Salvia officinalis, or common sage, is an herbaceous perennial plant that’s easy to grow. Sage will flourish as a single potted herb or as an addition to a vegetable or flower garden. Plus, it’s hardy in both warm and cold climates. When harvested, the gray-green fuzzy leaves of this fragrant, Mediterranean herb deliver a robust, slightly peppery flavor to foods. Remember a few simple care tips and you’ll become a lifelong fan of this versatile plant.
Sage does not require rich, fertile soil. It can thrive indoors and outdoors as long as its soil is loose, airy, and well-drained. In areas that receive heavy rainfall, planting sage in raised beds can help prevent root rot and fungal issues. Add compost to the soil during the planting, especially if it has a high clay content. However, hold off on adding any fertilizer if you’re planning on using its leaves for seasoning; fertilizer can cause a loss of flavor. When planting indoors, place your pot in a warm area free from drafts.
A single, indoor sage plant will grow well in a pot that is at least eight inches deep and 10 inches in diameter. If you're planting multiples, look for a pot about 18 inches wide. You can also plant sage in pots outdoors on porches, decks, and balcony gardens where they receive ample sunlight. Sage can spread outwards to 24 inches wide and reach heights of 12 to 24 inches, though some varieties grow as tall as three feet. When planting in a garden, space seedlings 18 to 24 inches apart.
Sage grows best in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 11. It winters well with continuous snow cover as long as gardeners apply mulch before the temperatures drop. When planting sage indoors or outdoors, keep in mind that this perennial is a glutton for sunlight and requires at least six to eight hours each day. When planting sage outdoors, pick a spot where the plant will receive full sun, although it will tolerate very light shade. The more sun a sage plant receives, the tastier and more aromatic its leaves will be.
Sage is a drought-resistant plant and quite climate-hardy. The only hard and fast rule for growing the herb is to avoid overwatering it. If the soil stays too wet, sage quickly falls victim to root rot. Water regularly and thoroughly, but allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Good drainage is essential. Don’t be alarmed if your sage plant starts to wilt in hot, dry weather. Once you water the plant, it will perk up again.
One of the great features of this versatile plant is that it doesn’t have any serious pest issues. However, aphids and thrips are an occasional problem. In most cases, predatory insects will clear away sap-sucking aphids and the slender, winged thrips that feed on plant foliage. Spray a stream of water on the plant to get rid of either type. When conditions are hot and dry, keep an eye out for spider mites, which thrive in those conditions. Whiteflies tend to hang out on the bottoms of leaves. Sticky whitefly traps are the best option for getting rid of them.
Powdery mildew is a common problem for all types of plants, but it isn’t fatal for sage. This fungal disease is most common in warm, dry climates and takes up residence in plant debris during the winter. Insects, wind, and splashing water spread it to other garden plants. If your plants have powdery mildew, you’ll notice dusty white or gray splotches of powder on the leaves and stems.
Sage doesn’t require fertilizer, but if you’re growing the plant for visual impact rather than as a culinary herb, feeding the plant will help it grow more rapidly. Beware of too much fertilizer, however. Like other salvia plants, it becomes leggy if over-fertilized, which then makes the stems flop over. Sage is an independent-minded plant that doesn’t require much fuss or special attention. In the early spring, prune sage plants by cutting past the woody, thicker part of the stem to encourage fuller growth. Divide them every three years to keep them thriving.
Start new sage plants using three-inch cuttings from the tip of a stem. Dip the cut end of the stem into rooting hormone and plant in vermiculite. In six weeks the roots will emerge and you can transplant the cutting to a small pot. Layering is another propagating method. Choose a long stem on the plant, but leave it attached. Secure it directly to the soil. Leave four inches of the stem free. After one month, you’ll see roots forming along the stem.
You can harvest sage year-round. Snip individual leaves as necessary to add to recipes. Larger leaves pack more flavor. Freeze leaves between sheets of wax paper coated in olive oil if you have an abundant harvest. You can also dry sage leaves by hanging them upside down in bunches. Once dry, strip the leaves from the stem, crumble them, and store them in an airtight container.
Some gardeners grow sage strictly for its beautiful purple or white flowers that bloom in the summer months. The plant’s leaves and flowers are edible. The flowers have a delicate flavor and cooks add them to sauces, salads, and herb-infused vinegar. Sage leaves are delicious in pork dishes, sauces, butters, marinades, and Italian fare.