Growing Sage

growing sageGrowing sage is fairly simple for just about anyone. And, as a longtime favorite for seasoning all types of food, sage is a highly aromatic herb that you can put to a wide variety of uses. Delicious cooked with meat and in stuffing, many people find the scent of sage to be synonymous with the holidays.

Not only is sage an easy way to add some zest to your holiday fare, it also has a long history of being used medicinally. The early Romans used sage to aid the mending of their broken bones and ease stomach pains. They even used it to alleviate breathing and memory problems. Pliny the Elder, the famed Roman philosopher, recommended sage for use against intestinal worms and snake bites.

Start Growing Sage

Surprising to some, growing sage in the average garden is actually quite simple. There are over 800 family members of this relative of mint. And, several of them are both delicious and easy to produce right at home. If you’re ready to expand your choice of culinary flavors, consider growing your own sage supply this growing season.

When and Where Should You Grow Sage?

Sage is an uncomplaining plant that can grow well in a variety of conditions. For optimal growth, however, sage prefers well-drained soil mixed with compost and organic material, and full sun or partial afternoon shade. Too much shade makes the plants grow leggy and flop over once they can’t support their own weight. Once established, sage is a hardy plant that requires little water to thrive. Patience is needed when growing sage, as it takes about 80 days after planting before you can start to harvest it. In most climates, sage is treated like an annual, though your plants have a good chance of surviving the winter with a good layer of mulch piled on top of them.

Understanding Seed Germination for Sage

Growing sage from seed is usually not ideal. Not only do sage seeds store and germinate poorly, it also takes a seeded plant two years to reach maturity. For this reason, most gardeners start their sage from cuttings or by dividing up the new growth of their existing plants.

If you choose to start your sage from seeds, sow them under grow lights about 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost date. You can sow the seeds a 1/8 inch deep within a seed-starting formula. Most seeds take about 3 weeks to germinate, and a germination rate of 40% is normal.

Once the risk of frost has passed, you can bring your sage seedlings outdoors for a few hours each day in order to harden them off and reduce the shock of transplanting.

Growing Sage in Containers

Growing sage in containers is a great way to ensure it’s easily accessible for all your cooking needs. Make sure to not use anything smaller than a 12 inch pot, as sage grows over a foot tall. It’s best to use a commercial potting mix rather than garden soil to prevent the spread of disease to your plants.

Preparing a Sage Bed

Setting up a garden bed for sage is simple compared to other, more needy herbs. Be sure to select a garden space in full sun. Sage prefers a pH level between 6-6.5 and requires well drained soil with a good supply of nitrogen. Before planting, cultivate the soil about 12 inches deep and mix in a thin layer of organic compost. Be light on the fertilizer, as sage actually has a stronger flavor when it’s grown in poor soil.

Once the risk of frost has passed and your sage plants have at last four true leaves and are appropriately hardened, they are ready to be planted outside. Simply plant each herb 12 to 18 inches apart and water them thoroughly.

Direct Seeding

If you choose to sow your sage seeds directly outside, you can scatter them thinly once all danger of frost has passed. Cover the field with 1/8 of topsoil and keep the area moist until the seeds sprout in 14-21 days. Once the seedlings have at least two pairs of leaves you can thin them out to 15 inches apart.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

The key to watering sage is remembering that less is more. Small plants should be kept moist through frequent misting, but once the plants reach maturity they should only be watered when the soil around them is dry to the touch. In some climates, sage doesn’t need to be watered at all due to the moisture from seasonal rains.

When your plants are young, be careful not to pull weeds too close to their roots, lest you accidentally damage them in the process. Cutting the tips of weeds off with a scissors tends to be best. A light straw mulch can also be used to suppress pesky weeds.

As a perennial, sage is hardy up to -30 deg F when covered. In the late fall, cut back plant foliage and cover the plants with a thick layer of mulch to keep them cozy until warmer weather.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

Sage makes a great companion plant for a wide variety of species. It does especially well when paired with rosemary, cabbage, broccoli, and carrots. Some gardeners even claim that sage deters the spread of cabbage moths, flea beetles, and other garden pests. Tomatoes, strawberries and carrots all grow better when planted next to sage, though it inhibits the growth of cucumbers and makes them bitter. Sage and onions planted in close proximity can also affect each others flavors, though not always in the best ways.

Common Pests and Diseases for Sage

The fragrant leaves of sage plants tend to attract hummingbirds, though slugs and spider mites also often land on the leaves. Spider mites can quickly destroy sage leaves if their populations get too high. In order to control for pests, remove any leaves that have been contaminated and use organic pesticides like neem oil to control the worst outbreaks.

Fungal diseases like powdery mildew and verticillium wilt are also all too common for sage plants. Not only will these diseases disfigure your sage leaves, they can also kill the whole plant. Your best bet to keep sage safe is prevention, meaning that you give your plants plenty of space between each other and avoid overhead watering in favor of drip irrigation. Be sure to remove any plant that shows signs of disease in order to prevent it from spreading to the rest of your plants. Using sterilized potting containers can also help prevent the spread of fungal diseases from plant to plant.

Harvesting and Storing Sage

You can harvest leaves from sage plants as soon as the plants are large enough to handle it (usually at three months old). Cut them sparingly during the first year of growth to ensure the plant can build up strength, but feel free to harvest as much as you need in later years. You can cut an entire stem at a time or simply pinch off leaves as needed.

Sage is often best when used fresh, but leaves can also be stored (either through being dried or frozen) in order to keep them longer. Dried sage actually has a stronger, different flavor than fresh that many people prefer. To dry your sage, cut off stems and tie them together in small bundles that can be hung upside down in a well-ventilated room. When fully dried, remove the leaves from the stems and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. If you want a speedier process, you can also dry sage in a dehydrator or through 2-3 hours in the oven at a low temperature. Dried sage leaves can be used in recipes and as an herbal tea.

Saving Sage Seeds

Sage seeds are ready to be harvested when the flowers on each plant turn brown and dry. The seed pods should resemble small bells. Once the heads are fully dry, you can crush them between your hands and winnow away the chaff inside. There usually aren’t more than a few seeds per bell, so you should harvest a good amount to ensure you have a viable seed collection.

Choosing the Best Sage Seeds for Your Climate

Though most sage growers tend to grow whatever type of sage they can get a cutting from, there are plenty of sage varieties available on the market today.

  • Berggarten: A fast-growing sage variety with large leaves and a strong flavor, this one of the most productive varieties to grow in home herb gardens.
  • Curly: The wrinkled and textured leaves give this type of sage a distinct appearance.
  • Holt’s Mammoth: This variety has large leaves that are full of flavor.
  • Robert Grim: This dwarf variety is great grown in containers and greenhouse settings.

Additional Growing Tips for Organic Sage

If you need some extra advice on how to get your sage plants to thrive, follow these tips for success.

  • Never use your own garden soil to start seeds for fill containers, as it is likely to be contaminated with weed seeds and potential fungal diseases that can affect your plants.
  • Sage doesn’t need much fertilizer, but a dose of fish emulsion in the spring will keep your plants in peak form.
  • Pinch back long stems on your plant to encourage it to grow bushier. It’s also a good idea to cut sage plants back 2/3 in the early spring to prevent the new growth from being too woody.