How To Grow Sage To Cook With
In your culinary garden, it's essential to know how to grow sage so you have this staple cooking herb. Our in-depth guide explains all!
There are tons of sage types out there, and we’ve covered those in our piece on types of sage. But perhaps you just want to know how to grow sage that’s simple and easy to cook with: the most common sage there is.
We can help with that!
Growing sage at home ensures you a neverending supply of those lovely sage leaves for seasonings. Small, fresh leaves can be fried to add a crispy pop of flavor on a dish. And best of all, most cultivars of Salvia officinalis, the common sage, can be quite beautiful additions to your garden.
Ready to learn more about the plant sage and how to start your sage garden? Let’s get into it!
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Quick Care Guide
|Common sage, garden sage, culinary sage
|Days to Harvest
|75 days from seed
|When soil begins to dry out
|Not necessary, compost is fine
|Very pest-resistant, no common pests
|Mint rust, root rot
All About Salvia Officinalis
There’s many species of salvia, such as the white sage so common amongst tribal groups or Sonoma sage which produces such pretty flowers. In fact, there’s close to a thousand plants in the Salvia genus. We’ve got a guide that goes over a huge variety of types of sage, too!
But the garden sage, also called common sage or culinary sage, is by and large the most popular in most chef’s gardens. Originating in the Mediterranean, sage grows in virtually every country now. One of the most popular herbs for culinary use, sage (Salvia officinalis) has many different cultivars.
Most of the culinary sage that’s grown has grey-green leaves. This easy to grow plant rarely gets above 24 inches in height and performs best in when in sandy or well-draining soils. But there are sages that have purple, dark green, golden, or even variegated leaves that can be just as much a feast for the eyes as a treat to the tongue!
Both the flowers themselves and the leaves are edible. Flowers are used as a beautiful edible garnish or as a bit of color in a salad. The leaves are used in cooking more often as fresh, as their herbal tone can infuse a meal with extra flavor. Occasionally whole leaves are fried and used to top dishes as a crunchy burst of added zest.
When you’re first learning how to harvest sage, you’ll want to go gently, especially if your plant is less than a year old. Young plants need at least a year before they start to be regularly harvested, but they do produce some very tasty leaves, so it can be a real test. But once your plant is established, this easy to grow perennial will supply you with an abundant source of fresh flavor for years to come.
Sage planting is usually done early in the year, typically when all concern about frost has passed. Seeds can be started indoors earlier if desired so you can transplant out a live plant. Otherwise, direct sow once the soil has warmed up to a consistent 60 degrees.
Select a site for your sage herb garden where it has plenty of sunlight. Once you’ve chosen your location and your sages, plant at the same depth that they were in their prior container. Space out plants, leaving at least 9” between them for best growth.
Culinary Sage Care
When you’re just getting your sage plants started, you’ll need to provide them with a great setting to thrive in. Once established, care is a lot easier than you would think!
Sun and Temperature
Full sun is best for your sage plants. If you can’t provide full sun, or you live in a very hot environment, they can tolerate partial shade if need be. Afternoon shade is best as it’s during the hottest part of the day.
Temperature-wise, sage in a Mediterranean climate can be harvested year-round, although it may slow down in leaf growth during the winter. But it can be grown in colder climates as well. Common sage will grow as a perennial in USDA zones 4-11.
In zones 4-8, sage should have some protection from extended cold snaps below freezing, but if well-mulched and in a sheltered location the plant may survive. Freezing damage can cause leaves to wilt and brown, and can damage younger shoots. The woodier growth tends to fare better during cold conditions. Ensure that your plants have full sun during the winter to add another layer of protective warmth. A cold frame may help you have harvests even during the chilly months.
Water and Humidity
While your sage plants can tolerate periods of drought, they’ll grow better and produce more green leaves if they have consistent watering. You can use a soaker hose at the base of your sage plant to make watering easy. Younger plants require more watering to allow them to become established.
Ambient humidity has little effect on a healthy sage plant. The exception is when it’s extremely hot and extremely humid at the same time. Most plants will wilt a little if it’s hot and sticky out, but then again, so do we. Nobody likes it to be hot and sticky!
Well drained soil is an absolute necessity for your sage plant. Sage gardens are usually paired with other herbs, so make certain you select companion herbs that also like well drained soil.
A sandy soil type is what this plant craves, but it can also perform in most other soils as long as that extra drainage is there. Amending soil with perlite or adding sand to improve drainage can be done for stickier soil types.
Soil pH is less of a concern for this plant. Aim for a neutral range if possible, around a 6-7 pH, but slightly acidic or slightly alkaline soil should not be an issue.
When growing sage, fertilizing seems like a good idea, but in most cases it’s just not necessary. If you’re using fairly rich soil to begin with, it will do just fine in that. Among the herbs, sage plants are actually some of the most tolerant of poor nutrient levels.
Having said that, an annual application of compost can help keep your sage extremely happy. Even just decomposing leaf mulch will ensure green leaves and a good future harvest.
