Mention the beautiful, hazy, pale green leaves of garden sage, and I immediately envision scenes in my grandmother's kitchen at Thanksgiving. Sage's pronounced pine-like aroma capitalizes on our most memory-evoking sense: smell. All I want at that moment is savory sage stuffing or sage-studded breakfast sausage to suddenly appear in my kitchen. I'd even settle for a sour cherry and sage bourbon smash.
The best part about growing sage is that you only need one of these incredibly easy-to-grow plants in your garden to enjoy its flavor throughout the year.
Why Should I Grow Sage?
Growing garden sage (salvia officinalis) is so economical and time-saving. Its flavor is so intense that only a dash is needed to flavor a dish. Sage is also one of the few herbs that, even as its leaves grow larger, the flavor intensifies. Unlike many herbs, sage leaves are still delicious after the plant flowers.
I like to describe sage as the "Cabernet Sauvignon of herbs." Similar to Cabernet grapes, sage is sturdy, hardy, prolific, and drought-tolerant. It grows well within a wide range of temperatures and planting zones. Sage also boasts a long growing season. Since this resinous herb is evergreen in most zones, you can harvest sage well into late fall. While tender herbs, like basil, might die on the first freeze, sage will still be growing strong.
Since it prefers well-drained soil, sage is a perfect candidate for container gardening. And what about pests? Most pests pose no threat to sage. Your only concern might be mildew, which you can avoid by not over-watering.
Translation? Growing sage makes the slacker gardener look good.
How to Plant Sage
- Where: Sage will grow almost anywhere, but it provides the tastiest leaf when it receives a lot of sunlight. This evergreen shrub is hardy from zone four through 11, and because of its affinity for well-drained garden soil, it performs well in containers. I have a couple of sage plants dedicated for culinary use, nestled alongside my carrots and tomatoes. I also have a few more planted within the landscaping. I love using sage springs in flower arrangements.
- When: Sage can prove challenging when planted by seed, but it is very easy to grow from cuttings or by "layering." I purchased my first sage plants from the garden center, and now I propagate new plants via one of the two methods listed below. Regardless of which propagation method you choose, plant young sage plants only after the ground temperature hits 65°F, one to two weeks before the last frost.
Propagate from cuttings: Clip a three-inch cutting from the very tip of a stem, apply rooting hormone on the exposed portion of the stem, and plant it in either sterile sand or vermiculite. Roots will emerge within six weeks. Transfer to a small pot, let the root ball form, and then transfer to a large pot or directly to your garden.
Propagate by layering: Take a long sage stem and carefully secure it along the soil with wire, leaving four inches of the tip free. Make sure the pinned portion is directly touching the soil. Roots will start to form along the stem within about a month. Cut away the newly rooted plant from the main plant and transfer elsewhere within the garden or to a large pot.
How to Cultivate Sage
- Soil: Sage thrives in well-drained, sandy, loamy soil, and it prefers a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Resist the temptation to over-fertilize; the sage might grow a little faster, but its flavor will be less intense.
- Sun: Plant sage in medium to full sun. If you are growing sage indoors, place your pot near a sunny window.
- Water: Sage is a fairly drought-tolerant herb, and even when the leaves look wilted, a little water perks the entire plant right up. Wait until the soil is dry to give it a thorough watering.
- Spacing: Sage grows in a round, bush-like fashion, and individual plants should be spaced 24" to 36" apart.
- Companion planting: Plant sage near carrots, strawberries, tomatoes, and cabbage. I have a few planted within my perennial garden, as well as near my tomatoes. Because the beautiful blossoms attract pollinators, I let a couple of my sage plants go to flower.
How to Harvest Sage
Many experts suggest retiring a sage plant after four to five years. The leaves supposedly lose their fresh flavor and develop a "woody" taste. I tend to rebel against this notion. I find, however, when I prune back the thick, woody stems in early spring, my sage tastes just fine. If your sage does begin to slow down in production or lose flavor, just propagate a new plant by means of cuttings or layering.
Sage can be harvested on an as-needed basis, clipping just above the spot where two leaves meet. For the richest concentration of their aromatic oils, harvest sage leaves in the morning, once the dew has dried.
I also suggest conducting a larger sage harvest about twice during its growing season, in order to encourage a prolific, evenly shaped and rounded plant. Just cut the sage stems back, harvesting no more than half of the plant, and have a few preservation ideas at the ready. I'll share a dozen of my favorite methods on tomorrow's preservation post.
(Image credits: Jayme Henderson)