Sage (Salvia) is an attractive, drought-tolerant, easy-to-grow shrubby plant with aromatic, evergreen leaves that are often soft and downy. It also produces pretty flowers in mid- to late summer. This Mediterranean herb likes full sun in a warm, sheltered spot, in pots or free-draining soil, and should live for many years with minimal maintenance.
There are many different types of sage, some grown as herbs for their edible, aromatic leaves, and others (usually known as salvias) as ornamental plants for their attractive flowers.
Sage, Salvia officinalis 'Berggarten'
Sage, Salvia officinalis 'Icterina'
There are also many cultivated varieties of S. officinalis, including the widely grown purple sage (S. officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) with its attractive, dusky purple, year-round foliage. Other varieties offer different aromas and various flower and foliage colours.
Sage has a robust, peppery flavour that can be used in many dishes, not just in traditional sage and onion stuffing. You can add chopped sage leaves to soups, pasta sauces, sausages, marinades and more. Sage is also said to have many health benefits, and its botanical name Salvia derives from the Latin salvare meaning to heal.
Rosemary has recently been reclassified as a type of Salvia and is grown in a similar way to sage – for more about this popular herb, see our guide to growing rosemary.
Month by Month
Common sage (Salvia officinalis) makes an attractive addition to warm, sunny borders, herb beds and veg plots, and grows well in containers. Being evergreen and hardy, it provides a year-round presence and can be harvested at any time, although the fresh young leaves are best.
There are several attractive varieties to choose from too, including the popular purple-leaved ‘Purpurascens’ and yellow-leaved ‘Icterina’, which adds a bright splash of colour. These three have an RHS Award of Garden Merit, which shows they are easy and reliable to grow. There are more varieties too, with various aromas, leaf colours and flower colours, including tricolour sage, with cream-and-green variegated leaves tinted with pink.
You can explore a wide range of herbs, including sage, in all the RHS gardens, so do visit them for more herbal inspiration and growing tips.
What & where to buy
Common sage and purple sage are widely available from garden centres and online plant retailers, usually as young potted plants or rooted cuttings in spring and early summer, or more established plants in bigger pots for most of the year. Other varieties may be available from larger online suppliers and herb nurseries.
You can also buy packeted seeds, although generally only of common sage.
Sage is usually grown from bought plants, but you can also grow it from seeds or cuttings indoors, although these take longer to reach harvesting size.
Sow sage seeds in spring into small pots or trays of seed compost and cover with a thin layer of perlite. Place in a propagator or cover with a polythene bag on a warm windowsill. Seeds can take up to three weeks to germinate. Pot on into modules or pots to grow on
Plant young sage plants outdoors once they’re about 10cm (4in) tall, after all risk of frost is passed. Harden them off first to acclimatise them to outdoor conditions. See below for planting guidance.
Choose a planting site in full sun, sheltered from strong winds. The soil should be free-draining and never get waterlogged. If your soil is poorly-drained, plant in a raised bed or a container to provide better drainage.
Prepare the ground by removing any weeds, then dig in plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost. If planting in a container, choose one that is at least 30cm (12in) wide and fill it with a peat-free soil-based compost, mixing in lots of coarse grit or perlite (up to 25 percent by volume) to improve drainage.
Sage should ideally be planted in spring, although potted sage can be planted right through to autumn but avoid hot dry spells. Water it well both before and after planting.
Sage is very easy to look after – simply harvest sprigs of young leaves regularly to encourage bushy new growth and cut back flowered stems by a third after flowering to keep plants compact.
Sage, Salvia officinalis 'Purpurascens'
Sage. Salvia officinalis
If the weather is dry, water newly planted sage during its first spring and summer until it establishes.
Sage is drought tolerant once established and shouldn’t need additional watering when growing in the ground. In containers, the compost can dry out quickly, so check regularly over the summer – aim to keep the compost slightly moist.
In winter, excess rain can cause the roots to rot, so move plants in containers to a sheltered spot, such as in the rain-shadow of a wall.
Lay a mulch of garden compost around sage plants in spring to help stop the soil drying out in hot weather.
As well as deadheading after flowering to encourage new shoots with fresh leaves, older plant benefit from an annual hard prune.
Prune established sage plants hard in early spring to promote bushy growth and lots of fresh new leaves. If left unpruned, older plants can become straggly and sprawling, with a bare centre.
It’s easy to make new sage plants by taking softwood cuttings in early summer or by rooting low branches into the ground – see our guide to layering.
Sage plants tend to get rather woody and straggly after four or five years, so it’s good idea to propagate new plants regularly as replacements – that way you’ll always have attractive and productive sage to enjoy and share with friends.
As sage is evergreen, the leaves can be picked at any time of year, but fresh growth in spring and early summer has the best flavour. You can pick whole young shoots or individual leaves as required.
To ensure the leaves remain in good condition over winter, protect them from the worst of the weather with fleece or move plants in containers into a sheltered location.
The leaves are best used fresh, but you can also dry or freeze them.
To dry sage, hang up some sprigs in a warm, dark, well-ventilated place. When fully dried, store the leaves in an air-tight jar.
Freeze chopped sage leaves in an ice-cube tray, then simply add the cubes to your cooking whenever needed.
Sage is generally robust, hardy and healthy, living for many years. Just make sure it has a warm, sunny location and free-draining soil/potting compost that doesn’t get waterlogged.
The leaves can be damaged by rosemary beetles, sage leafhopper and capsid bugs, but these don’t generally cause severe problems so control isn’t necessary. Simply pick off any affected leaves if you wish.
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