Garden Sage Takes Center Stage in Autumn

Garden sage, also known as the ‘turkey-herb’, is a shrubby perennial in the mint family. In cold climates, it dies down in the winter. In areas of mild winters, the cooler temperatures of autumn are just what garden sage, Salvia officinalis, needs to perk up its leaves and become an ornamental as well as an edible.

Spotlight on Garden Sage

According to proactive herb grower Madeline Hill, sage should be grown in a sunny location with well-drained soil in raised beds or containers and away from plants that need frequent watering. Raised beds eliminate nematodes and one can control pH more easily. Sage prefers a pH between 6 and 7. By keeping sage with other xeriscaping plants, the risk of root rot, crown rot and fungal leaf disease is reduced.

Sage may be grown from seed, cuttings, division, or layering. Sage seed is sown in early spring and germinates in 14-18 days depending upon soil and temperature conditions. Sage matures in 75 days. Stem cuttings can be made from spring through fall. Think ahead to make enough cuttings to give to Thanksgiving guests. Divisions can be made in spring. Older woody stems that bend toward the ground are good candidates for layering.

Herb grower Jim Long maintains that we recycle the same herbal flavors and scents from the “beginning of thyme” by propagating sage and other herbs by cuttings and division. Therefore, we taste the same flavors our ancestors tasted long ago.

When harvesting herbs, Hill applies the rule of thirds: harvest no more than a third of the leaves. After the spring blooming period, cut back a few stems to prompt new basal growth. Mature sage plants become 2’-3’ high and as wide. One or two garden sages provide a generous supply for a family.

Landscape Uses of Garden Sage

Horticulturist Jim Wilson first grew sage and other herbs as a business, selling his herbs to restaurants. His focus changed to the landscape potential of herbs. He saw the spreading habit of sage, its grey-green foliage color, pebbled leaf surface, and lavender to purple flowers as attributes earning ornamental landscape status.

Assuming the role of a talent agent for herbs in the landscape, he recommended sage in containers, along garden paths, as edging plants for borders, in mixed perennial borders, and entwined in knot gardens.

Garden Sage Understudies

There are a number of extraordinary varieties of garden sage, including:

  • ‘Berggarten’ – broader oval grey-green leaves 3” long, blue flowers, compact mounded habit
  • ‘Icterina’- golden variegated sage and lavender-purple flower spikes
  • ‘Purpurascens’- green leaves interspersed with steely purple leaves and lavender-purple flower spikes
  • ‘Tricolor’- variegated leaves with white and purple and lavender-blue flowers

These cultivar understudies substitute for Salvia officinalis in cooking but bring the same flavor and pungency to food as the original. Garden sages season poultry, pork, lamb, sausage, fish, stuffing, eggs, butter and cheese spreads, apple dishes, mushrooms, vinegars, dry bean dishes, stews, soups, breads, muffins, and tea.

The flavor and culinary versatility of sage make it a cornerstone in the herb and kitchen garden. Once fresh sage is used in recipes, store bought containers of dried or powdered sage taste like herbal ashes.

While sage enjoys a long run in your garden, share the cuttings and divisions of the “turkey-herb” with a larger audience like your ancestors did.

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