- Sage: The Ultimate Guide to Growing Sage
- What is Sage?
- Popular Types of Sage
- Steps to Planting Sage Plants
- Caring for Sage
- Common Questions About Growing Sage
Sage: The Ultimate Guide to Growing Sage
Culinary superstar sage is a pretty, low shrub with pale, velvet-soft greyish green leaves. A member of the mint family, sage is easy to grow and does well in containers, the ground and indoors. If you’re looking to add a new herb to your mix this year, read on to learn everything you need to know about this hardy, versatile plant.
Here, we’ll cover:
- What is Sage?
- Popular Types of Sage
- Steps to Planting Sage Plants
- Caring for Sage
- Common Questions About Growing Sage
What is Sage?
Sage is popular both in the kitchen as well as for what some consider to be medicinal purposes. It’s known as a showstopper in fall dishes, complementing pork and poultry, pairing well with lamb and often used in Thanksgiving stuffing. It’s also the perfect flavor to add to fall and winter squash dishes and risottos. It is both aromatic and flavorful, and can be planted with Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary or basil. Some people believe sage’s medicinal properties may be good for improving memory and helping resolve stomach ailments. In addition to using sage for cooking , there are also some varieties that are purely ornamental.
Popular Types of Sage
There are a mind-blowing 900 species of salvia (which is the largest genus of plants in the mint family). Some of the most popular varieties are:
- Berggarten Sage – Berggarten sage is very similar to the common garden sage in color, look and style of leaves, but it does not bloom.
- Garden Sage – Garden sage is one of the most well-known varieties and is also referred to as “common sage.” It’s hardy and can resist even extreme cold during winters, bouncing back each spring. Soft, greenish silvery leaves with purple-bluish flowers make this herbal addition a pleaser in any garden. May become woody after 3 – 4 years and need to be replaced.
- Golden Sage – Golden sage is a creeping plant and has green and golden variegated leaves. Beautiful in a garden with other plants, as the colors accentuate whatever is planted around it.
- Grape Scented Sage – Grape scented sage is one of the largest-growing varieties, growing up to 8 feet tall by 6 feet wide. This sage actually does not smell like grapes, as the name would imply, but rather has the sweet smell of freesia. Its flowers and leaves will attract hummingbirds and can be steeped to make tea.
- Mealycup Sage – Mealycup sage, the most common version is known as blue salvia, grows about 2 – 3 feet and is most often an annual, depending on the region you’re growing it in. It has lovely purple, white or blue flower spikes and has several varieties such as “Empire Purple” and “Victoria Blue.”
- Mexican Bush Sage – Mexican bush sage is drought tolerant and grows 3 – 4 feet. Despite being able to withstand drought conditions, it’s otherwise a tender perennial with white or purple flower spikes. It’s a nice accent plant.
- Purple Sage – Purple sage plants have purple leaves when young. Also used for cooking, but unlike garden sage, a purple sage bush doesn’t bloom very often.
- Pineapple Sage – Pineapple sage is primarily grown as an ornamental plant, but is also widely thought to have medicinal properties. This perennial grows tubular red flowers and attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.
- Scarlet Sage – Scarlet sage is an annual that really thrives in full sun, but can also withstand some partial shade as long as it’s planted in well-draining soil. It boasts gorgeous scarlet blooms that produce from late spring through the first frost of the year.
- Tricolor Garden Sage – Tricolor garden sage is similar in looks to purple sage, but has uneven white accented leaves, giving it the perception of being “tricolored.”
- White Sage – White sage is also known as bee sage and is used for cooking. Slow growing, the white sage plant is an evergreen perennial shrub that can take up to 3 years to mature and grows to 2 – 3 feet tall.
Steps to Planting Sage Plants
It’s not hard to learn how to grow sage. From where to plant it, to how to get the best results, just follow our simple step-by-step guide to growing sage for years of enjoyment.
- When is the best time to plant sage? Plant sage after the ground temperature reaches 65°F – about 1 – 2 weeks before you have the last frost of the year.
- Should you grow from seeds? If you decide to grow your sage from seed, take note that it will likely take a couple years to fully mature. If you choose to go the seed route, sow indoors for 6 – 8 weeks before the last frost under a plant light. Sage seeds will take about 3 weeks to germinate, and then you can transplant seedlings to your prepared soil. You can also propagate new plants from other cuttings or by layering.
