How To Plant, Grow, and Care for Sage

In your culinary garden, it's essential to know how to grow and care for sage for a consistent supply of this staple herb. Horticultural expert Lorin Nielsen explains how in this complete care guide.

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What new gardener can resist a soft-textured, musky-scented, useful herb that presents itself in any number of shapes, sizes, and colors? You’ve undoubtedly heard of this plant before: sage.

This herb, known as Salvia officinalis, is one of more than 800 sage species (and counting) within the Salvia genus. These plants are known not only for their herbal properties, but they are popular in the kitchen and provide texture and color to the garden landscape as well!  

All Salvia species plants are members of the Lamiaceae family, or the mint family. Read on to learn more about this amazing perennial herb.  

Sage Plant Overview

Plant Type Short-lived perennial
Native Area Mediterranean
Hardiness Zones USDA 4-10
Season Summer
Exposure Full sun
Maturity Date 2 Years
Growth Rate Moderate
Plant Spacing 12-36 inches
Planting Depth 1/4 inch
Height 10 inches – 2 1/2 feet
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Root Rot, Spider Mites
Tolerance High
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Well-draining, rocky
Attracts Bees, butterflies
Plant With Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots
Don’t Plant With Cucumbers, Basil
Family Lamiaceae
Genus Salvia
Species Salvia officinalis

What is Sage?

Close up of purple salvia flowers
Culinary sage has a rich history.

There are many species of salvia, such as the white sage or Sonoma sage which produces such pretty flowers. In fact, there are close to a thousand plants in the Salvia genus.

But the garden sage, also called common sage or culinary sage, is 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 has grey-green leaves. This easy-to-grow plant rarely gets above 24 inches in height and performs best in sandy or well-draining soils. 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 their herbal tone can infuse a meal with extra flavor.

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 once your plant is established, this easy-to-grow perennial will supply you with an abundant source of fresh flavor for years to come.

Plant History

Purple Flower Budding From Salvia Plant
Sage is an herb that has had culinary and medicinal uses for hundreds of years.

Common sage was used in Roman religious ceremonies and was cultivated for many centuries in Europe for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Egypt and Greece are two other ancient societies that utilized sage. The genus name Salvia means “to be in good health,” “to save,” or “salvation,” while the specific epithet officinalis is a reference to an herb store or pharmacy.  

Sage was known as the herb of immortality, domestic virtue, health, and wisdom. The word sage is from the Latin sapere, which is defined in English as ‘be wise’. Herbalists John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper of the 1500s and 1600s believed that sage was good for memory.  

Cultivation

Historically, sage was used to improve fertility, stop bleeding, heal minor skin wounds, treat hoarseness or cough, improve memory function, treat intestinal gas or upset stomachs, and treat infections of the mouth, nose, and throat. Of course, sage has also been a popular culinary herb in most Mediterranean countries since ancient times.  

Albania, Turkey, Germany, and Morocco are some of the top-producing countries growing sage leaf today. In some countries, the overharvesting of wild sage has led to native population decline.  

Planting

Close Up of Salvia Leaves
The many uses of sage are well-known around the world.

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 60F.

Select a site for your sage herb garden with plenty of sunlight. Once you’ve chosen your location and your sages, plant at the same depth as they were in their prior container. Space out plants, leaving at least nine inches between them for best growth.

How to Grow 

Close up of sage in pot.
Once established, sage is not difficult to care for.

When you’re just getting your sage plants started, you’ll need to provide them with a great setting to thrive in. Once established, growing sage is a lot easier than you would think!

Light

Full sun is best when growing sage. 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. 

Water

Close up of gray green sage leaf with water droplets after watering.
Avoid wetting the leaves when watering to prevent fungal disease.

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.

Soil

Well-drained soil is an absolute necessity for your sage plant. Sage is 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, but slightly acidic or slightly alkaline soil should not be an issue.

Temperature

A field of sage plants growing in Italy.
Sage is accustomed to Mediterranean climates.

