How to Grow Sage
Look to this perennial herb to spice up your garden and your cooking
Egyptian women drank sage tea to increase fertility. Hippocrates prescribed it for healing. In Medieval times it was taken after meals as proof against indigestion. At one point in their history, the Chinese were willing to trade four times the weight of their fine tea for sage. Sage’s medicinal reputation is reflected in the genus name Salvia, derived from the Latin salvere, meaning to heal, to save, or to be healthy.
It isn’t clear when sage came out of the medicine cabinet and into the kitchen, but it seems to have gained popularity during the Middle Ages. Sage is a powerful antioxidant and antibacterial, so its culinary use probably started out more as a preservative than a flavoring. Many of the earliest recipes used it in sausage or with meat—and with good reason, because sage is now known to be helpful in breaking down fats in food.
Today, sage is a kitchen gardener’s dream plant. It’s useful, good-looking, and easy to grow. It offers a long season of harvest and holds its flavor well when dried. It sports lovely flowers in early summer. Finally, sage comes in a variety of sizes and colors. What more could you want?
Sage leaves are typically gray-green with a leathery or pebbly appearance. The fragrance can vary from an aromatic balsam odor to the sweet perfume of fruit or lavender. Most sages (there are over 750, the majority ornamental) are native to the Mediterranean regions of Southern Europe and Asia Minor. They generally prefer sunny, dry, rocky slopes, and they look especially good with low-growing thymes, golden oregano and marjoram, and rosemary. Most of the culinary sages are hardy at least to Zone 5, or winter lows of –10° to –20°F.
Full sun and good drainage keep sage happy
Sage is an easy herb to grow, putting up with conditions far from optimal. However, the closer you can imitate its native habitat, the happier it will be. Ideal conditions are full sun, good drainage, a soil pH of 5 to 8, and moderate fertility.
Good drainage is key. Our sage garden got along for five years in heavy soil until we had a year of record rainfall, when many of our plants died. In our previous garden, our sages were planted on a steep hillside. In the eight years we had that garden, those plants survived all sorts of nasty weather. So we knew we had to improve the drainage before replanting last summer. We constructed a 3-ft.-high mound of sandy soil, boulders, and small rocks. Then we replanted with all new stock, and the plants are doing beautifully.
I prune the stems by at least a third in early spring, after the danger of freezing is past but before new growth really gets started. Through summer, the light pruning that results from harvesting sprigs for the kitchen helps plants stay bushy.
For more sage, take cuttings
Sage needs to be replaced every four or five years when the plant becomes woody and straggly. The best way to do this is to start new plants from cuttings or by layering. Either method will maintain the characteristics of the parent plant. Layering is a way of rooting the upper portion of a stem while it’s still attached to the plant. Bend the branch to the ground, and pin it about 4 in. below the tip with some wire to keep the stem in contact with soil. Leave it until roots form, about four weeks, then cut it from the branch and transplant it.
Spring and summer are the best times to root cuttings. Take 3-in. cuttings from the tip of the branch. Strip away the lower leaves carefully. If you find that you’re tearing parts of the stem, trim the leaves with scissors. Then dip the cut end in rooting hormone and stick it in sterile sand or vermiculite. We use bottom heat, but in the summer it may not be necessary. Roots should form in four to six weeks. Cuttings with at least six roots are ready to move into 4-in. pots. Later, when they’ve got a good root ball, move them to the garden.
Diseases and pests normally aren’t a big problem with sage. Good drainage will, in most cases, prevent root rot, a disease encouraged by too much moisture for too long around the roots. In humid, poorly ventilated conditions, sage is susceptible to powdery and downy mildews. Here again, prevention is the best control; plant sage where it gets plenty of air circulation and leaves ample space between plants. In cases where mildew does appear, we use SunSpray horticultural oil or a sulfur spray. Spider mites, thrips, and spittlebugs have a taste for sage. We use organic insecticides like pyrethrum or insecticidal soap or oil to keep these pests under control.
Sage leaves tolerate a fair amount of frost. In mild climates, like ours in western Oregon, you can harvest fresh leaves all year. If you plan to dry sage for the winter, take your main harvest just before the flowers begin to form. The best leaves come from the last 4 in. of a branch.
Plan to dry sage fairly rapidly so it doesn’t acquire a musty flavor. One method is to pick off individual leaves and spread them on a screen set in a shaded, warm, dry place. Or you can hang small bunches in a warm, well-ventilated room. Sage is one of those unusual herbs that gets stronger as it dries. Store dried sage in an opaque container with a tight-fitting lid.
Choose a sage based on flavor and color
Among the edible sages, there are a few that are more commonly used because of the quality of herb they produce, or because of their growth habit, color, or fragrance. Common or garden sage (Salvia officinalis), the variety typically grown in home gardens, forms an upright bushy shrub 30 in. tall. The narrow, oblong, gray-green leaves, 1 in. to 2½ in. long, have a pebbly texture.
Most of the types described here are cultivars of garden sage. ‘Holt’s Mammoth’, a vigorous grower, makes a much bigger plant. Its leaves have the same texture but are a lot larger, 1½ in. wide and 3½ in. long, which explains why it’s grown for commercial production. Two nonflowering varieties that do especially well in cooler climates are ‘Berggarten’ and ‘Woodcote Farm’. ‘Berggarten’ is my favorite. It makes a beautiful mounding plant about 16 in. tall. Its silvery, oval leaves are covered with tiny hairs that catch the morning dew, making it sparkle. ‘Woodcote Farm’ has larger leaves than garden sage, is excellent for culinary use, and is resistant to powdery mildew. Dwarf sage is a compact variety that is great in containers.
Three of the sages are particularly interesting for their color. Purple sage has dark reddish-purple foliage. The light green leaves of golden sage are edged and streaked with bright yellow-gold. And then there is tricolor sage, with leaves mottled in shades of white, cream, pink, purple, and green. The blue flowers it produces offer a beautiful contrast. Both purple and golden sage tend to be low-growing spreaders 12 in. to 14 in. tall, making them excellent additions to a rock garden. All three can be used in the kitchen just like common sage.
I can’t end without mentioning a couple of the scented sages. Pineapple sage (S. elegans) has a strong pineapple fragrance and brilliant red flower spikes loved by hummingbirds. My favorite, though, is fruit-scented sage (S. dorisiana) with its incredible perfume of peaches or nectarines. This tender perennial can get 4 ft. tall, producing lime-green leaves 5 in. wide and 7 in. long and spikes of large, magenta flowers. The leaves are even fuzzy like peaches. Both scented varieties are worth experimenting with in the kitchen and in potpourris.
Easy tips for cultivating sage
- Sage does best in gritty soil that isn’t too fertile, so don’t plant it among vegetables. Instead, grow it with other perennial herbs.
- Full sun, good drainage, and good air circulation result in healthy plants that resist disease.
- In early spring, before growth starts, cut plants back by at least one-third.
- Replace plants every few years, as they become straggly. Propagate new plants by taking cuttings or by layering.
This article originally appeared in Kitchen Gardener #9.