- Choose the right soil. Sage needs sandy, loamy, well-draining soil. You want a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 for optimal growth. Do not over fertilize if you’re growing for culinary purposes – while you may get faster growth, you will likely lose intensity in flavor. If you’re planting in clay soil, mix in organic matter and sand to provide better drainage.
- Where does sage grow? Sage does best in medium to full sun. It can also do well in containers or indoors – just be sure it’s near a sunny window if you’re growing it inside. If you live in zones 5 to 8, your sage will be a hardy perennial. If you’re in the humid zones of 9 or anywhere further south, it will likely be an annual, as it doesn’t tolerate summer humidity and heat very well.
- How to space sage plants. Most sage plants grow in a roundish bush shape, so take care not to plant them too close together so they have room to mature. Space sage plants about 24” apart.
- How much water does sage plant need? Sage is a relatively drought-tolerant herb. Even if it begins to wilt, it will typically perk up with water. Don’t over-water – wait until your soil is dry, and then thoroughly water.
Caring for Sage
Sage is an easy-to-grow plant that doesn’t demand a ton of care. It has a long growing season and is one of the few herbs that doesn’t lose intensity in flavor after flowering. It’s not susceptible to many pest threats, and most often, your only concern may be mildew, which you can avoid by taking care to not overwater.
- How to prune sage? You should prune your sage back in early spring. Be sure to cut past the woody, thick stems to keep your next-season leaves fresh and flavorful.
- How often to water sage. Water sage sparingly. Too much water and you risk mildew. Wait for the soil to completely dry out, then water thoroughly.
- When to harvest sage. Sage can be harvested as-needed. You should clip just above the part of the plant where two leaves meet. Harvest your sage in the morning, after dew has dried. During the first year of growth, harvest lightly to ensure full growth.
- How often to harvest sage. Once or twice during each growing season, do a larger harvest, cutting the stems back no more than about half of the sage plant. Doing so will ensure you have a nice, evenly-shaped plant that’s beautifully round and full.
- How to store sage. For the most fragrant and intense flavor, use your sage fresh. However, you can also dry it for later use or teas. Keep in mind, if cooking with dried sage, the flavor will be much more concentrated. You should adjust recipes accordingly.
- How to dry sage. Drying sage leaves is simple. Cut small bunches, leaving the leaves on the stems, and tie your cuttings together. Hang upside down in a dark, cool, well-ventilated room until bunches are dry and leaves are crisp. Remove leaves from stems and store them whole, crushing as needed.
Common Questions About Growing Sage
Why is my sage plant dying?
The most common reason your sage may be doing poorly is overwatering. Soil should be dry before watering to prevent mildew and yellow or brown spots.
Can sage survive winter?
Sage is a cold-hardy herb. In most regions, particularly zones 5 – 8, most varieties will simply go dormant in the winter and come back the next spring.
How long does sage last?
As long as properly cared for, harvested and pruned every season, your sage plant can last you many years. Some have found that their plants get more and more woody as the years go by, and that by year 3, the plant is no longer as productive or flavorful. However, others note that by cutting back past the woody stems at the end of each growing season, you can get many more years out of this herb.
Is sage annual or perennial?
Actually, both! If you live in planting zones 5 – 8, your sage will be a perennial, growing back year after year each spring. If you’re in zones 9 and further south, your sage will likely be an annual, or one-year plant.
A member of the mint family, culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) is a highly aromatic herb with a subtle, earthy flavor. It works especially well with meats such as pork, lamb and poultry, and is often used in dressings or holiday stuffings. Use sparingly, as sage can be very strong and easily overpower a dish.
Sage is highly regarded as a medicinal herb and has been used for years to cure a long list of ailments from broken bones and wounds to stomach disorders, shortness of breath and loss of memory. Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), a Roman naturalist and philosopher, recommended using sage for intestinal worms, memory problems and snake bites.
Sage is attractive with grayish-green foliage and beautiful purple-pink blossoms. It is equally at home grown outdoors in garden beds or indoors in containers. We recommend planting this hardy perennial with other Mediterranean herbs, like basil and rosemary, for a delicious and fragrant kitchen garden. Sturdy plants — 12 to 30 inches high — are perennial in zones 5-10.
Tip: Try layering a bed of culinary sage on the grill and flavoring meats with its smoke.
Choose from a large selection of heirloom herb seeds available at Planet Natural. Planting instructions are included with each packet and shipping is FREE!
