Sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of the easiest perennial herbs to grow. Also known as culinary sage, this semi-shrubby plant features wooly, gray-green, aromatic, ovate leaves that stretch up to 4 inches long. The leaves are commonly used fresh or dried in cooking and add an earthy and slightly peppery flavor. Spikes of blue-purple flowers appear in the summertime. Sage can be planted in the spring or fall, and it has a moderate growth rate.
|Common Name||Sage, common sage, culinary sage, garden sage|
|Botanical Name||Salvia officinalis|
|Plant Type||Herb, perennial|
|Size||2–2.5 ft. tall, 2–3 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral (6–7)|
|Hardiness Zones||4–10 (USDA)|
How to Plant Sage
When to Plant
Grow sage in the mild weather of spring or fall. You can start planting seeds on the average date of the last spring frost. Set plants out after the threat of frost has passed. You can also start indoors 6 to 8 weeks before then.
Selecting a Planting Site
Your planting site must have well-draining soil and receive lots of sunlight. Container growth is an option if you don’t have a suitable garden site. Avoid planting sage by cucumbers, as its aroma can actually affect the taste of the cucumbers.
Spacing, Depth, and Support
Only lightly cover seeds with soil, and position nursery plants at the same depth they were in their previous container. Space sage plants about 1.5 to 2 feet apart. A support structure shouldn’t be necessary.
Sage Plant Care
For the best flavor, provide your sage with full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. However, in zone 8 and higher, your sage will likely prefer some afternoon shade, especially in hot weather.
Sage likes a sandy or loamy soil with good drainage. Wet soils can cause rot and be fatal to the plant. A slightly acidic to neutral soil pH is best.
Sage has moderate moisture needs, along with some drought tolerance. Keep the soil evenly moist but never soggy for young plants. Water established plants when the top 1 to 2 inches of soil dries out. Avoid getting the leaves wet when you water, as that can cause them to mildew.
Temperature and Humidity
Common sage tends to be a bit hardier than the more ornamental varieties, such as golden, purple, and tricolor sage. Established plants can withstand some frost, but temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit are best. Sage likes a moderate humidity level. In areas with high humidity, make sure there's enough air flow around the plants to help prevent fungal growth.
Sage plants aren’t heavy feeders, and too much fertilizer can result in weaker flavor. You can use an organic fertilizer for edible plants in the spring, or simply work some compost into the soil.
Sage is pollinated primarily by bees and butterflies and is excellent at attracting these beneficial insects to the garden.
Types of Sage
There are several types of sage that vary in their appearance and use, with some being grown primarily for culinary purposes and others kept for ornamental value. They include:
- 'Tricolor': This cultivar doesn't get as large as the main species. But its green, white, and pink/purple leaves make it prized both for ornamental and culinary uses.
- 'Purpurascens': This variety has deep purple young leaves that mature to a burgundy.
- 'Aurea': This is a compact plant with soft yellow leaves and purple flowers. It is also known as golden sage and is frequently used in cooking.
Sage vs. Marjoram
Both sage and marjoram are members of the mint family. And marjoram provides a very similar flavor to sage in recipes, though it tends to be milder. However, the plants differ quite a bit in appearance. While sage leaves average around 4 inches long, marjoram leaves don't get longer than an inch at the most. Marjoram leaves also are smooth, unlike sage’s fuzzy texture.
It takes around 75 days from planting seeds to get harvestable sage leaves. In a plant’s first year, try to harvest minimally, so the plant can focus on establishing itself. For the best flavor, harvest before the plant flowers for the season. Stop harvesting about two months before your projected first fall frost, so the plant doesn’t put out tender new growth that can be damaged.
You can pick off individual leaves by hand as needed, or trim off sprigs of the stem. Don’t take off more than a third of the plant at one time. Aim to use the leaves right away when fresh, or dry them for later use. Fresh leaves can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for two to three days. Dry sprigs by hanging them upside-down in a cool, dark, well-ventilated spot. Once the leaves are brittle, strip them from the stem to store in an airtight container. The flavor will be more intense if you dry whole leaves and crumble them as needed.
How to Grow Sage in Pots
Growing sage in a pot is ideal if you don’t have the right soil or light conditions in a garden. You can easily move pots as needed to ensure proper sunlight exposure. A container that’s at least 8 inches deep with a similar width is best. Unglazed clay is a good material, as it will allow excess soil moisture to evaporate through its walls. The container also should have drainage holes.
The stems of sage plants tend to become woody and produce less flavorful leaves over the years. Pruning can help combat this. As growth begins in the spring, prune out the oldest woody stems to encourage new growth. But even with this pruning, sage plants typically become too woody in about five years and are better replaced with new plants for a quality harvest.
Sage can be propagated by stem cuttings. Not only is this an inexpensive way to create more plants, but it's also an easy method to start new plants as established ones are becoming too woody for a good harvest. The best time to take cuttings is in the spring as active growth picks up. Here's how:
- Trim off a 4- to 6-inch piece of young stem (rather than old, woody stem).
- Remove the foliage on the lower half. Also, remove any flowers and buds.
- Dip the cut end in a rooting hormone.
- Plant the cut end in a small container of moist soilless potting mix.
- Place the container in bright, indirect light, and keep the soil moist but not soggy.
- Wait to see new growth on the stem. Gently tug the stem; if you feel resistance you’ll know it has rooted and can be planted outside.
How to Grow Sage From Seed
Sage is a lesson in patience when growing it from seed. Plant seeds only about 1/8 inch deep in moist garden soil or seed-starting mix. Keep the soil lightly moist but not soggy. It can take up to six weeks for germination to occur.
Potting and Repotting Sage
When potting sage, use a quality well-draining potting mix. Depending on the size of container you start with, you might not have to repot. But if you begin to see roots growing out the drainage holes, move your plant to one pot size up. Gently ease it out of its previous pot, set it at the same depth in the new container, and fill around it with fresh potting mix. Then, water to settle the soil.
To protect sage plants over the winter, lightly mulch around them. Also, make sure they’re not in the direct path of harsh winds. You can bring container plants indoors and place them by your brightest window.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Sage doesn’t have any major pest or disease issues. Root rot can occur in soil that’s too wet. Powdery mildew also can occur in wet conditions, but ensuring that there’s good air circulation around the plants can help prevent this. Common garden pests including slugs, spittle bugs and spider mites also might affect plants. Use an insecticidal soap to treat infestations.
Is sage easy to grow?
Sage is an easy herb to grow as long as you have ample sunlight and well-draining soil.
How long does it take to grow sage?
Sage leaves are generally harvestable in about 75 days after planting, but it's ideal to harvest only minimally in a plant's first year.
Does sage come back every year?
Sage is a perennial, returning each year, but it also can be kept as an annual or overwintered indoors outside of its growing zones.