Add Versatile Sage to your Herb Garden
While calling culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) “that turkey herb” does it a disservice, it probably wouldn’t mind. Well connected in the plant kingdom (there are 900 species and countless ornamental and edible varieties—from large, spectacular shrubs to tiny, single-stemmed plants), Salvia is notoriously easygoing.
Sage is a disease and bug resistant and demands little care when you decide to grow sage, yet its colorful blooms and striking foliage are beautiful in the garden; some varieties even provide nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds.
Traditionally associated with longevity, sage comes from the Latin word salvere, which means “to save or cure”; in ancient times, it was used for both medicinal and mystical purposes. Even today sage is often used in herbal medicine and cleansing rituals. Most of us, however, are happy to just enjoy this plant’s pungent, balsamic taste in the kitchen.
While ornamental sage is a worthwhile addition to any garden, culinary varieties are particularly versatile because while they’re attractive enough to be incorporated into perennial beds and borders, they can also be harvested for cooking and eating.
All Salvia belong to the Lamiaceae, or mint, family; they are vigorous and fast-growing but, unlike mint, aren’t invasive. They’re also suitable for gardens across the country. “Not every culinary variety is winter hardy,” says Conrad Richter, president of Richters Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario, “but the ones that don’t still grow well as annuals,” Richter notes, however, that in 40 years of growing herbs, purple sage overwintered in his Zone 5 garden for the first time last year.
Sage generally prefers full sun (some types will tolerate part shade), low humidity, slightly drier conditions, and fairly lean, especially well-drained soil. While there are exceptions (always check specific cultivar’s needs), most culinary sages shouldn’t be planted beside herbs that require regular or frequent watering, such as mint, parsley, cilantro, and chives.
Some culinary sages are easily grown from seed, while others must be propagated by cuttings or layering. Seed-grown varieties usually germinate in 14 to 21 days given adequate warmth (20 to 25°C), even moisture, and moderate light. But once the seedlings have germinated, you need to move them into the full sun to develop. Seedlings should be at least seven centimeters tall before planting outside, once the ground has warmed and all danger of frost has passed.
Watering and Fertilizing Tips
Even though sage is drought tolerant, new plants—whether seedlings, cuttings, or plugs ordered from a nursery—must be monitored for the first few weeks. Irrigate them regularly and do not let them dry out to the point of wilting. Once the plants are well established (10 to 20 centimeters tall), watering is less critical, except during dry spells.
Whether or not to fertilize is a personal choice. In general, sages like moderately rich soil. If you’re growing culinary varieties, Richter says slightly leaner soil results in better flavor. Augment newly planted specimens, and lightly top-dress mature plants, with a few handfuls of fully decomposed compost or well-rotted manure.
Most culinary sages (save for some of the fruit-scented ones) are equally flavourful fresh or dried; leaves and flowers can be snipped as needed. Pick sage as it comes into bloom—this is when the oils (and flavor) are the most concentrated. Cut no more than a third of a plant at any given time.
If harvesting flowers only, pick them when they’re fully open and in their prime, ideally in the early morning after the dew has evaporated.
Perennial sage can be pruned during the growing season to encourage new foliage; cut back by about one-third as the plant starts to bloom. (Toss small cuttings on the barbecue to give poultry or pork a unique, sage-smoked flavor.) It can also be shaped in spring; trim winter-damaged branches, but don’t cut the plant back too harshly or snip into woody stems.
but even with judicious pruning, perennial sages may become woody and unattractive after a few years. The plants can be divided, though mine always looks like sad, woody bonsai wannabes. Richter says propagating by stem cuttings or layering is an easy, reliable alternative.
Finally, while common sage and some of the other edible cultivars stand up well to cold, tricolor and golden sage are more temperamental and may not return after a harsh winter. Try planting those types in a protected spot, mulching lightly with several centimeters of shredded leaves, or simply take stem cuttings each fall for propagating indoors.
Ornamental Sage and Potting Sage
Sage is container-friendly and requires the same treatment in a pot as in the garden.
Select a pot that will accommodate the mature size of the plant and allow for good root development and growth; make sure it has drainage holes.