Quick Guide: Planting, Growing & Harvesting Sage
- A must-have herb for pork, lamb and poultry and stuffing
- Grows best from cuttings or divisions
- Plant in full sun in compost-rich soil that drains well
- Handles cold very well; add mulch for winter protection
- Watch for slugs, spider mites, powdery mildew and verticillium wilt
Sunlight: Full sun to partial shade
Maturity: 70-75 days from transplant, 90-100 days from seed
Height: 12 to 30 inches
Spacing: 18 to 24 inches apart
Sage grows well in prepared garden beds or containers and require full sun — tolerates partial shade — and well drained soil to thrive. Dig in plenty of organic garden compost or well-aged chicken manure prior to planting.
How to Plant
Seeds store and germinate poorly. When grown from seed, sage takes about 2 years to reach mature size. Most home gardeners start culinary sage from cuttings or divisions using the outer or newer growth.
If starting seeds indoors, sow under plant lights 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost. Seeds will take about 3 weeks to germinate. Transplant seedlings to the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Space the plants 2 feet apart and divide every 3-5 years to keep them vigorous (watch our video How to Grow an Herb Garden).
Sage is hardy to -30˚F, if covered. In winter, cut back the foliage and place a thick layer of mulch over the roots to protect them from freezing.
Harvesting and Storage
Harvest leaves sparingly during the first year of growth; pick as needed in following years. Sage is best used fresh but may be stored. Dried leaves have a stronger and somewhat different flavor than fresh.
To dry, tie the cuttings in small bunches and hang upside down in a well-ventilated, dark room. When dry, remove the leaves from the stems and store whole. Read our article about Harvesting and Preserving Herbs to learn more.
Insect & Disease Problems
Slugs and spider mites are a few of the common garden pests found on sage. Watch closely and take the following common sense, least-toxic approach to pest control:
- Remove weeds and other garden debris to eliminate alternate hosts.
- Discard severely infested plants by securely bagging and putting in the trash.
- Release commercially available beneficial insects to attack and destroy insect pests.
- Spot treat pest problem areas with diatomaceous earth, neem oil or other organic pesticide.
Foliage is susceptible to fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew and verticillium wilt, which can disfigure the leaves under severe infestations. To reduce these plant problems:
- Avoid overhead watering whenever possible (use soaker hoses or drip irrigation)
- Properly space plants to improve air circulation
- Apply copper or sulfur sprays to prevent further infection
Seed Saving Instructions
Sage seeds are ready to save when the blooms turn brown and dry. When completely dry, gently crush the heads between your hands and carefully winnow away the chaff.
sageOverview of sage.Contunico © ZDF Enterprises GmbH, MainzSee all videos for this article
Sage, (Salvia officinalis), also called common sage or garden sage, aromatic herb of the mint family (Lamiaceae) cultivated for its pungent leaves. Sage is native to the Mediterranean region and is used fresh or dried as a flavouring in many foods, particularly in stuffings for poultry and pork and in sausages. Some varieties are also grown as ornamentals for their attractive leaves and flowers. Several other species of the genus Salvia are also known as sage.
Sage is a perennial plant and grows about 60 cm (2 feet) tall. The oval leaves are rough or wrinkled and usually downy; the colour ranges from gray-green to whitish green, and some varieties are variegated. The flowers are borne in spikes and feature tubular two-lipped corollas that are attractive to a variety of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The flowers can be purple, pink, white, or red and produce nutlet fruits.
Sage has slightly stimulating properties; tea brewed from its leaves has been used as a tonic for centuries. In medieval Europe, sage was thought to strengthen the memory and promote wisdom. The essential oil content of sage varies up to about 2.5 percent; the principal components are thujone and borneol.
Many of you who follow me on Instagram, have probably heard me talk about white sage. In the midst of this whirlwind of information, I wanted to be able to provide you guys with something tangible to reference. There is a lot of news being thrown at you about not wildcrafting sage, not using it at all, and among all the chaos I wanted to provide you with a guide you can use for growing your own sage.
Growing your own herbs is one of the most rewarding things you can experience. Not only is the quality better than buying from a big corporate herb supplier, but you get to see the plant grow. Whether you start with a seed or a small herb plant, you will witness every stage of its growth. You will learn how much water, sunlight, nutrients and care each plant needs. When the day finally comes when its time to harvest your leaves, flowers or roots you will feel such a sense of satisfaction. Only then will you be able to see why its not the best idea to wildcraft. It takes so much energy for the plant to thrive and when the growing conditions are not optimal or we as humans interfere in some way, the plant suffers.
