Garden Sage is a culinary herb that is often used around the holidays to flavor your stuffing, but I use it all year round as a flavor component of chicken dishes. These tips for sage plant care will help you get the most out of your plant.
Sage is not just for Thanksgiving. This fragrant herb is easy to grow and can be used to flavor all types of meat and bean dishes and the blossoms from sage plants are great tossed into a fresh salad.
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What is sage?
Sage (salvia officinalis) is a widely cultivated herb that is native to the Mediterranean region. It is a member of the mint family. The plant has a powerful spicy and aromatic flavor that is also bitter and astringent.
The flavor of sage varies greatly depending on the variety grown and the growing location. Some different types of sage plants less commonly found are:
- Greek Sage (salvia triloba) has velvety leaves with a felt gray underside and deep blue flowers. Often used in teas. More hardy than normal sage plants.
- Clary Sage (salvia sclarea) has very large leaves often used to flavor wine. Also good with eggs and infused in tea.
- Purple sage (salvia officinalis var. purpurascens) is a small plant with purple leaves and striking bright blue flowers.
- Tricolor sage (salvia officinalis var. tricolor) is a popular decorative variety that gives a lot of color to a garden. It has a milder flavor and is used less for cooking and more for its decorative look.
- Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha) Hardy in zones 8-10. Needs a long growing season and doesn’t start blooming until late summer.
Sage is widely used in Mediterranean cooking and, in particular, Italian cuisine. It is great when used to flavor fatty meats and is well known for its ability to aid in digestion.
The ancient Romans prized sage for its healing properties and as an astringent and disinfectant herb. The botanical name salvia comes from the Latin word salvare which means to heal.
Native American cultures often burn what they consider sacred plants and use the smoke from the herb to remove negative energy and bring peace to their living space.
This practice is done with white sage (salvia apiana), Palo santo, sweet grass and other herbs. This is called “smudging.” Check out this article for more info on sage smudging.
Fresh sage leaves have much more flavor than dried sage, which can have a medicinal aftertaste. The full flavor of sage leaves come out when the herb is cooked with food.
Sage Plant Care
You need just three things to grow garden sage – fresh air, good soil drainage and plenty of sunshine. Sage can be grown from seed, or you can purchase small plants at a garden center to give you a head start.
Follow these tips for sage plant care and you’ll be enjoying the fresh flavor before you know it.
Sunlight needs for Sage
Outdoors, sage likes full sun to very light shade. 6-8 hours of sunlight is ideal, but if you live in the Southern part of the USA, sage will benefit with some relief from the afternoon sun.
You can also grow sage Indoors in a bright sunny window. A south facing window is ideal.
When is the best time to plant sage?
Wait until the ground temperature is about 65º F which is normally 1-2 weeks after the last frost.
Seeds or seedlings should be planted 18 – 24 inches apart. You can also plant seeds or seedlings in patio pots. I once grew my entire herb garden and vegetable garden on my back deck.
I like having my herb garden right out my patio door. It ensures that I will be more likely to use them than if I have to trudge to the garden to get them.
Soil, Watering and Fertilizing Requirements
Plant in sandy, well draining soil. The ideal pH for garden sage is between 6.0 and 7.0. Soil rich in nitrogen is also beneficial.
If your soil has a high clay content, add organic matter such as compost so that it will drain more completely when watered. Avoid over head watering if possible to prevent fungal types of diseases.
Sage is fairly drought resistant and you should avoid over-watering the herb. Just add more water when the soil starts to dry out. Sage grows well in containers as well as in garden beds.
Don’t add too much fertilizer or you will end up with a plant that grows quickly but with a less intense flavor.
Leaves and flowers of sage plants
The leaves of a sage plant are elongated and come to a point at the end. They are a dusty gray green color. Sage leaves have a velvety texture that is pretty in the garden and also feels nice when you pick the leaves.
With soft textured leaves you need to be very careful of over-watering. Sage leaves can turn yellow if the plant is too wet, or if the leaves get splashed with water too often. This makes them more susceptible to developing leaf-spot fungus.
Water from below for best results.
Sage plants have purple or white flowers that appear in the summer time. The flowers are edible and often used in making vinegar or in decorating cakes.
Cut sage flowers right before they peak. The flowers will be partially opened, but not all the way.
