By Chris McLaughlin

I met sage on the day I started my first proper herb garden. I was 25 and had a couple of kids dancing around my ankles the whole time I was planting. In an infant herb garden, where young rosemary looks like thin, aged fingers and chives resemble nearly invisible strands of baby hair, sage with her broad, colorful, pebbly leaves becomes a satisfying focal point. Throughout the summer I discovered that she was much more than just a cooperative cover girl. Graceful sage adds texture, beauty, fragrance, and attracts pollinators to the garden.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a shrubby, perennial herb that thrives in zones 4-8. This evergreen has excellent bacterial and antioxidant properties that have been used throughout the ages as a medicine, tea and culinary herb. In fact, its Latin name (salvere) mean “to save;” “to cure;”  or “to be in good health.” It’s fragrant and square-stemmed, per the common characteristics of nearly everyone in the mint family including lavender, lemon balm, catnip, mint, basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary and thyme.

While we enjoy the rich, spicy, and musky flavor as a food seasoning, deer find it repulsive – which pleases this foothill gardener to no end. The plants grow from 1 to 3 feet tall, depending on the variety. But it’s a simple task to control its height by routinely harvesting (therefore, pruning) the leaves.

Most sage varieties blossom in small whorls of bluish or lavender flowers in the spring through mid-summer and the bees, butterflies, and other wild things are mad for it. That alone makes it worth the garden space.

Growing Sage

Sage enjoys basking in the summer sun as much as the next Mediterranean herb. But if you live in an area that has brutal afternoon rays, you’ll want to plant sage in a spot that has at least some light afternoon shade. Sage prefers a sandy, plain soil as opposed to a fertile one. Most importantly, it needs good drainage in order to thrive. Even if she does keep a stiff upper lip while sitting in wet soil all summer, her forgiveness only goes so far. Come winter, she’ll end up throwing in the towel.

Sage is easy to grow and drought-tolerant, which makes it prefect for rock gardens and xeriscaping. She hasn’t the desire, nor need for rich fertilizers, but if you insist on hovering try amending the soil by adding a little aged compost or worm castings every now and again. After 4 to 5 years, these plants become both leggy and woody, they should be replaced by a younger generation of plants. In the spring, cut sage back by about 1/3 to keep plants full and vigorous.

Containers make happy homes for sage. Bring a potted one indoors and place it in a sunny windowsill for the cold months. Just remember: there are those who forget to water their houseplants and those who over-water their houseplants. In this case, you want to be the first kind. Don’t over-water your sage.

Propagate little baby sages by taking 3 to 4 inch cuttings from the tips of a mature (mother) plant. Then carefully clip off all the leaves until you reach the tip of the cutting — leave a set or two at the top. Dip the bottom half of the sage stem (make sure you get some nodes in there) into a rooting hormone and then gently push the stem into a small pot or container filled with perlite, sand or sterile potting mix.

Different Sages to Try

The following sage variety list is hardly exhaustive, but these three are the most popular. If you’re in it for big fragrance and flavor, the purple-leaved sage varieties tend to be the strongest on both counts.

  • Purple sage (S. leucophylla) – This purple-leaved plant spreads out nicely.
  • Golden sage (S. officinalis ‘Aurea’) – A compact sage variety with green and chartreuse leaves. Perfect for container gardens.
  • Tricolor sage (S. officinalis ‘Tricolor’) – Green, yellow or pinky-rose, and white all on the same leaf; adorable.

Harvesting & Storing Sage

Harvest sage leaves for the kitchen from a mature plant whenever the urge strikes (or recipe calls). If you started your plants from seed, it’s best to wait until the second year to begin harvesting. This is why gardeners prefer asexual propagation (from leaves or by dividing an older plant). Remember to take less than 1/3 of the plant at a time.

To store sage for later use, you can always tie a bunch together and hang them up to dry.

However, if you dry your sage in the refrigerator, you’ll have better flavor and maintain their lovely color, as well.

Sage is delicious when chopped up for culinary dishes.Gather your sage bunch together (or any other herb) place them loosely into a paper lunch bag. Secure the top of the lunch bag with something like a chip clip so that you can open and close the bag easily. Inside a week, the sage will be completely dry. You can now leave them in the fridge by taping the bag to the inside wall (which saves space) or you can now break them up and put them into air-tight containers. Place the container in a dark and cool place.

Sage in the Kitchen

Let me premise this part by saying that when it comes to sage; a little goes a long way.

Sage is fabulous in sausage, fish, poultry, pork, egg and cheese dishes, and as a meat rub. You can lightly sprinkle dried and crumbled leaves onto vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage or carrots. And if you love herbal teas, add some leaves to your teapot as a digestive aid or make sage infused oils and vinegars. Take advantage of their edible flowers and use them to brighten up your salad, too!