Sage is an easy to grow, pleasant looking culinary herb that grows great in our Southern California climate. It is a must-have for any serious herb garden.
I personally love sage. It has a subtle flavor that can stand on it's own when flavoring a starch like potatoes, or in butter. Or it can be a flavor enhancer on a meat. Too often I've lost the flavor of sage to a more flavor-forward item like broccoli. My advice when cooking with it, add more.
There are a lot of plants called sage. This is about the common garden sage, or culinary sage, Salvia officinalis. Like many of the other sages, it is part of the mint family, Lamiceae.
The Sage Plant
I've had the best luck with garden sage of all of my non-native herbs. It seems to thrive in my nutrient poor, clay soil. Last year I grew one from container and one that I germinated from seed myself. The one from container had a three month head start when I put it in the dirt.
Over the course of 6 months the one grown from seed surpassed the one grown from container. But they are both doing fantastic. When I first planted them, I watered them directly, but now they just receive the runoff from my other herbs and that seems to be plenty of water.
These plants both receive lots of direct sunlight, which is too intense for many of my other plants, but they love it, even on the hottest days of summer. Apparently they struggle in parts of the country where the hot summers are also humid, which can cause mildew.
One identifying characteristic of sage is the soft hairs that cover the leaves, called trichomes, that make it feel fuzzy to the touch. These hairs help the sage plant ward of insects that would eat it, by making it harder to reach the flesh of the leaves. The also helps with heat dispersal, so they are a reason sage is so heat tolerant.
I don't have much experience with the different varieties of sage, but it seems like their differences are mainly with the way they look as opposed to how they taste. Here are some of the different varieties of Salvia officianalis you may be able to find:
- Golden Sage - Charteuse-yellow color leaves
- Purple Sage - Slightly purple in color
- Tricolor Sage - Leaves have a yellow edge and are green or purple in the bulk of the inside
You may also come across "Pineapple Sage," but this is a different species, from Mexico, and it has a completely different flavor.
Growing from Seed
Sage is a great plant to grow from seed. It can be a little slow-growing at first, but is very forgiving. It prefers well-draining soil, but seems to do well in difficult clay as well.
Sage seeds have a good germination rate and the plants transplant easily. You want to get the plants in to the soil early, before summer approaches, so start indoors around 6-8 weeks before last frost date. Transplant a couple of week after the last chance of frost.
Sage propagates well from stem cuttings. Pick a stem that has new growth on it, cut under a leaf node, aim for a length of 4-6 inches. Strip off all of the lower leaves so the new plant spends its energy on producing roots. Then put it in water for 4-6 weeks to let the roots develop.
Alternatively, you can use a root hormone on your cutting. Root hormone is a powder or gel. After you have prepared your cutting in the same way as above, you cover it in the rooting hormone. Then you place your cutting directly in sterile potting soil and allow it to root there.
When your sage plant becomes large, it may be a good idea to divide it up. This can help restore youth to an aging plant. It also makes your one plant become two. It's best to do this in spring or fall, as the plant is beginning to grow and will not be defending itself against harsh weather.
Simply dig up the sage plant, getting the whole root ball. Protect the root ball as much as possible to avoid transplant shock. Cut the ball in half (or into multiple divisions). Now you have two plants to plant, or one to give away.
Over time, sage tends to become woody. It might form bare spots, some leaves might get old or turn yellow. You can revitalize your sage plant with proper pruning.
The important thing to keep in mind when pruning is that any plant will become stressed if you take too much off at once. This stress can cause the plant to turn yellow and shed leaves. It's basically the same condition as transplant shock. So try not to prune or harvest off more then 30% of your sage plant in any one season.
Start by removing any dead areas, since it's already dead it doesn't even count as part of the 30%.
Next remove any woody stems. To stimulate new and bushy growth, clip off the tips of any stems that are more than 6 inches long. Clipping in this way will cause the sage plant to send growth hormone to the remaining stem, and lower nodes will begin to branch out.
It is generally recommended to harvest sage in the morning, before the sun starts bearing down on it, and after it has recovered from the previous day's beating. Another good time to harvest is in the evening once the plant has cooled significantly if it was a warm day.
Sage loves to be harvested, so if you have a healthy plant don't hesitate to harvest. The more you harvest, the more sage you will get. Take healthy leaves from the top, leaving the largest leaves for energy production.
You can either harvest leaves, or cut about 5 inches of stem, just make sure to leave enough stem for the sage to grow back from. And never harvest more than 30% of the plant to avoid sending it into shock.
A great herb butter worth always having on hand to spread on bread or add to pasta, vegetables or meat.