Many people have asked me will sage grow in X place. What I will say is that you can grow sage just about anywhere if you take your plant inside during winter (if you don’t live in a desert/Mediterranean climate like here in Southern CA). But will it flourish where you live? Probably not. But it will grow, and it is definitely worth a try to see how healthy you can get it. You will never know unless you try!
Here in Southern California, you can find white sage at most nurseries in a native plant section along with some hardware stores. But I realize in some other places its probably a very specialized plant that might only be available at herb or medicinal plant nurseries. But there are some resources online like Strictly Medicinal Seeds or Crimson Sage Nursery that will ship to you!
How to Grow from Seed
You might have heard that sage is notoriously difficult to start from seed. Its not that its “difficult” per say but that the germination rate is very low. Its about 10-20% but honestly its more like 10%. Some companies say it can be up to 50% but I doubt it. This means that out of a package of about 100 seeds, on average only 10 will sprout. In the spring I sprouted about 10 trays, which is about 72 seeds per tray. Only 5-8 per tray sprouted.
Even if you live in a temperate climate, I always try and give the seeds the most optimal growing conditions. I have a spare shower where I am able to set up a grow light so the seeds stay at a pretty even temperature all day long. If you have any spare area of your house where you can set up a table, or a closet, or a windowsill, that’s perfect!
I would recommend buying a seed starter soil mix. You can use a good quality soil from a hydroponic store as well but seed starter is very finely ground so theres no big chunks of wood or anything else. Its also better at retaining moisture. Fill your trays with soil and use your finger or the end of a pen to create a ¼ divot in each cell. Drop a single seed in and use your finger to lightly cover up the seed. Water the tray then put a lid over it. Many seed trays can be purchased with a dome lid either at a hydroponics store or even a Home Depot/Lowe’s. Every few days check the moisture of the soil and mist the tray lightly then cover it back up. Don’t let it get super wet, just moist enough. White sage will take a bit longer than many seeds to sprout but in about 2 weeks you should see some start popping up. Wait until the sprout is about 3 inches tall before you transplant.
If you don’t want to grow these indoors, you can also do it outdoors using natural sunlight, but I just find that if you do it indoors you can control the environment more and give them a better chance to sprout.
If you want more information I would highly recommend you read Richo Cech’s book The Medicinal Herb Grower: A Guide for Cultivating Plants That Heal. He has some wonderful recommendations for caring for sage and he is a great resource! There are some amazing suggestions about how to recreate the natural environment of sage and the yearly wildfires in order to get the seeds to pop. One of the best books you can read on the subject!
How to Propagate Sage
To be quite honest, this is something I still have not mastered. I have spoken to several nurseries and many do not propagate but purchase from larger wholesale companies that do propagate from cuttings. I can only tell you from what I have read and tried to do myself as there isn’t much information out there on this subject which is a shame. Everyone should be able to learn this not just those that are selling it!
You can do this in 2 ways. You can either use soil or go hydroponic. I have tried both with little success. I think you have to have a lot of patience with this, and if you choose to try the hydroponic method you have to be very careful and keep your equipment VERY sanitary.
First I will discuss hydroponic method as its least talked about. To go this route, I would suggest buying a clone box. This is something that’s mostly used in the cannabis industry but can be used to clone many kinds of plants (anything from tomato’s to flowers). You can find instructions to make one out of a 5 gallon bucket but I would spend the extra money if you plan on doing this long term to just buy a professional one because in the end making the bucket still costs about $40 and the real one is about $60-80 for a small one. But the small one can hold about 40 cuttings whereas a bucket might only yield 12-16.
To get a cutting from a sage plant you need to choose, young tender shoots. Don’t bother cutting from a woody stem. The woody stems are far too tough to grow roots and are hollow inside. Find the new growth and find the longest stems you can. Strip the leaves off the bottom end of the stem and only leave about 3-4 leaves on the top. To cut the shoot, use a sterile razor blade, always cutting at an angle. Carefully cut the bottom leaves off with the razor. It requires only a light push of the razor against the base of the leaf for it to fall off. Try not to nick the stem at all. If you cut into the stem or damage it in any way you don’t be able to use it. Then dip the end of the sage into a cloning gel. Make sure to keep the ends of the sage wet with the gel while you gather the rest of your cuttings so they don’t dry out. This is so they have the best chance of growing and don’t seal up at all.
Once you have all your cuttings, follow the directions with your clone box. They should start to grow roots in about 2 weeks. You have to be super careful that you keep the water inside clean. Completely sanitize your box when you start using it as it can grow mold quite easily.
