3 Quick Sage Tips:
- Sage grows best from either cuttings or layering. Just let a stem touch the ground and it will root itself.
- Sage deters pests that attack the cabbage family.
- Sage is a complement to rosemary. Try combining the two in a finishing salt.
Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow and the perennial herbs are by far the least time demanding. Sage isn’t hardy everywhere, but if it is in your garden, definitely take advantage and grow it. Most varieties should be reliable in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 – 9.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is often used in poultry dishes, especially turkey, but it plays well with many other foods, especially pork and lamb. There are several varieties sold for the herb garden. Purple sage (Salvia purpurescens), tri-color sage, and golden sage may have the looks, but common old sage has the best flavor and the best cold hardiness.
The culinary sages are evergreen in my garden, although heavy snow cover often makes it impossible for me to verify this. I have been know to shovel some out on Thanksgiving or Christmas, if I didn’t remember to harvest in advance.
This year I am growing sage indoors. It’s amazing how many of the perennial herbs can be grown as indoor plants. Granted, I give mine some supplemental light, which gives off a bit of heat, but the plants are at least semi-dormant in winter, so they don’t require much fuss. The biggest challenge is balancing the water so they don’t dry out and they don’t get powdery mildew. So far, so good.
Culinary sages are part of the Salvia genus, along with other spiky flowering varieties we grow for their ornamental qualities. The culinary varieties also get spikes of purple/pink flowers in mid-summer, if you don’t harvest before then.
They have woolly, fuzzy leaves, so deer and other animals don’t much like them, and an earthy, musky flavor. The scent is another deterrent to pests, four-footed and flying. They do a decent job of deterring cabbage butterflies and other cabbage family pests.
Sage plants are very drought tolerant. Most herbs fair better in soil that tends to be lean and allowed to dry, so plant your sage in a spot with full zone and don’t worry about the heat. The plants can get floppy, rather than growing straight and tall. Depending on how much you harvest them, expect them to reach a size of 1 – 2 ft. (H) x 2 -3 ft. (W). They are tallest when in flower.
If you can resist, give your sage plants time to get established by letting them grow unharvested for their first year. After that, go for it. You really shouldn’t remove more than a third of any plant at one time, or the plant becomes stressed. However, culinary sage starts to get woody after a few years and the flavor begins to decline. It’s recommended that you replace them at that point, but my plants tend to root wherever they touch the ground. I just sever off a newly rooted branch, remove the old woody section from the garden, and allow the new plant to grow on.
Culinary sage is pretty enough to be used in the flower boarders, particularly the gold, purple, and tri-color varieties. It’s used in the vegetable garden to deter carrot flies and cabbage moths with its scent, so I would suspect it could be something of a deterrent in the flower garden too. Most fuzzy, fragrant plants are.
Cooking with Sage
The tender, young leaves have the most flavor. It doesn’t take a lot of sage to spice up a poultry or meat dish. And of course, sage dressing is a must at Thanksgiving. My favorite is made with cornbread, celery, and onions. Add 2 tablespoons dried sage for every lb. of cornbread. Moisten it with eggs, stock, and butter and season to taste. Perfect.
Lately it’s become popular to fry sage leaves until they are crispy and use them as an edible garnish. The larger leaves are perfect for this. Use caution, they have moisture in them and the oil will splatter when you first toss in the leaves. It doesn’t take long for them to crisp up.
Sage also makes a nice tea. Just pour a cup of boiling water over 2 teaspoons of chopped fresh sage or 1 teaspoon of crushed dried sage. Let it steep for at least 5 minutes and strain. It’s great with lemon. If you like it sweet, try honey. [Sage tea should not be drunk by pregnant or nursing women. Sage contains thujone, which has been linked to miscarriage (and high blood pressure.) Ditto for parsley.]
Not all herbs dry well, but sage holds on to most of its oils and therefore most of its flavor. I prefer to dry the leaves whole and crumble them when I need them. That way there is less surface area exposed in storage and I get a fresh whiff of essential oils when I crumble them into a dish.
The large, fragrant leaves are also popular with crafters. It takes a whole lot of sage leaves to make an entire sage wreath, but you can get the same effect with a few strategically placed leaves on a wreath with a different base.
Ready to Grow Some Sage?
You can start sage from seed, but the seeds quickly go downhill and need to be sown shortly after harvesting. If that weren’t problematic enough, they are slow to germinate.
Luckily sage seedlings and plants are readily available. You can start with a small 4-inch plant and be harvesting within a year. If you already have a large sage plant, you can create more by layering the branches, as I mentioned above. The branches will root with very little effort, wherever they touch the ground. You can then sever that rooted branch from the mother plant and plant the new baby anywhere you want. It grows just as well in containers as it does in the ground.
That’s about it. Water the plant when the soil feels dry about 1 – 2 inches below the surface. Don’t let it sit in wet soil, or the roots will rot and the leaves will mildew. Lovely.
So this Thanksgiving, don’t just buy a tiny, over-priced, cellophane packet of sage leaves. At the very least, buy a branch and try and root it in a pot. Come spring, you’ll be glad you did.