Sage is a perennial, woody-stemmed small shrub and a member of the rosemary, mint and basil family of herbs. It grows to about 2-3 feet tall and produces delicious, strong-flavored leaves that will keep producing year after year. Growing sage is so easy it can make even the laziest of gardeners look good.
Some Interesting Facts About Sage
Salvia, sage’s Latin name, means to “save” or “cure” and dates back to times when sage was used for its many healing properties. Today sage is said to be an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant herb, and have healing properties that include memory boosting, diabetes management and strengthening of bones and muscles.
There are literally hundreds of types of sage. The sage commonly used all over the world in cooking is salvia officinalis or common garden sage.
So, regardless of its healing properties, sage is mostly used in the West for cooking: by Americans in the turkey at Thanksgiving, by the British in the classic sage and onion stuffing, and by Italians in their meat and pasta dishes, to name just a few. Sage’s gray-green leaves have a strong herbal flavor that is slightly earthy with hints of mint, eucalyptus and pine. For this reason, it’s often added to dishes early in the cooking process, as opposed to most herbs, which are added at the end to preserve their flavor.
Crunchy fried sage leaves make a delightful garnish for soups and other culinary dishes. Or, sprinkle it with salt and eat like potato chips for a tasty (and healthy) snack.
Burning Sage Ritual
Bundles of dried sage are also used in purification rituals called “smudging.” The tradition originated in the Native American culture, but it has caught in modern society and is used to cleanse a space of negative energy to generate wisdom and clarity, and to promote healing. The sage bundles are burned, producing smoke that is said to purify the air in a home or building.
Types of Sage
There are over 900 types of sage grown throughout the world. Some sage plants are edible and used in cooking while some are simply ornamental.
Some of the most popular types of sage are:
- Common Garden Sage (salvia officinalis) has red or purple flowers. The leaves are mainly used in cooking both dried and fresh.
- Golden Garden Sage (salvia officinalis ‘Icterina’) has blue flowers and can be used in cooking in place of common garden sage in any recipe. It is also used for ornamental purposes.
- Berggarten Sage (salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’) bred so it will not flower. It is used for medicinal and culinary purposes and can replace common garden sage in any recipe.
- Purple Sage (salvia officinalis ‘purpurascans’) has aromatic purple/green flowers is used in cooking. Its color makes a nice change from the plain green variety.
- Pineapple Sage (salvia elegens) has red flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. It used for ornamental and medicinal purposes and also to flavor desserts and ice creams.
- Blackcurrant sage (salvia microphylla var. microphylla) has striking cherry red flowers and is used to flavor cocktails.
- Mealycup Sage (salvia farinacea) has blue or purple flowers that attract beneficial pollinators. It is used for ornamental purposes.
- Mexican Bush Sage (salvia leucantha) has velvety purple flowers that attracts beneficial insects. It is used as a landscaping plant and for cut flowers.
- Scarlet Sage (salvia splendens ) has flowers that come in a variety of colors, including red. These plants are mostly used for ornamental purposes and make excellent cut flowers.
When planting and cultivating sage, there are a few things you should be aware of to ensure the strongest growth and most intense flavor.
Keep in mind that the different sage types have varying soil, sun and water requirements. The instructions in this article are for the Common Garden Sage.
The sage plant thrives in a hot, dry climate, but it can be grown almost anywhere. Moreover, it’s a hardy shrub that can withstand cooler temperatures, which allows it to still grow well into the fall each year. Sage might thrive in a desert climate, but when similar herbs die after the first frost of the year, your sage will still be growing strong.
Once the herb takes hold, it will thrive on its own with little effort on your part. However, if you live in an area that is naturally cold all year round, your sage plant will probably do best growing indoors in a pot. In this case, set it by a sunny windowsill, or under some grow lights.
One of the benefits of growing sage is that one plant will be enough to supply a family’s culinary needs all year round. Because of the naturally strong flavor of the leaves, you need very few to make a difference in a dish.
It’s best to start sage from a young plant from your local nursery since seeds can be difficult and slow to germinate. The best time to plant is in the spring.
Sage will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. However, it does best in sandy, loamy soil with good drainage and a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. You can check the pH of your soil with a pH Meter.
Sage prefers a location with full sun. However, it is resilient and will grow in partial sun, although the flavor of the leaves will be diminished. It prefers cooler temperatures in winter.
Water regularly until the sage plant is established. After that, water only when it starts to dry out; lack of water will improve the flavor. Never let the soil get soggy which could cause the plant to rot. Also, to avoid mildew problems, like most plants it’s best to avoid watering the leaves.
Sage plants can become woody over time causing the leaves to be less flavorful. To avoid this, you can prune the existing stalks down to 1 to 2 inches, but only when you see new growth appearing. The new growth will produce better tasting leaves. Make sure you water well after pruning.
This video talks about how care for and prune a sage plant:
As long as you have a good soil with the correct pH level when planting, sage plants don’t need any ongoing fertilizing. Too much fertilizer will cause the plants to grow more, but the leaves won’t have as much flavor.
Sage will grow well alongside cabbage, carrots, strawberries and tomatoes which will benefit from the insects the sage flowers attract. In addition, Sage repels mosquitoes and insects harmful to vegetable plants such as bean beetle, cabbage fly, cabbage moth and carrot fly. Rosemary makes a good companion herb to sage since they have similar sun and water requirements.
Pests and Diseases
After your sage begins to grow, there isn’t much you have to worry about to keep it healthy and thriving. Pests don’t pose a huge threat to the herb. There are, however, a few that can cause some concerns such as whitefly, aphids, and spider mites. The good news is that they tend to steer clear of the plant unless it is already sick or dying.
As far as diseases are concerned, you may notice some powdery mildew, fungal leaf spots, or even stem rot, but this is mainly due to over watering. This is entirely avoidable if you let the soil dry out between each watering.
It’s best to harvest sparingly during the first year of growth. After that you can harvest any time you need leaves for a dish. Fresh leaves taste better and a little different from dried leaves.
You don’t even have to worry about sage flowering since, unlike most other herbs, sage leaves retain their great flavor even after the plant has flowered. The flowers are also edible and can be added to salads and other dishes, adding a splash of color.
To harvest, either pinch off individual leaves or cut off small sprigs from the plant. If you want to harvest larger amounts, make sure you cut just above where two leaves meet on a sprig.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Harvest in the morning for best flavor
- Twice during each growing year cut off about 6 inches from the top of the plant to encourage growth.
- Stop harvesting in the fall to avoid weakening the plant
- Replace your plant after three or four years when the leaves start losing their pungency.
Sage is an easy herb to grow and is recommended for the time-strapped or beginner gardener since once planted it needs little ongoing care. The best part about growing sage is you can plant it and enjoy its aromatic and distinctive flavors in your food no matter where you live.
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