Temperature-wise, sage in a Mediterranean climate can be harvested year-round, although leaf growth may slow down 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 your plants have full sun during the winter to add another layer of protective warmth.

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.

Fertilizing

Flowering sage plant with green leaves and purple flowers growing between rocks.
Sage is happy to grow in gritty soils with poor nutrients.

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 happy. Even decomposing leaf mulch will ensure green leaves and a good future harvest.

Maintenance

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. 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.

Harvesting

Herb Garden Ready for Harvest
The best time to harvest sage is before the flowers have bloomed.

Harvest sage leaves any time before flowering or during flowering. Pick the leaves as desired, but make sure you don’t overharvest. Leave at least 50% of the plant, as if you cut back or harvest too much, the plant will stop producing.  

Individual leaves or stems can be harvested from the plant. Additionally, the flowers of culinary sage are also edible and can be collected during the summer if you want your plant to flower. 

In the first year of growth, avoid harvesting. Your plant needs time to set down deep roots and 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.

Storing

Sage leaves organized on an oven tray ready to be dried.
Sage leaves can be dried in the oven at low temperatures.

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, 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.

Common Uses

There are many different uses of sage, including culinary uses, as well as others.

Culinary Uses

Herbs on a Plate
Sage is a flavorful herb used in many dishes around the world.

Sage has many culinary, herbal, medicinal, and ornamental uses. The first use for sage would be for flavoring dishes including fish, pork, poultry, vegetables, and as a seasoning in sausages.

In the United States, it is traditional to prepare stuffing seasoned with sage for Thanksgiving. In other countries, sage is used in a variety of sauces. I love using chopped sage in my chicken noodle soup and in my homemade jambalaya.  

Other Uses

Herbal Oil
The essential oils from the sage plant have many uses, including medicinal.

Herbalists like to use and grow sage in many ways. Amongst linens, sage leaves are said to deter moths and other insects. Some herbalists like to boil sage leaves in water or burn sage on embers to disinfect a room. Sage smoke is said to be effective at removing foul odors from a room.

Infusions can be made from sage flowers or sage leaves. Place one tablespoon of dried sage flowers in a teapot of boiling water and steep for 5 to 8 minutes to enjoy a tea that is considered “light” and “balsamic.” One tablespoon of torn fresh sage leaves per cup will make a sage-leaf infusion. Adding a pinch of sugar will intensify the flavor! 

Antiseptic Properties

Sage has astringent, antiseptic, and relaxing actions of the mucous membranes, so it is beneficial for inflammation of the mouth, throat, and tonsils. Herbalists make a practice of creating throat gargles and sprays using sage leaves for this reason. Consult an experienced herbalist or physician before ingesting large amounts of sage leaves for uses other than a seasoning in dishes. 

Ornamental Purposes

Grow sage for ornamental purposes as well. Obviously, it can be grown in landscapes or pots as an accent to the garden. Sage flowers attract both bees and butterflies. Additionally, sprigs of sage can be used to make herbal wreaths or the leaves can be used in potpourri. Some even use sage in cut flower arrangements

Cautions

According to Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide by Rosemary Gladstar, pregnant and nursing mothers should steer clear of sage if using it for more than just seasoning in recipes as it has a “drying” effect on the body in the way it regulates fluids. Therefore, nursing mothers may experience drying up of their breast milk. However, due to this drying property, sage helps reduce sweating and is often used as an ingredient in deodorants.  

Sage also contains high amounts of the compound thujone. Taken in high doses, this compound can cause convulsions and other side effects. Thujone is volatile, so it will dissipate once cooked, which is why this is usually not a problem when sage is used for culinary purposes. 

Propagation 

Sage can be propagated by seed, cuttings, division, and layering. Some varieties are only available by cuttings, while most of the culinary or common varieties of sage can be grown from seed. Read on to learn more about each type of propagation for your sage plant. 

Starting From Seed 

Starting Salvia Plants From Seeds
One of the slower ways to propagate sage is to start from seed.

