings a medley of colors to the garden. Its leaves are marbled with shades of grey green, cream, purple and pink. ‘Tricolor’ is hardy in Zones 6 to 9.
History and Uses of Sage
Yes, it’s delicious in turkey stuffing, but there’s more to sage than the Thanksgiving feast. This gray-green plant has a long history of medicinal and therapeutic use. Here are some interesting facts about sage’s history, lore and modern uses.
From its roots in ancient Egypt, where it was used as a fertility aid, to the Celtic belief that sage increases wisdom, sage has been one of the most sought-after herbs for thousands of years. In fact, some ancient cultures believe that sage could prevent aging altogether. No wonder sage’s botanical name, Salvia, is derived from the Latin word for “to heal.” And the word sage can also mean “wise.”
As a member of the mint family, this highly aromatic herb packs a lot of flavor and is said to assist with digestion, which may be why it works so well paired with fatty foods. It pairs well with poultry, lamb and eggs and is delicious baked in biscuits or infused into oils or butter. Sage is best used fresh.
Herbalists today recommend the use of sage for cramps, gas and bloating. Its oils have antibacterial properties, making sage effective for fighting infections. Its leaves are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and can be useful for arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Sage tea is also thought to be soothing for sore throats.