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How To Harvest Sage Without Killing It

Sage is a wonderful herb to use in the kitchen and adds delicious flavor to meat and vegetable dishes.  It’s easy to grow sage yourself at home, in the garden, or even on a sunny windowsill.  For anyone growing sage already or looking to start, here are some useful tips on how to harvest sage to optimize use, storage, and how to keep your sage plants looking healthy and productive.

The botanical name for sage is Salvia officinalis, ‘officinalis’ identifying the plant sage as a medicinal herb, and ‘Salvia’ derived from the Latin ‘salvere’ meaning to feel healthy or heal.  

In addition, the sage plant is often associated with traditional holiday celebration meals and used in stuffings, casseroles, potatoes, and meats. There is a good reason for this! Our full tummies could use a little bit of help after some of these holiday feasts, and sage is an excellent digestive aid.  Sage is also used as an anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and astringent herb with particular benefits for menopausal women suffering from night sweats.

Sage originates from the Mediterranean similar to herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, and marjoram. All of these herbs enjoy the same hot, full sun, well-drained growing conditions.   Like most herbs, the flavor is strongest when used fresh. However, sage dries easily for longer-term storage and retains a good amount of flavor.

When Should I Harvest Sage?

How to harvest sage
Learning how to harvest sage is an essential step for herbal success. Source: tgrauros

As a hardy perennial herb, sage produces edible leaves all year round.  Despite this year-round availability, it’s best to follow a few simple harvesting rules to maintain healthy productive plants and optimum aroma and taste.

As tempting as it may be, do not harvest from young plants in their first year.  This includes sage grown from seed or small immature shop-bought plants.  Allow the roots to become established and enjoy the tall purple flowering spikes and the many beneficial insects they will attract to your garden.  The flowers can also be picked and used in arrangements or added to dishes as a garnish.

Harvest sage in spring and summer when plants are actively growing and before they begin to flower.  Sage leaves tend to lose some of their aroma after flowering, so it is best to harvest before this time.  As summer closes and temperatures fall, sage leaf production slows down, stopping almost completely in winter.  

Don’t despair! If you need sage leaves for a winter holiday meal, then harvesting a few leaves at a time won’t harm the plant if you are careful.  Garden sage is hardy in USDA zones 4-8 so there should be some easy pickings even outside of their normal growing season.

In addition to the common garden sage plant, Salvia officinalis, there are a few varieties of culinary sage you might wish to grow to add dashes of color and interest to your sage collection.  Their flavor and aroma are the same, varying in strength and hardiness depending on the variety. 

Purpurascens or ‘Purpurea’ is a bushy, semi-evergreen sage shrub with soft grey-purple leaves when young fading to greyish purple-green with maturity.  It is hardy to 5 – 14 ºF (-10 to -15 ºC) USDA zones 6, 7.

‘Icterina’ is a dwarf sage with variegated bright green leaves with yellow margins.  It is hardy to 5 – 14 ºF (-10 to -15 ºC) USDA zones 6, 7.

‘Tricolor’ is a very attractive variety of common sage with pink stems, leaf petioles and shoots, and variegated grey/green leaves with white margins flushed with pink.  It has a compact growing habit but is less winter hardy and often grown in a container to be brought indoors over winter.

‘Berggarten’ is a great sage to grow for the kitchen and garden with broad showy silver/green leaves and a bushy growth habit.  It is winter hardy when grown in a sheltered location in full sun and very free-draining soil and grows well in a container.

How To Harvest Sage

Harvested sage
Harvest individual leaves or full stems. Source: Farmanac

Harvesting sage depends on how and when you wish to use your leaves.  If harvesting a few fresh leaves to add to a meal then simply pinching out tips or individual leaves from a couple of sage plants is absolutely fine.  These light cut-and-come-again harvests will encourage sage plants to branch, resulting in a fuller, bushier shrub.

When harvesting large quantities of sage leaves, ensure you use clean sterilized pruners or scissors.  Only harvest up to a third of a growing sage plant at any one time to allow plants to rejuvenate for future harvests.  A mature sage plant should provide up to three full harvests in a season.  Never cut into old wood as the plant will not produce leaves from this point in the future and harsh cuts leave shrubs susceptible to disease and the elements. 

In fall, stop harvesting and allow the plant to rest and prepare for the winter months ahead.  Having a few sage bushes growing at once will provide a continuous supply of fresh and dried sage throughout the year, not just during their active growing season. 