To start sage from seed, you’ll first need to decide whether you want to start seed indoors or directly sow into the garden.

Start Seed Outdoors

If sowing directly into the garden, plant the seed on the average last date of frost for your area in the spring or as soon as you can prep your garden. Thin your plants as they emerge to the proper spacing (usually 12 inches for culinary sage). 

Sage seeds will benefit from stratification. Over time, seeds have developed a way to protect themselves from germinating at an inappropriate time, whether too early or too late. Therefore, some seeds must go through a period of chilling before they will germinate.

When a gardener purposely chills a seed, this is called stratification. Some people will put seeds in the freezer or refrigerator to fulfill this requirement for certain seeds. Pop your seeds into a waterproof, airtight bag or jar and place them in the refrigerator for one week for better germination results. 

If you’re planning to grow sage seeds indoors, make sure you do this at least six to eight weeks prior to your last estimated frost.

Start Seed Indoors

To start seed indoors, fill a propagation tray or small pots with seed-starting mix. Make sure the mix is moist, but not soaked. Place the seeds on the surface and lightly press them into the seed-starting mix with your finger.

Cover the seeds with a light dusting of vermiculite or seed-starting mix. Salvia seeds require light to germinate.

Bottom water your pots or cell trays to reduce damage to seedlings and incidence of disease. This can be accomplished by placing the cell tray inside a solid tray or a dish for small pots and watering into the tray or dish. The water will be wicked up through the holes in the bottom of your container and distributed evenly throughout your seed-starting mix.  

Propagating by Cuttings 

Person Cutting Salvia Stems for Propagation
Cutting sage is one of the best ways to propagate the herb.

Propagating sage from cuttings is probably one of the most popular methods of growing sage, because starting from seed can be slow.

Using a clean, sharp knife or pair of snips, clip at least four to six inches off the tip of a branch or stem, or cut right where the new stem growth meets the old, woody growth of the plant just above a set of leaves. Strip the bottom leaves off of the cutting, leaving only two to four leaves on the plant. 

Using a dibble or pencil, poke a hole into your loose seed-starting mixture or sand/peat mixture and place the stem of the cutting into the hole, making sure that at least one or two nodes (places where you stripped the leaves off) are buried. This is where your new root growth will come from. Pinch your sand/peat mixture closed.  

Keep your cuttings in an area of high humidity to prevent the leaves from wilting while the plant begins to grow roots. You can do this by placing your cuttings in an area of indirect light and misting the leaves periodically to keep the humidity up.

Clear plastic domes or even cutting the top off an old water bottle can be used as humidity domes. Warming the bottom of your pot or tray will help jumpstart root growth as well. You can do this by purchasing a seedling heat mat.

Some people will put their cuttings in a warm place, like the top of a refrigerator, to jumpstart root growth. Make sure the sand/peat mixture stays moist. In a few weeks, you should have root growth! 

Propagating by Division 

Field of Purple Salvia Flowers
Another way to effectively propagate sage is by division.

If you notice your sage plants are starting to decline in health and vigor, this likely means it is ready to divide your plants! This is also a great way to propagate new sage plants.

To divide, gently soak the soil 12 to 24 hours beforehand. Brush away mulch at least six to eight inches away from the edge of the leave and dig with a spading fork or sharp spade.  

Sink the spade into the soil to its full depth, working around the plant at a distance of one or two inches outside the drip line (the outside of the plant’s leaves). Circle the entire plant and make sure you are sinking your tool in straight in order not to damage the roots. Keep circling the plant, moving further out if you notice you are hitting the roots until you are able to lift the root ball out of the soil.  

Keep the roots cool and moist until you replant. Remove any dead plant growth at this time. Pull the root system apart into two or three sections using your hands or a sharp tool. Plant your new divisions into the soil or into a pot, making sure that you press the backfilled soil down to remove any air pockets.

Water well for the next few weeks as the plant starts to establish itself. Make sure you discard any diseased or unhealthy sections of the plant!  

