Know Before You Grow: Sage

Know Before You Grow: Sage
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Know Before You Grow: Sage

Sage: The Mediterranean Herb for Many Dishes

Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) is a perennial evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region. Its smallish gray-green leaves have a pebbled or bumpy texture and release a pungent but not unpleasant aroma. Although sage deveops flowers, it is primarily grown for its foliage, which should be harvested before the flower buds open.

Sage is used to flavor meat and fish, sausages and stuffing, salad, and a wide range of Mediterranean dishes. It is also a common ingredient in vinegars, soils, and sauces.

Choosing a Sage Variety

With more than 750 varieties of sage available today, you might think that selecting one for the herb garden would be a daunting task. Most of these varieties are ornamental, however, and you can't go wrong with the classic Salvia officinalis, plain garden sage. There are also lovely golden- and purple-leaved variants on garden sage, which add plate appeal and garden beauty.

When to Start Sage Seeds

Sage seeds can be direct-sown into the warm spring soil after all danger of frost, but most gardeners find it easier to begin the seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last anticipated frost.

How to Start Sage Seeds

Sow the seeds in your Bio Dome or in seed flats. If using the Bio Dome, drop one seed into each Bio Sponge. If using seed flats, cover the seeds lightly with a thin layer of vermiculite.

Seeds should germinate anywhere from 10 to 21 days after sowing. They are ready to transplant when they have 2 sets of true leaves and stand about 4 inches high. Space them about 18 inches apart in the garden or set them into containers.

Special Considerations

  • Sage is delicious fresh, frozen, or dried. If you want to dry large quantities of sage, you can cut the entire plant at the base, hang it upside-down in a warm, dry area for about a week, and then strip the leaves off, discarding the remainder of the plant. Store the leaves in an airtight container.
  • To freeze sage, place individual leaves on a cookie sheet and flash-freeze them for about half an hour, then carefully stack them in a plastic bag and refreeze.
  • Sage is the traditional companion to rosemary in the herb garden and is a natural pest fighter for plants in the cabbage family. Its strong aroma may discourage some nibbling pests, so it is a good choice around the edges of the vegetable patch and annual bed.
  • Bees, butterflies, and birds adore sage. If you want to attract these creatures to your garden, create an area where your sage plants can go to flower (rather than be harvested before blooming). Most winged visitors appear after the blooms are open.

Growing Tips for Sage Plants

  • Sage loves blazing sun, hot weather, and dry soil. Let it dry out a bit between waterings, and if you are growing it in a container, make sure the drainage is excellent. (Add a layer of pebbles at the base of the container to improve the drainage if it is in question.)
  • Pinch the growing tips of your sage plant several times during spring and early summer. This will produce a bushier plant and slow the formation of flower buds.
  • Harvest the leaves when they are young, either by pinching them off individually or snipping an entire stem at the base.

Pests and Problems to Watch For

  • Seedlings can occasionally fall victim to damping off, a fungal condition. To prevent this, make sure your potting mix or medium is sterile, bottom-water the seedlings, and avoid crowding.
  • Whitefly and mealybugs are sap-sucking pests that can harm your sage. Whiteflies are usually found on houseplants and in greenhouses and is easily controlled by hanging a yellow sticky trap near the plants. Mealybugs can strike indoors or out and are best dealt with by pruning off the affected branches or, if there are only a few bugs, using a Q-tip to coat them in rubbing alcohol or cooking oil.
  • Mildew can be a problem in humid or rainy climates, or with overhead watering. In the garden, place your sage in an uncrowded area where air circulates freely, and use a soaker hose to bottom-water if possible.

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