The best time of day to harvest sage is mid-morning once the dew has dried from the leaves and the leaves are still hydrated.  Avoid harvesting during hot periods as the herbs will deteriorate quickly in the heat.

A sage plant can become woody and unproductive after 3-4 years of harvesting and is best replaced with a younger more vibrant plant. 

How To Store Fresh Sage

Sage plant
The sage plant is both delicious and beautiful in the garden. Source: Jörg Hempel

Fresh sage has the best flavor and can be stored in a few simple ways. 

Stems of sage can be stored in jars of fresh water on the countertop for up to a week or in the refrigerator for 7-10 days.  Change the water every few days and look over the leaf daily for any yellowing or mold developing, both of which are signs that they’re past their best use.  Wash your sage before use.

Sage will stay fresh for up to a week in the refrigerator stored in a plastic zip-lock bag or wrapped in damp kitchen paper. Don’t wash right after harvesting; instead, wash it just before use.

There are three ways to freeze sage. Firstly, wash and strip leaves from the stem, then pat them dry with paper towels.

  • Lay whole leaves on a tray and place the tray into the freezer.  Once frozen, put all leaves into a freezer bag and store in the freezer until needed. 
  • Fill ice cube trays with finely chopped sage.  Top the trays with water and freeze.  When frozen, remove the sage ice cubes from the trays and store them in a tub or bag in the freezer until ready to use. Add these to sauces, casseroles, stews, and more.
  • Fill ice-cube trays with finely chopped sage and top up the tray with your oil of choice and freeze. When frozen the sage oil cubes can be stored in a tub or bag in the freezer.  Use in sage butter or similarly to sage ice cubes.

Sage stored at room temperature without any hydration will wilt and deteriorate quickly if not used immediately.

How To Dry Sage

Washed and dried sage
Once washed and patted dry, fresh sage can be dried, frozen or used. Source: homegrown

Sage leaves dry well for long-term storage and retain good flavor for up to a year.  Once leaves are dry, store whole or crumbled in glass storage jars with airtight seals and place somewhere dark and cool.  There are a few different drying methods to try depending on how quickly you wish to use the herbs. 

Sage has a medium to high water content, resulting in some leaves drying inconsistently. This creates spots where mold can set in during storage.  For all methods outlined below gently wash the leaves under cool water and shake off the excess.

Hang drying: Tie small bunches of sage with string and hang upside down somewhere cool, dark, and well ventilated to dry.  They will feel crunchy when they are ready to store. If you don’t have anywhere dark to hang them, lightly drape a clean paper bag over the top of the bunches.  This prevents dust and light from damaging or dirtying the leaves.  Once completely dry, remove leaves from stems, crumble if desired, and store in an airtight container.  Any leaves that don’t feel completely dry can be quickly oven-dried (see method below) to cure removing all excess moisture.

Flat air-drying: Strip the leaves from the stems and spread out evenly onto an elevated wire or mesh trays that allow good air circulation.  Place another tray on top or cover with a light clean cotton sheet or paper to keep dust and dirt from settling on the leaves. When dried, store whole or crumble into an airtight glass jar.

Dehydrating: In addition to drying tomatoes, berries, and other fruits and vegetables, dehydrators can be used to preserve the sage plant.  Lay leaves evenly spread on flat drying trays.  Place into the dehydrator and set to the time and temperature as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Once dry, store in an airtight container as outlined above.

Oven drying: This is a great way to dry herbs in less than an hour.  The only downside is that the speed of drying may reduce the aroma and flavor.  Remove the leaves from the stems and evenly spread them on a baking tray.  Turn the oven on to the lowest setting, place the tray in the middle of the oven and close the door until just slightly ajar.  This allows the moisture from the leaves to escape the oven.  Different herbs take different lengths of time to dry so keep a close eye on the leaves as they can burn quickly. Once leaves reach a crunchy consistency they are ready to store.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do you harvest sage without killing the plant?

A:  Harvest little and often or only one-third of a plant at any one time leaving a period of rejuvenation between harvests.  Try not to harvest from young plants in their first year and never cut into old wood.

Q: How do you know when sage is ready to harvest?

A: Sage plants are ready to harvest when they are at least one year old and have lots of healthy new growth. For best flavor, harvest leaves in spring and summer, before the plant flowers.


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