Place a small piece of fine mesh or window screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from falling through until the roots can hold the soil. Keep the planting medium on the lighter side by mixing three parts of potting soil with one perlite. Place in a sunny location and do not overwater. Plastic, wooden, and metal containers should be elevated slightly to allow for drainage.
Ornamental Sage Tips
Like their culinary cousins, ornamental Salvia (both annuals and perennials) are easygoing plants that produce color all season, provided they’re deadheaded occasionally.
Annual sages are easily grown from seed. Connie Dam-Byl of William Dam Seeds in Dundas, Ontario, says to start them indoors in small trays six weeks before planting out. When their first set of true leaves appears, transplant them into a cell pack and harden off before planting them in the garden. Annual sages prefer full sun and regular watering, though they’ll tolerate some shade and the occasional dry spell. Perennial ornamentals are slightly more drought tolerant, but regular watering keeps them at their peak.
Dam-Byl recommends adding a slow-release organic fertilizer to the garden bed before planting any ornamental sage. Water in the plants with a liquid fish/seaweed fertilizer combination and give them another dose in midsummer.
Aphids can sometimes be a problem; remove them with a showering of insecticidal soap (or plain water when temperatures are above 25°C) on both the tops and bottoms of the leaves.
Fruit sage (Salvia Louisiana); Annual
- Height & spread 90 cm x 1.2 m
- Description & comments Large, velvety leaves with delicious fruit scent and vivid pink flowers; requires lots of filtered light and regular watering; not drought tolerant; reluctant to branch and can get floppy, but responds well to regular pinching back
- Uses Mince fresh flowers for sage butter; lovely in containers; dry for potpourri or for use in the linen closet to discourage insects
Pineapple sage (S. elegans); Annual
- Height & spread 90 to 120 cm x 60 to 90 cm
- Description & comments Brilliant red flowers; likes regular watering; susceptible to heat stress
- Uses Leaves and flowers to add tangy citrus-mint flavor to salads, drinks, jams, jellies, and desserts; pairs well with chicken, pork, or fish; best fresh
‘Honey Melon’ sage (S. e. ‘Honey Melon’); Annual
- Height & spread 90 to 120 cm x 60 to 90 cm
- Description & comments Looks and grows like pineapple sage but has a luscious honeydew scent; edible red flowers attract hummingbirds; prefers filtered light
- Uses Can be used like pineapple sage; the best fresh
Greek sage (S. fruticosa); Annual
- Height & spread 60 to 90 cm x 45 cm
- Description & comments Grey-green leaves; ancient lineage
- Uses Slightly inferior in taste to S. Officinalis, but is easier to pot up and grow indoors; a majority of commercially dried sage is S. fruticosa
Autumn sage (S. greggii); Zone7
- Height & spread 60 x 90 cm
- Description & comments Drought-tolerant ornamental produces small, fruit-scented leaves and brightly colored flowers; many cultivars are available (‘Big Pink’, ‘Cherry Chief’, ‘Lowry’s Peach’); attracts hummingbirds
- Uses Aromatic leaves used as a seasoning in Mexico; nectar-filled blooms are tasty in salads
‘Gold’ sage (S. o. ‘Gold’) Zone 7
- Height & spread 60 x 90 cm
- Description & comments Slow-growing, lovely, compact plant; is generally grown for foliage and produces solid gold-colored leaves; rarely flowers; can be slowed further if given too much or too little water, or is over-fertilized; requires full sun to keep photosynthesis at peak
- Uses the Same flavor and uses as other culinary sages
Garden sage (S. officinalis); Zone 5
- Height & spread 45 to 90 cm x 60 to 90 cm
- Description & comments Grey-green, pebbly textured leaves, pale blue flowers; easy to start from seed
- Uses Main culinary variety; also used medicinally; flowers have subtler flavor than leaves and can be used in pesto, salads, dips or sauces, or added to crumbs for coating fish or chicken
‘Berggarten’ sage (S. o. ‘Berggarten’); Zone 5
- Height & spread 60 x 45 cm
- Description & comments Large, silvery grey-blue leaves; low, robust habit
- Uses the Same flavor and uses as garden sage; try flash-frying leaves in olive oil for about 30 seconds, then cool, crumble and use like bacon bits