How to Grow Sage

Sage is good for more than just turkey stuffing at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s used more extensively outside the United States; for instance, in England in Sage Derby cheese, in Italy in saltimbocca (a veal dish) and in sausages in Germany. Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean, and it is part of the evergreen mint family, similar to rosemary, basil and oregano. Growing the sage plant takes a bit of work, but it’s worth it to have this fragrant, versatile herb fresh when you want it.

Overview of Garden Sage


sage plant - Benefits of Growing Sage

Sage is a robust plant that can handle cooler weather. As it grows, it becomes a bush with a circular shape. Its stems are tough, and its leaves are thick. The leaves used for cooking have a hazy green color and veined indents. Sage is known for its strong scent, which is a cross between citrus and pine. The flavor of this herb is similar to rosemary but earthier and slightly bitter. Cooking can tone down its strong flavor.

Benefits of Growing Sage


This herb is delicious in many different foods. Meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans and others on special diets can enjoy it because it goes well with meat, vegetables, legumes and grains. You can sprinkle some in a grilled cheese sandwich, sauté it with mushrooms or add it to melted butter for fish and pasta dishes. You can even use it in bourbon cocktails. You can pair it with many different herbs, including members of the same family, such as rosemary and thyme.

Fresh sage is more flavorful than the dried herb you get in a bottle at the grocery store. Because it’s a hardy, perennial plant, you’ll be able to use it fresh into late fall. When planted properly, this herb can produce many leaves, so gardeners only need one plant to give them enough sage throughout the growing season.

How to Grow the Sage Plant


This herb demands certain conditions to make it grow well. Despite this, it isn’t particularly difficult to grow if you go about it correctly. Here are suggestions for planting, maintaining and harvesting sage.

Planting Sage

sage plant - Planting Sage

Gardening experts don’t recommend trying to plant this herb from seeds because they take some time to grow. If a garden center near you has starter sage plants, then you might want to save yourself some trouble by buying one and transplanting it in your garden. Otherwise, it’s best to use cuttings from a mature sage plant or the layering method.

Cuttings

sage plant - Cutting

Cuttings are simply stems with leaves that can get your sage plant going. Here’s how to use them:

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    Find a mature sage plant in late May or early June.
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    Focus on the tops of stems, since these are pliable enough for easy cutting.
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    Cut a stem with leaves about three inches tall.
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    Rub rooting hormone on the cut end.
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    Put it into a container with a potting mix that allows drainage. The mix usually includes ingredients such as vermiculite, peat or pine bark.
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    Make sure there’s no direct sunlight hitting the pot.
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    Water it lightly and wait for the potting mixture to dry out before watering again.
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    Check it for new growth. This could take one to two months.
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    If you see two initial small, round leaves, let the plant be. These are cotyledons, so it’s not yet ready to be transplanted.
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    When true sage leaves start to form on the cutting, carefully transfer it to your garden.

Layering

sage plant - sage leaves

This method takes advantage of this herb’s ability to form roots from a stem that’s still attached to the plant. This is a great method for adding another sage plant to your garden or replacing an old one that isn’t producing tasty leaves.

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    Find a long, low-hanging stem on a mature sage plant in your garden.
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    Using a peg with a hook, place part of the stem a few inches underground. Make sure at least four inches of it is above ground.
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    Check the stem for root formation after about a month.
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    Using a pruning tool, carefully separate the portion of the plant that’s developed roots and replant it in your garden.

This herb does well when planted alongside cabbage, carrots, tomatoes or strawberries. As long as you give it room, it will also flourish near your flowerbeds. Since the sage plant produces beautiful purple blossoms, it attracts bees and can benefit other flowers. Sage can get bushy, so keep multiple plants 24 to 36 inches away from other plants.

Wait until the ground temperature is about 65 degrees to put new plants into the soil. This is typically around February in warmer states (Zone 8, 9 and 10) and April in Zone 5, 6 and 7. In Zone 3 and 4, the ground doesn’t reach this temperature until May.

Maintaining the Sage Plant


Sage needs to receive full sunlight, so make sure to find a suitable place for it in your garden. There’s no need to water this herb excessively, and doing so will cause mildew, which will look like a light gray powder on the surface of the leaves or stems. Periodically check the soil, and only give your sage plants a good watering when it’s bone dry.

Use fertilizer sparingly because too much of it can affect the flavor of your sage leaves. Try to keep soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Monitor it with a soil pH meter. If it’s significantly below 6.0, use garden lime to bring it up. Use soil acidifier if the pH level is much above 7.0.

As your sage plant starts to get bushy, carefully remove leafy stems to thin it out. The best time to do this is in the morning hours when the stems are dry but not too stiff. It’s a good idea to occasionally clear the bottom of the plant so that there’s a space of a couple of inches between the ground and the bottom stems. Check for crowded stems at the base of the plant, and remove some to prevent the growth of fungus. Also look for dead branches, and cut them as soon as you see them. This periodic pruning encourages new shoots.

Beware of caterpillars, as they can eat your sage leaves in a very short period of time. When you see one, pick it off and put it in a container of water mixed with dishwashing liquid before disposing of it. Slugs can also drill holes in the leaves. Sprinkle small pebbles, coffee grounds or coarse sand around your plant to keep them away. If you see any kind of insect infestation, you can spray the tops and bottoms of the leaves with insect-killing soap. Just be aware that the soap will also kill beneficial insects, so only do this if you’re seeing significant yellowing or wilting of the leaves.

Harvesting Sage


sage plant - Harvesting Sage

Young sage plants are sensitive to over-harvesting, so avoid stripping them of too many leaves in the first year. It’s best to use a pruning tool to cut the stems, although you can also carefully remove a leaf from its base for smaller harvests. Look for leaves that have a healthy gray-green color and soft coating. They should be firm but not hard to the touch.

The best time to harvest sage leaves is in the late evening or early morning. If you can get to the sage plants before they flower and when the leaves are at least 1.5 inches long, then you’ll be getting the best flavor.

Some experts say you should replace sage plants after 4 or 5 years because the leaves lose their flavor, but gardeners have found that pruning sage bushes in early spring to reduce their clutter maintains the flavor of the leaves. It also helps to do a more thorough pruning twice during the growing season, but take care not to remove more than half of the stems each time you do this. If your sage plant has weak leaf production or flavor, it’s time to add it to your compost bin and plant a new one in its place.

During intense pruning, you’ll likely find yourself with an abundance of sage leaves. Preserve them to use throughout the winter with these steps:

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    Tie bundles of stems together, but make sure there’s good airflow between them.
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    Hang them in a dry place, such as near a heater or sunny window.
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    Check the leaves after a couple of weeks. They should have a crispy consistency.
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    Lay out the dry bundles on a protected surface, and carefully remove the leaves.
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    Store them in an airtight jar, such as a canning jar, in a kitchen cupboard.

Sage is a plant that anyone can grow with a little care. It’s a versatile herb that suits multiple eaters and has a long growing season. If you love the idea of going out to your garden to pick fresh sage leaves for your vegetable, meat or grain dishes, then invest some effort in planting a sage bush. You and your family will reap the rewards for a long time to come.

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Lucy M. Clark
 

Hi there! I’m Lucy, and I’m a self-confessed garden fanatic. Gardening has always been a passion of mine and will always be my favorite pastime. Now that I am married and have one adorable son, I have the time to write and share my personal experiences with other garden enthusiasts like me.

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