Q: I started my first herb garden 13 years ago—I never had any trouble growing sage. My husband and I moved to a new house three years ago—each year, I plant sage, and it dies. Any ideas?
– E. Darnell
A: Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a member of Labiatae or the mint family. This herb is a fairly resilient herb, so it can bear a trial-and-error gardening method. Like most herbs, sage is better when fresh, yet still good when frozen.
If you are planting seeds, it should germinate in temperatures that don’t drop below 60 degrees or go higher than 70 degrees. Also, growing sage seeds indoors with lots of light is more successful then leaving them outdoors as the sage germination period can be tricky. Keep overnight temperatures in mind if you plan on leaving seeds outdoors. A couple of weeks ago, I planted sage seeds in a pot. This past weekend, they were starting to come up when a spring cold front moved into the Denver area. I’m not sure what the damage is, but just in case I planted more seeds. If your sage plant is established, but still young, you have a little more leeway with the temperature—keep it about 55 degrees to 85 degrees. If your sage is an adult shrub, it can withstand -30 degrees winter temperatures, if properly covered.
Like rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), also from the Labiatae family, sage prefers a light fertilizer and for the soil pH to be between 6.0 and 7.0. To measure the soil’s pH, you can buy a pH reader from your local garden store. Sage thrives in fairly rich soil that is well-drained. However, sage can tolerate droughts and poor soil conditions just like lavender.
The size of the plant will determine how much water it will need. Start with two cups of water every three days. Adjust this amount if you see mold or fungus at the base of the plant, which indicates too much water, or if the soil dries out.
There are many different types of sage: common (or garden) sage, pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), blue (or Cleveland) sage (S. clevelandii), broad leaf sage, clary (or muscatel) sage (S. scleria), golden sage (S. off. “Aurea”), purple sage (S. off. ‘Purpurea’) and tri-color sage (S. off. ‘Tricolor’).
Although these general growing conditions can be applied to the various types of sage, each variety has specific needs and purposes. Common sage is used primarily for cooking and is typically used in medicine as an antiseptic, a disinfectant and to help restore the liver and the digestive system. Clary or muscatel sage is occasionally mixed with Muscatel wine, and this variety prefers heavier soils and is not typically used for cooking. The tri-color sage can withstand 20 degree temperatures and is also used in culinary dishes. Diviners’ sage or sage of the seers (Salvia divinorum) is a psychoactive sage. This herb was used medicinally as a healing agent and for divination practices in some ancient cultures.
Photo by Narisa /Courtsey Flickr
Tips for Keeping Sage Alive
There are many different variables for solving Darnell’s sage problem. Here are a few general tips and pointers.
• Don’t plant sage next to cucumbers or members of the onion family as they are not compatible plants. Incompatible plants can spread dominant flavors to another plant, causing it to loose original taste, can lead to an increased number of insects in your garden, or can lead to a decreased plant production.
• Sage has a difficult time germinating. Start your seeds indoors if the temperature is too cold outside. You can move your seeds outdoors after a month or two.
• Keep an 18- to 20-inch distance between sage and other plants when planted in a bed for root growth and bushiness of the plant.
• When planting sage in a garden, keep in mind that sage is compatible with tomatoes, rosemary, strawberries, carrots and marjoram among a few other plants. Plants that are companions often have similar growing habits and conditions.
Do you have problems growing sage? What herbs do you have a difficult time growing? Let’s chat about it; drop me a comment or email The Herb Companion magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org.