Produce Profile: Growing Sage Is Just Smart

Take some sage advice, and start growing this low-maintenance perennial herb in your garden for culinary and sensory delights.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: anaterate/Pixabay

Culinary sage is in my herb trinity—the three plants I never want to do without in my garden. (Lavender and tulsi are the other two, if you were curious.)

It’s not that I love sage sausage (though I do) or that I must regularly drink sage tea (also true). Sage is a favorite because of its graceful presence growing in the garden, even during the winter.

Its showy purple flowers attract pollinators. It is easy to dry, delightful to drink and welcome in most culinary creations.

I’m having trouble thinking of a reason that I don’t prefer having sage around.

How to Start Sage Plants

Sage is a perennial herb. Plant it once, and it’ll give to you for years. It’s fairly easy to start from seed—this coming from someone who has trouble starting perennials from seed.

While you can start the seeds in the garden, I prefer to start perennials indoors. I have a picture in my mind of how I want my “finished” perennial garden to look—while it’ll never actually be finished. It helps for me to plant actual plants into that space, though, rather than plant seeds and cross my fingers that they germinate.

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If you have sage plants already, take cuttings and let them root in a glass of water in lieu of starting from seed.

Another thing I love about sage and perennial herbs in general is that there’s no rush to get them started or planted in the spring. You can even up-pot them several times as they grow until you have the right place picked out for planting.

Start sage seeds any time, and plant them in the garden when the soil is warm.

Read more: Grow winter savory for some hearty, cold-weather greens!

How to Grow Sage

This plant is pretty low maintenance.

The most trouble I had with sage was the summer we had a few weeks of rainstorms that each produced 2 or more inches of water. The heavy soil I was gardening was so waterlogged that the sage roots couldn’t take it. The plant limped through that growing season but died that winter.

The moral: Sage is a Mediterranean herb and likes growing in Mediterranean-like conditions, such as well-drained soil, full sun, humidity and warm weather.

With a reasonable amount of harvesting, 2020’s first-year sage plants still ended up growing 3 feet around and 2 feet tall in my garden.

Keep your sage weeded, or surround them with wood chip mulch like I did to cut back on weeding work.

After four or five years, the plant becomes branchy and woody and produces fewer leaves and flowers. That might be the time to refresh your sage patch with younger plants.

How to Harvest Sage

Harvest sage at its leaf intersections as it grows to encourage continual leaf production. I prefer to use harvest snips, as these are kinder to the plant, but you can pinch off the leaves you need, if you forgot to take your snips with you.

Just before flowering is a potent time for the concentration of oils in the leaves, but sage continues to be tasty well afterward. Do not be alarmed by its early season flowering—it’s not a sign that the plant is declining. It’ll keep growing until your first freeze.

Read more: Love culinary herbs? Your chickens do, too, so grow extra for the flock!

How to Cook With Sage

Sage is traditionally thought of as a fall and winter herb, used in sausages, stuffing and other meat dishes. When I think about sage as an herb, its comforting nature comes to mind. I’m all about comfort when it’s cold.

Along the comfort-food lines, stuff sage leaves under the skin and into the cavity of a whole chicken before roasting. Chop sage and fold it into cornbread batter. Chiffonade and add it to pizza dough.

One year, I had sage in the garden but no oregano. I used sage in place of oregano in every recipe, including marinara sauce, and no one complained. So use sage interchangeably when recipes call for oregano or thyme.

Search online for sage browned butter, and brace yourself for an onslaught of recipes—many of which are quite good. The earthy, herby sage melts into the richness of the butter for a depth of flavor that other fat-herb combinations don’t seem to have.

You can use sage in sweet things, too, including apple quick bread and a honey-sage ice cream I made years ago and still think about.

Sage in beverage form is reason alone to grow the herb. Sage tea, hot or cold, is delicious. Combine that with mint and fennel, and you have a lovely digestive tea blend.

A sage simple syrup combined with sparkling water is an excellent homemade soda. You can add gin to that, or vodka, for an adult soda.

If growing sage, eating sage and drinking sage beverages has any impact on our sageness, we all had best get on it. If there’s no correlation between the two, I’m still going to grow it, eat it and drink it.

One plant now provides for years to come. That’s sage wisdom, for sure.

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