How to Grow Culinary Sage

closeup of sage

​The Spruce / Kara Riley 

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is an herb that is closely associated with poultry dishes, but it is much more versatile. It is also one of the easiest perennial herbs to grow. Culinary sage refers to a small group of the genus Salvia. These are evergreen perennial subshrubs with woolly, grayish leaves that add a musky, earthy freshness to foods. Spikes of purple/blue flowers appear in mid-summer. Sage plants bloom in mid-summer and should be planted in the cool days of fall or spring. They have a medium growth rate and may bloom their first year, depending on size and site, but you are really growing the plants for the leaves.

Botanical Name Salvia officinalis
Common Name  Common sage, garden sage
Plant Type Herb 
Mature Size  1-2 ft. tall, 2-3 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type  Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral to acidic 
Bloom Time  Summer 
Flower Color  Blue, purple, white, pink
Hardiness Zones  5-9 (USDA)
Native Area  Mediterranean 

Culinary Sage Care

Sage quickly becomes a small woody shrub that can need replacing every three to four years. Frequent harvesting and pruning help to reinvigorate sage plants. While a sage plant is in its prime, it makes an attractive addition to both herb gardens and ornamental borders. The purple, golden, and tricolor varieties work especially well as edging plants, for borders or paths.

Allow the plants to grow unharvested for the first year, so they can become established. After that, you can harvest leaves at any time, although they are considered at their best before or just after blooming. You can even brush snow aside and harvest in the winter.

Sage is very happy growing in containers. If you want to try growing culinary sage indoors, you will need to provide strong, direct light.

closeup of sage detail
​The Spruce / Kara Riley
sage growing in a planter box
​The Spruce / Kara Riley 
pinching off sage
​The Spruce / Kara Riley
clipping off sage
​The Spruce / Kara Riley

Light

For healthy plants, give your sage plants full sun. In hot zones of USDA 8 or higher, they can handle some afternoon shade, but they need some sun or a breeze to dry the dampness off the leaves and prevent rotting.

Soil

Culinary sage prefers moist but well-drained soil. It will tolerate moderately alkaline soil. It is not particular about soil, except that it should be well-drained.

Water

Sage is very drought tolerant and does not like sitting in wet soil. The leaves will get mildew if they are allowed to sit damp, so water infrequently.

Temperature and Humidity

Sage plants will be perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 9. Common sage tends to be a bit hardier than the more ornamental varieties such as golden, purple, and tricolor sage. Sage prefers a warm, sunny location, although it does not enjoy extreme heat.

Fertilizer

Go easy on the fertilizer. It's better to simply side dress with organic matter in the spring.

Culinary Sage Varieties

Common Salvia officinalis is excellent for use as a seasoning and is undemanding in the garden. For variety and attractiveness, try one of the following.

  • Tricolor: This aromatic plant doesn't get as large as S. officinalis, but the variegation of its green, white, and pink/purple leaves make it as much an ornamental as a culinary herb.
  • Purple (Salvia officinalis 'Purpurascens'): This variety has deep purple young leaves that mature to a burgundy.
  • Aurea: This is a compact grower with soft yellow leaves and purple flowers. It is also known as golden sage and is frequently used in cooking.

Pruning

Pruning after flowering will keep plants attractive and prevent them from getting too woody and leggy. Culinary sage should be pruned in the spring. Avoid pruning in the fall or winter since that can damage new growth; instead, just remove any dead blooms or stems. Never cut the plants to the ground.

Propagating Culinary Sage

Sage plants can be started from seed, root cuttings, or transplants. Sage seed needs to be sown while fresh. The seed does not store well and even fresh, it is not terribly reliable and is slow to germinate.

Root cuttings can be propagated by layering. In fact, branches that touch the ground will often set down roots on their own. If this happens, you can separate the rooted section from the original plant and transplant it.

Fortunately, reasonably priced, small sage plants can be found in most garden centers in the spring. This is the easiest method to get an established plant quickly.

Cooking and Other Uses

Tender new sage leaves are more flavorful than older leaves on woody stems, so don't be afraid to harvest. Sage leaves are a popular poultry and meat seasoning. They can be used both fresh and dried, even fried. Sage also makes a nice tea.

Sage stores well as a dried herb. The flavor is more intense if you dry the whole leaves and crumble them as needed.

Besides seasoning, sage leaves and branches are often featured in crafts such as wreaths, where they add color, texture, and scent.