Sages encompass a large group of plants, although just a few are considered to be good culinary herbs. The most familiar of these is garden sage (Salvia officinalis), a hardy perennial characterized by its soft, gray-green foliage and spikes of light-colored spring flowers. Plants can get quite tall and floppy, but the dwarf form (Salvia officinalis var. nana) has a more compact growth habit. Its flavor equals that of the standard variety, but it is not as hardy.
Some cultivars of garden sage are as at home in the perennial border as in the kitchen garden, thanks to their stunning leaf color. Three outstanding varieties are purple sage (S.o. cv. Purpurescens), golden sage (S.o. cv. Aurea), and tricolor sage (S.o. cv. Tricolor). These tend to be less hardy than regular sage.
You can start seed indoors up to eight weeks before your last frost date. If you sow seeds right in the garden, do so up to two weeks before the last frost date. Use fresh seed, as it doesn't store well. You can also start plants from root cuttings from established plants. Set plants or thin seedlings to stand 24 to 30 inches apart. Sage thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. Young plants need a steady moisture supply until they start growing vigorously.
Each spring, prune out the woodiest stems and spent flower stalks. Stop harvesting early in the fall to encourage the plant to harden off for the winter. After a few years, plants become quite woody and less productive. Plan a year ahead to replace them.
Harvest lightly during the first year to allow this perennial plant to become established. In the following couple of years, you may be able to harvest an entire plant two or three times. When harvesting, leave a few stalks in place to allow the plant to rejuvenate.
If you wish to dry sage, hang stalks in a shady, well-ventilated area until the leaves crumble easily, then store in tightly lidded jars. Sage keeps its flavor better if stored in the freezer. Freeze leaves or stalks on a tray, then move the leaves into a zippered bag or container. Some cooks blend the leaves with oil, pack the ground mixture into ice cube trays to freeze, and then transfer the cubes to a container.
Photograph by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association
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