Note on flowering: Most herbs will get more bitter if allowed to flower. If you want the look of flowering sage (which is very pretty) grow some for flowers and others for herbs to get the best of both worlds.
How large does sage get?
Sage grows to about 2 – 3 feet tall and has a spread of about 18 – 24 inches wide. It does well planted as a low background herb plant in a border with other herbs and also in its own bed.
How to propagate sage
Place the cuttings in well draining soil and keep watered until roots develop and the plant starts going.
You can also divide mature sage plants in spring or early fall every 2 or 3 years. The stems of sage will root well by layering.
To layer sage stems, secure long pieces of the stem along the garden soil with some landscape pins or bent wire, leaving the tip free. Make sure the stem comes in contact with the soil.
Roots will form along the stem in about a month and the entire stem can be removed from the parent and planted up separately.
Older sage plants tend to develop a woody taste to the leaves, so after 4 or 5 years, it’s a good idea to start over with new cuttings.
Companion plants for sage
This aromatic herb will attract honeybees and the cabbage butterfly and repels cabbage flies, carrot fly, cabbage looper and cabbage maggot.
Are you interested in growing herbs but can’t identify them very well? This herb identification chart will be a huge help to you.
How cold hardy is sage?
Sage is a perennial herb that is evergreen and cold hardy in zones 4 through 9. It will also grow in the warmer zones, but the high temperatures and humidity are hard on the plant, so it is often grown as an annual in these zones.
This herb handles the cold well but mulch for winter protection. Most varieties of sage will go dormant in the winter and come back again the following spring.
Prune sage plants back in the early spring each year, cutting out the oldest and woodiest growth to promote new growth.
When to harvest Sage
Garden sage will be ready to harvest in 70-75 days from small plants, or 90-100 days from seed.
Harvest lightly in the first year if you grow sage as a perennial. In subsequent years, you can harvest more often. The woody old sage plants produce the leaves with the strongest flavor.
Sage can be harvested almost all year long. The plant survives even after the snows have fallen. To harvest, cut the top 5-6 inch of the stalks before the plant flowers. Repeat as new growth develops.
Unlike many herb plants, sage leaves are still flavorful and aromatic even after the plant flowers. The flavor intensifies as the leaves grow larger.
Pests and diseases
Be on the lookout for mildew. You can discourage this condition by making sure that the plants are wide enough apart to encourage good air circulation. Check often for mildew on the hottest and most humid days.
Mulching with pebbles around the crown also helps to keep the area around the leaves dryer than normal mulches.
Other diseases and insects that infect sage are stem rot from over-watering, aphids, spider mites and rust.
Sage Plant Uses
Sage is useful in stuffings and stews and is often used to flavor sausages. It is very flavorful and combines best with rich meats such as pork, beef and game.
Combine sage with coarse sea salt to make a flavorful salt that makes a great addition to crispy potatoes.
You can use the herb to make sage butter and it also makes a wonderful herb-infused vinegar. Sage has a very intense flavor, so only a small amount is needed to flavor a recipe.
Sage is also a useful plant to repel mosquitoes. The leaves send out a strong fragrance and produces oils that repel the insect. Find out about other mosquito repelling plants here.
How to preserve Sage Leaves
You may find that you have more sage than you can use at the end of the growing season. One of the best ways to preserve sage is to freeze the leaves. See more tips on preserving herbs here.
To freeze sage leaves, just place them between sheets of wax paper or foil which has been coated in olive oil. The leaves will remain supple even after freezing and you can remove them individually as needed.
You can also chop sage leaves and add them in an ice cube tray with some olive oil. Use the flavored oil cubes when cooking to give both oil and the flavor of the oil to the recipe.
Dry sage by hanging bunches of the stems upside-down to dry. Strip the dried leaves from the stem and store in an airtight container.
Pin these sage plant care tips for later
Would you like a reminder of these tips for growing garden sage? Just pin this image to one of your gardening boards on Pinterest.
- Sage Plant
- Well Draining Soil
- Sunlight needs: Full sun outdoors, very sunny window indoors.
- Watering requirements: Fairly drought tolerant. Avoid overwatering.
- Soil pH: 6.0 - 7.0
- Size of plant: 3-4 feet tall and 18-24 inches wide.
- Propagation: Stem Cuttings and layering.
- Cold Hardiness: Zones 4-9
- Pests and Diseases: Powdery mildew, stem rot and rust. Be on the lookout for aphids and spider mites.
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