During its first year, pruning isn’t necessary. Your sage plants will need that time to become established. Allow your garden sage to develop through that first year, and only prune if absolutely necessary.
In subsequent years, your harvests can be much greater, but we’ll talk about harvesting sage a bit later. But if you aren’t harvesting, you can prune your sage to keep it neat and tidy as desired. Try to trim just above a pair of leaves to encourage bushier growth. Use a sterilized pair of pruning shears to keep it pruned neatly.
Sage propagation is usually done in one of three methods.
Plant sage seeds indoors to have young plants early in the year. You can direct-sow, but usually after all danger of frost has passed. The soil will need to be between 60-70 degrees for the best germination chances.
Taking cuttings from an already growing sage plant is another option. Find healthy, vigorous stems and remove a 3-4” length from the tip. Dip the cut end into water, then a powdered rooting hormone, and plant in prepared potting mix. Keep the cutting moist and it should produce roots within six weeks.
Sage also responds well to air layering. To do this method, selet a long and leggy sage stem and use a couple of ground pins to secure part of the stem to the soil. Use a little extra soil to cover that portion of the stem. It will form roots from the stem within about six weeks. Once the roots have taken hold well, you can clip that plant free from its parent and move it if desired.
Harvesting and Storing
Harvesting for your culinary use is different from a simple pruning, but not by a whole lot. Let’s discuss how to harvest and store your herbs for later use!
In the first year of growth, harvest only sparingly. Your plant needs time to set down deep roots and to get established. During this year, pinching off a leaf or two occasionally won’t hurt.
Subsequent years enable you to do a much more thorough harvest of sage leaves. In the early spring, trim back any damaged foliage and neaten up the plant’s footprint. As it grows throughout the year, harvest by clipping just above a joint where two leaves meet. The pair of leaves can form new offshoot growth at those points, allowing the plant to become more bushy.
Try to harvest before the plants form sage flowers unless you’re specifically planning on using the flowers, too. The sage leaves temporarily have a different flavor while the plant’s in flower, and many prefer the flavor of the leaves when they’re not flowering.
But what about how to harvest sage if you just need a couple leaves? The easiest method is to simply pinch off a leaf close to the stem. Try to take leaves from different stems.
No matter the method, never harvest more than half of the plant.
Fresh sage leaves, if left on the stem, can be placed in a glass of water in the refrigerator to store them for a few hours to a day. Beyond that period of time, though, they won’t last while fresh. They tend to wilt fairly quickly after harvest.
Thankfully there are other ways to store sage for later use. You can dry the leaves using a dehydrator, provided that it doesn’t heat them too much. Heat tends to make some of the essential oils oxidize, and that causes flavor loss.
If your dehydrator does provide too much heat, consider using clean air filters attached to a box fan. Lay your sage leaves in between the air filters and then use bungee cords to secure them to the fan. This provides ambient room-temperature air to dry your sage perfectly without loss of flavor.
Once dried, you can keep them whole, or crumble or powder them as desired. These can be stored in a dry, dark place for up to a year. It’s best to store herbs in glass jars that are fully airtight if possible.
What if you experience problems while trying to grow sage? Don’t worry. We have some recommendations to keep your sage plant happy and healthy.
While most garden sage doesn’t get too large, an older and well-established plant can begin to get a bit big. Longer stems can flop over rather than having an upright habit. These flopped stems can be trimmed to shorten them or provided support if you’d prefer, but they shouldn’t be allowed to just droop onto the ground.
Most pests aren’t attracted to Salvia officinalis. Your garden sage should be relatively pest-free!
Sage is also resistant to deer or rabbit nibbling, and is an excellent pollinator attracting plant.
If water accumulates where your sage grows, you may discover issues with root rot on your garden sage. Typically, this causes plants to wilt or their green leaves to begin to yellow. Providing well draining soil should reduce the risk of fungal root rots like pythium from developing.
As a relative of the mint, your sage may also be susceptible to mint rust. It’s fairly rare, but causes yellow, brown or orange pustules to appear on the underside of leaves. This fungal rust can cause segments of leaves to yellow and can result in the plant dropping leaves entirely. Remove effected parts of the plant and treat with a liquid copper fungicide. Clean up any dropped leaves around the plant to prevent further spread.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is sage a perennial?
A: In most areas, Salvia officinalis is a hardy perennial. In zones 9-11, it’ll not only act as a hardy perennial, but it should produce fresh leaves year-round although it will slow down somewhat during the winter.
Q: Is sage easy to grow?
A: Yes! It’s very resistant to pests and most diseases, and as long as you remember to water it occasionally it’ll essentially grow itself.
Q: Can I grow sage indoors?
A: Usually the biggest difficulty in growing sage indoors is its love of light. Sage really needs lots of light to thrive. If you can provide a grow light or at least eight hours of sun indoors for your plant, it should perform just as well indoors as it does outside.
Q: Should I deadhead sage?
A: If you want the plant to focus mostly on leaf production, it’s best to deadhead it once the flowers start to fade. You can also harvest the flowers fresh for culinary use and deadhead the stalks.