Sage has had something of a renaissance in recent years with people discovering the cleansing rituals that the indigenous people of the Americas have practiced for many years. We love to cook with sage though and grow a few different varieties for their intense earthy taste and aroma.
Salvia Officinalis is common sage and it is an evergreen perennial, meaning you can harvest fresh leaves all year round. It flowers in late Spring and can be cut back to continue producing leaves all year. Some varieties will need a bit of consideration for overwintering in the UK and growing in pots can aid this.
There is much to be considered when growing sage from seed and often using division or cuttings can save you time and disappointment.
Growing Sage From Seeds
The germination of seeds is not the real issue, although germination rate is poor, you get plenty of sage seeds in a packet! Start them off about 8 weeks before fear of frost will have passed. Plant thinly in moist seed starting compost and cover with a fine layer of soil. Grow in a heated propagator and around 3 weeks later seedlings will appear. Transfer them to a sunny spot, or use an LED lamp.
You can but buy sage plugs online and I would recommend this version over buying seeds as it will take around two years for sage to mature and become viable to harvest.
Before moving seedlings or plugs outside you need to ensure that the fear of frost has gone. Really simply, keep them in pots as you can bring them back inside when we get those few random nights in May.
Sage likes full sun and a well drained soil. It is not too fussed about the quality of soil other than that. So if you are putting it into pots, make sure there are drainage holes and adequate grit in the compost mix. If you are planting in the ground, plant seedlings 2 foot apart to allow for future growth.
Taking Cuttings From Sage
A friend with sage is a good friend! You can take soft tip cuttings, just below a leaf node and strip the lower leaves away, dip in organic rooting hormone then root those in gardeners sand. Keep moist and on a sunny windowsill. They should take root within a few weeks and a gentle tug test to see if they offer any resistance will show you that you have roots in place. Gentle tug test though!!!
When the cutting is established you can remove from the soil and see the root growth. Common sage is just fine in a sunny spot with full sun and free draining soil. We also grow some of the more unusual varieties and our tangerine sage will never be planted into the cold ground! If you want to grow sage in pots make sure that they are large enough for roots to spread and the shrub to really grow.
Caring for your sage
Never allow the roots to sit in cold wet soil. So if you are growing in pots, bring in to a more sheltered spot during heavy rainfall, or pop the pots on to feet.
After flowering cut back the soft growth and allow the new leaves to be harvested. We find sage to be a very unusual herb in that fresh leaves have a more gentle taste profile than dried. We still enjoy using them in our cooking and being creative with herbal teas.
At around year 4-5 your sage will start to let you down a little and although a perennial and evergreen the foliage it produces will diminish. At this point think about taking cuttings in early Spring. This way you will have a regular supply of vibrant and healthy leaves.
Can You Root Sage In Water
We don’t tend to. You can take hardwood cuttings to do this however you are stunting your initial sage plant by doing this. Sage will grow back if you take soft tip cuttings and it is encouraged over winter to do this to get a bushier shrub. But taking cuttings or pruning the hardwood will not encourage new growth and it will make your sage lopsided!
The soft tip method uses new growth and we tend towards potting into moist sharp sand. If you do want to try and grow new roots from a cutting in water, make sure to change the water every two days. Do not leave in direct sunlight, but still sunny. After about three weeks root growth should be established enough to then pot on to free draining compost mix.
Can You Divide Sage
Sage is perfect for division and a sharp spade will do the job easily. Make sure to have a new site well prepared and move the new plant either to a pot that is large enough or at least 2 foot away from the original plant. Division should be performed every two years, not more regularly.
You can also propagate sage by the layering method.
- Take a long stem and gently fold it so that the middle will be pinned to the ground.
- strip the leaves from the section that you have measured by trying this.
- Then cover over this section with soil and use another piece of twig to pin it in place. Water well and in around 6 weeks you will see new growth emerging from the pinned section.
- You can then cut the end from the original plant and repot or transplant to around 2 feet away.
- You can do this for a few stems at a time and just spread them evenly around the mother shrub, like a strange maypole!
Drying and Storing Sage
In order to make a smudging wrap you will need dried sage stalks. Other than for this purpose we avoid drying sage as it really intensifies that earthy, musky flavour. Fresh sage works really well with all manner of meats and roast veg, especially squash and pumpkin, but dried can really put off the younger members of the family.
To dry for the best aroma take cuttings at the start of the day or the evening. This is because the essential oils get zapped by the midday sun. Make sure to avoid flowering stems and any with any signs of mold or damage.
Use around 10-15 sprigs held together with an elastic band loosely. You do not want to squeeze the sprigs together as they will not dry in the air properly. Hang these in a cool airy location without direct sunlight.
If you are storing the leaves separate them once the stalks can snap. This is about two to three weeks depending on the ambient temperature. Use a sealed mason jar to store them, but just be aware to keep them in a cool, dark cupboard. Even then they tend towards mustiness. So just be warned they are not great for culinary purposes, but if you plan to use in your herbal tea it can be quite a striking difference and using rose hips to soften that intensity can work.
For a quicker drying process you may want to try using a dehydrator. We have put together a free guide to using a dryer for herbs, available here.
If you are smudging you will need a few bunches dried like this and then using an organic twine, tie them together. By smoking them you are releasing the antibacterial qualities and cleansing the home or garden. We do not practice this in our home, but we do in the garden. For a full step by step guide to getting the most from smudging have a look here.
By burning sage in your fire pit or even to the side of your outdoors eating area you are releasing chemicals that act as a natural bug repellent, meaning you can have a mosquito free evening! Particularly gorgeous if you are burning tangerine sage which will act as a natural citronella!
Sage is a great ingredient in cooking and goes well with so many dishes. However this is worth noting, for many dishes like stews and casseroles it will become soggy and wilt. Basically a wonderful taste and aroma, with an unappetizing look. You can overcome this by using sage in a bouquet garni. This will mean you can easily remove it without any hunting around of pale, sad leaves.