Once your sage has roots long enough to plant, go ahead and transfer into soil or coco fiber if you want to try growing it totally hydroponically. But soil is easier if you don’t want to go through a whole nutrient cycle that coco fiber requires.
For the soil method, follow the same directions to get cuttings of the sage. Then use a rooting powder to dip the ends into. Use a sandy, cactus mix or something similar and fill up a seed tray or small 4 inch pots. Plant the cutting in the soil. Water regularly and if you are successful you might have some roots in about a month. I have never been successful with soil propagation but I have heard its possible!
How to Care for Sage
White sage is a pretty resilient plant, but that doesn’t mean it can be neglected. In definitely needs water, especially if you plan on potting it. If you have the space I would suggest planting it directly in the ground, but if a pot is your only option that’s fine. In the ground they can get up to about 6 feet, but in a large pot even a very healthy specimen might be around 2-3.
I would suggest getting a cactus or native soil mix but if you have the funds and time and space, you can mix your own. I like to use a good quality soil like Happy Frog but you can use something less expensive but please don’t use Miracle Grow its complete junk. Mix in about ¼ perlite and ¼ sand to 1 soil. You can also mix in some of your native soil if you like. If you live in Southern CA or other areas where sage grows naturally, I would suggest you mix in a bit of your native soil for sure!
Water sage once its dry, it should never be wet, but don’t let it go too long. Once the leaves start to shrivel or turn down, that means you waited to long to water. About once a week is a good rule of thumb. Check the soil with your finger in the winter it might be more like once every two weeks.
If you bought your sage from a nursery, it’s probably still very young, and you will need to wait at least 3 years before you harvest any leaves. If you have a bigger plant I would still wait about a year for it to settle in to your garden.
How to Harvest
Once your plant has reached the maturity required to begin to harvest, its time to keep the benefits of all your hard work! When you want to take some pieces off your plant, its important to only trim the tops. Sage has little clusters of leaves that form small bunches at the very tops of the branches. These will be quite obvious to you once you are looking at your plant. Trim these tops off carefully with a pair of sharp trimmers or gardening shears. Never cut any of the older, woody stems. If you trim the woody stems or trim too far down the plant, you wont get any new growth here. Also if you ever see a plant full of woody stems with no new growth on it in the wild, you will know someone has been improperly wild harvesting! Which is why its important to know how to do this the right way. While we do not encourage harvesting in the wild AT ALL its good to know regardless so you never harm the plant. Also make sure when you are trimming your plant, never take more than a few pieces, especially from a young plant. Never take more than 1/3 of your sage.
How to Dry
When you harvest, try to do it in the mid to late morning or early evening once the morning dew has dried. You do not want your sage to mold when you are drying it. This rarely happens with sage but if you do it improperly it is possible.
I would recommend you buy a foldable mesh drying rack if you plan on drying herbs in any larger quantity. This rack is great because it stores flat. But if you have any kind of drying rack, shallow basket or you can also hang it. Find a well ventilated, dry area of your house. Lay the sage in your drying rack making sure none of the pieces overlap or are lying on top of each other. If you want to hang the pieces, bundle them together in groups of 2 or 3, but no more as you want a good air circulation. Tie them by the stem and hang them upside down. In warmer months it should take about 10 days to dry. In cooler months it could take a few additional days. You will know when they are dry when you can snap the stem, or the leaves snap in half. It will sound crispy. If the leaves still bend without breaking leave them for a few more days.
How to Use
While I wont go too much into the Native background of this plant (more on this in a future post) I will say this has a great history of ritual use as well as for food and medicine (which a lot of people aren’t aware of). You will commonly see huge bundles for sale in new age stores, health food stores, online etc. But what you don’t know is how wasteful and unnecessary this is. You certainly do not need a mondo sized bundle of an endangered plant. Especially when its being sold so cheaply. Its really sad. For cleansing purposes you only really need a single leaf. I have used a single leaf in my own rituals and its lasted 2-3 uses. It has a really strong scent and energy and you really don’t need to waste such a precious plant.
Please think twice before you buy white sage from a store. Most of this sage is wild harvested and even companies who claim its done “ethically” are using deceptive language to fool you. Nothing about wild harvesting an endangered plant is ethical. Before the days of social media, maybe taking a few leaves for your own personal use was ok, but now it is imperative that we spread the message of not wildcrafting this plant as there are people out there who have absolutely no respect for it and are destroying this plants chances for long term survival. Imagine all the white sage you see in stores and multiply that by the thousands. How many thousands of wild harvested sage bundles are there across the country? We must put an end to this practice and grow your own!