Varieties 

Varieties of sage range in plant habit, leaf shape, leaf size, and color. Here’s a list of some well-known or popular varieties of common garden sage (Salvia officinalis): 

Common Sage  

Salvia Officinalis
The most common sage is appropriately named common sage.

This is the typical culinary sage plant that is easily propagated from seed and is typically very hardy. The flowers are small, lipped, and purple and the leaves typically have an elliptical shape. 

Berrgarten 

Berrgarten Sage Leaves
You can distinguish Berrgarten sage from others by the round-shaped leaves.

Discovered at the Berrgarten Mansion in Germany, this gray-blue-silver leafed plant has extra-large, round leaves with a bushy habit that is full down to the base of the plant. This variety is hardy to Zone 5. 

Purpurascens or Purpurea  

Purpurascens Sage
Purple sage has a strong flavor and brings a nice color to your garden.

This variety is also known as purple sage. True to its name, the leaves of this plant are purple and strongly flavored. The plant reaches about 18 inches tall and is excellent as an ornamental. It is not as hardy as common sage, however.

Tricolor 

Tricolor Sage
One of the more colorful varieties of sage is tricolor.

This variety has green leaves with white edges and rose-colored streaks. This sage plant is grown often as a houseplant and is hardy to Zone 6. 

Compacta 

Compacta Sage
Using cuttings is the only way to propagate this species of sage.

This variety has smaller leaves and a very compact growth habit, topping out at 10 inches. This variety is propagated by cuttings only. ‘Compacta’ is an excellent choice for rock gardens and as a border plant.  

Icterina 

Icteria Sage
The golden edges of the Icterina sage plant are how you would distinguish it from others.

This variety of sage has golden variegated leaves and is typically used as an ornamental plant. ‘Icterina’ is considered one of the hardiest of the sage plants, possibly surviving down to Zone 2

Holt’s Mammoth 

Holt's Mammoth
The large leaves of the Holt’s mammoth sage plant make it stand out from others.

This variety has characteristics of a typical sage plant, but the leaves are much larger.  

Beyond these cultivars, there are several other species of Salvia plants that can also be used for herbal or culinary uses. Here are a few of the most popular:  

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) 

Salvia Sclarea
Clary sage has unique flowers and scented essential oils.

This species is a biennial, typically, with large flowers of white, blue, pink, and purple. Clary sage can reach almost four feet tall. The plant forms a rosette and the flowers emerge on spikes from the base. The essential oils are used in perfumes and the leaves add flavor to liqueurs, vermouths, and wines.  

Pineapple Sage (S. elegans)  

Salvia Elegans
The sweet and acidic flavor of this species earned it the name pineapple sage.

This species has fragrant leaves and slender spikes of red flowers. The leaves are pineapple scented and used to flavor drinks or used as garnishes. This plant is grown as an annual north of Zone 8. 

Spanish Sage (S. lavandulifolia)  

Salvia Lavandulifolia
Another name for this sage is lavender sage because it has a scent similar to lavender.

This species is also known as lavender sage, and it resembles narrow-leafed garden sage. It has a lavender-like fragrance and the oil is extracted for toiletries.  

Common Problems

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.

There are also a few different pests and diseases that can plague this plant. However, controlling the environment and keeping the plant healthy will keep many of these issues at bay.

Diseases

Powdery Mildew on Sage Leaf
Powdery mildew shows up as small white spots on the leaves of sage.

Root rot and wilt can largely be prevented by planting your sage in well-draining soil in full sun. Root rot is prevalent when soils are soggy or saturated for an extended period of time.

Pathogens that cause wilts gain access to the plant’s vascular tissue called the xylem, which is used to pull water up into the plant. When a plant becomes infected, the xylem will subsequently become blocked and cause wilting, yellowing, and overall decline of the plant.

