Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a great herb to grow in your garden or indoors. This perennial grows quickly, attracting beneficial insects and pollinators. Sage is a low shrub with pale green-gray leaves that feel like velvet when touched.
This herb is quite aromatic and flavorful, which is why it is used for culinary purposes. Sage can flavor chicken, pork and lamb, as well as vegetables. It can also be blended with butter or soft cheeses. Many drink this herb in a tea with a little honey. Sage has medicinal properties such as treating stomach problems and improving memory.
Some varieties of sage are ornamental plants that can be grown in your garden. Leaves colors range from yellow, purple, green and white, while flowers are blue, red and purple. Part of the mint family, this plant can be cultivated with other Mediterranean herbs like rosemary and basil.
Sage Growing Conditions
This herb likes full sun, so make sure it gets it. It can tolerate some afternoon shade if you live in a very hot area (USDA 8+), as it does not like extreme heat. Mulching helps retain soil moisture if you live somewhere very hot and keeps the roots from freezing in cold weather. Sage does not like wet winters or moist and cold springs. Common sage is more tolerant than ornamental varieties such as purple, golden or tricolor.
Make sure to keep leaves dry. Damp leaves will cause this plant to rot or get mildew. Sage is quite tolerant to droughts, this is why it can be found in desert areas. Water the plant infrequently, so the soil is not wet. Soil should be well-drained, loamy and slightly moist. If your soil is clay based, then add sand and organic matter. It can tolerate even slightly alkaline soil, but the ideal pH should be between 6.0 to 6.7.
This herb grows between 12 to 24 inches tall and more than 36 inches wide. Dwarf varieties grow around one foot tall and have smaller leaves.
Sage is a great companion plant that can be grown next to carrots to repel carrot flies and cabbage to repel cabbage moths and root maggot flies. It can also be planted next to chives, rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, parsley, tomatoes, broccoli and calendula. Do not plant near cucumbers (as they stunt each other’s growth) rue or onions.
How to Take Care of Sage
It is a good idea to divide sage plants every 3-5 years. The best time to prune is during spring (starting the second year) to encourage new growth. Remove dead stems or blooms during fall or winter. Never cut the plant to the ground.
This plant needs to be a foot apart from each other. It also does not need much fertilizer, just put some organic matter or compost tea periodically to give it a boost.
It is possible to grow sage indoors in containers, just make sure it gets strong, direct light. Place your potted plant by a sunny window or supplement it with fluorescent lightning, as this herb needs between 6-8 hours of full sun daily. Use a humidifier if your interior setting is very dry. Placing other herbs nearby also helps. Make sure the temperature is warm, above 70 F (21 C).
How to Reproduce Sage
Sage seeds need to be sown when fresh, as they do not store well. Starting from seed may be complicated as they are not very reliable and are very slow to germinate (up to 21 days!). Make sure to sow, then scatter soil shallowly around 1/8 inches deep. Growing from seed can take up to a year for the plant to be usable.
If you live in an area with seasons make sure to wait until the soil is warm to transplant seedlings. End of spring or start of summer would be ideal. Start your seeds indoor about 4-6 weeks before the last frost and transplant them into pots when they are about 2-3 inches tall.
This herb can also be propagated by root division, layering and stem cuttings. Best to do your stem cutting in spring, after new growth. Cut the top three inches from the branch and remove the lower leaves. Place it in sterile sand and wait 4-6 weeks for the roots to form. For faster growth you can use rooting hormone, although this will make it not organic.
Branches that touch the ground can set their own roots, which can be separated and replanted. Layering can be done during the growing season, late spring or summer, by placing soil over the herbaceous part of the branch. Bend a branch (four inches from the tip) towards the soil using a wire to pin it and wait a couple of weeks for the roots to form. Cut this branch and transplant it to another location.
If you choose to buy sage from a nursery make sure to check that the roots of the plant are not overgrown. Pots should be three inches or larger and plants should be sturdy, not gangly or leggy. Also make sure the underside of leaves are clear of whiteflies.
Sage Pests and Problems
Sage does not suffer from many pests, so it is best to avoid the use of pesticides. However, there are a few conditions that may occur and here is how to treat them.
Mildew: is the most common pest that sage can have. Make sure that your plant is living in the ideal condition: hot and humid. Thin plants regularly so they have airflow and mulch with pebbles to prevent moisture evaporation. Use horticultural oil, neem or sulfur spray if you do get mildew. Do not compost plant material with fungal disease.
Rust: as its name indicates, the leaves of your plants will get light colored rusty spots which will then turn larger and darker. This fungal disease will reduce the vigor of your plant, so cut and remove any leaves you see that are infected.
Leaf spot: is another problem which is caused by bacteria or fungus. Leaves will get brown or black spots which will turn yellow or wilt. Make sure there is space between your plants and disinfect your gardening tools. Spray with a mix of water, baking soda and vegetable oil if your plants get infected.
Crown Gall: this bacteria causes gall to form on the crown of your sage plant. Prevent it by sanitizing tools and putting your soil under the sun.
Root Rot: check the roots if your sage is not growing, they may be rotten if they are soft and brown. Pick out the rotten parts and replant if the plant can be saved, otherwise destroy it.
Whiteflies, Aphids and Spider Mites: whiteflies are easy to recognize when you check your plant. They are usually found under the leaves, just like aphids that can also be found in the stem and are darker in color. Both are sap-sucking pests that prevent the plant from growing. Spider mites also suck the life out of a plant by creating fine webbing. Neem oil or insecticidal spray can be used to control these pests.
Harvesting and Storing Sage
It is best to allow sage to grow without harvesting the first year, so it can become established. After, you can harvest at any time, ideally before or after blooming in summer. It is even possible to harvest in the snowy winter.
Harvest this herb frequently as to reinvigorate the plant. Pruning after flowering keeps the plant from getting woody and leggy which happens after 3-4 years. Flowers are edible and can bloom again after harvested. Unlike other herbs, you can still use leaves after flowering since they don’t loose their taste or scent. Fresh leaves will keep between 2-3 days in the refrigerator if wrapped in a paper towel and stored in a plastic bag.
Consume this herb fresh or feel free to dry it on a screen in a ventilated area. It is also possible to tie branches and hang them upside down for 2-5 days. Drying leaves slowly helps prevent mold. Store them after in an airtight container for up to six months. Dried sage has a more intense flavor. Calculate one teaspoon of dried to one tablespoon of fresh herb.