Wilts can be spread via old infected plant debris, seed, soil, or water. Removing old, diseased plant debris, purchasing seeds from reputable sources, and planting your sage in well-draining soil will help prevent fungal or bacterial wilts. For this reason, growing your sage in a pot or raised beds is an excellent idea.  

Pests

As long as sage is grown in well-draining soil, pest problems will be minimal. Spacing your plants adequately will promote good air circulation, and therefore reduce the incidence of problems.

Spider Mites

Spider Mites
One particular pest to keep an eye out for is spider mites.

Spider mites are small eight-legged arachnids (similar to ticks) that are fairly common. They cause flecking, discoloration (bronzing), or scorching of leaves. Leaves that are damaged may subsequently die and drop from the plant.

Severe infestations can ultimately kill the plant. The best way to control spider mites is by releasing or promoting predatory insects, such as the lady beetle, minute-pirate bugs, predatory thrips, and big-eyed bugs.

Spider mites often become a problem when insecticides are used in the garden that kill their predators. Another cultural control would be to periodically spray a forceful stream of water on your plants. This will physically remove large spider mites and kill smaller spider mites. This is especially important during dry conditions. 

Slugs

Slug on Plant Stem
These nasty pests can really damage the sage in your garden.

Slugs are slimy, brown to gray mollusks similar to clams and oysters. They have two pairs of “feelers,” one set for carrying the eyes and the other set used for smelling. They leave a slimy trail as they move. Slugs will feed on the leaves and fruit of plants.

The best way to control slugs is through various methods like encouraging natural enemies (toads, snakes, beetles, and birds) or planting in an area less conducive to slug inhabitation (avoid shady, wet areas). Slugs can also be baited or hand-picked off the plant. 

Spittlebugs

Spittlebug Residue
If you see masses of bubbly, wet substance, then you most likely have spittlebugs in your sage.

Spittlebugs produce a small, frothy wet mass on plants that literally resembles a clump of spit. The nymphs (baby spittlebugs) live within these frothy masses. Adult spittlebugs are often called froghoppers, due to their large hind legs used for jumping.

Feeding by spittlebugs generally does not cause too much damage, but leaves can become irregularly shaped as a result. Reduce weeds in your garden, forcefully spray your plants with water, and physically pick off or remove spittle masses from your plants if these insects become a problem.  

Frequently Asked Questions 

Should I grow sage in sun or shade?

Sage loves full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day). However, some varieties can thrive in part shade (4 to 6 hours of sunlight) as long as the soil is well-draining. Sage dislikes the wet, soggy conditions that typically accompany shady areas.

Which sage plants are edible? 

Because there are several hundred varieties of Salvia, it can be quite confusing to distinguish which ones are used for edible purposes. More than likely, you won’t be ingesting any other sage plant than Salvia officinalis, known as common garden sage or culinary sage. Other types of sage may be used as garnishes or flavorings, like Pineapple sage or Clary sage. Make sure you are purchasing your sage seeds or plants from reputable seed companies that label their plants correctly, and consult experts before ingesting any herb if you’re unsure.

Should I let my sage plant flower? 

If you’re growing sage for eating, more than likely you will NOT want your plant to flower. This is because your main harvest is of the leaves, and the plant will shift all of its energy into the flower and setting seed if you allow it to flower. This will result in poor quality leaf harvest. Cut back your sage plants a few times over the summer to prevent flowering. If you happen to miss a flower bud, don’t worry. Just pinch off the bud! If you’re growing sage for ornamental purposes, then by all means let that plant flower. You’ll likely enjoy the blooms, and the bees and butterflies will, too!

What are some companion plants for sage? 

The scent of sage will often repel certain insects, so planting sage with vegetables affected by the cabbage moth, black flea beetles, and carrot flies will be beneficial.

Final Thoughts 

Whether you’re looking to grow your own culinary spices or simply to provide texture and color in the landscape, old and new gardeners alike will enjoy these fragrant plants. Every time I walk out into my garden I’m thankful I planted this wonderful herb a few years ago. Don’t miss out on adding sage to your garden plan for next season! 

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