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What's the Best Sage for Your Garden?

Updated on May 8, 2018
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Jill is a former Master Gardener and Naturalist who enjoys cooking, abstract painting and stewardship.

Salvia officinalis, a.k.a. garden sage
Salvia officinalis, a.k.a. garden sage | Source

Salvia officinalis, commonly called garden sage or common sage, is a useful and attractive plant to have in the garden.

Whether cultivated in a pot or in the ground, if cared for properly, garden sage will grow into a small shrub with soft, silvery-green leaves that have a pleasingly pungent taste and aroma.

Garden sage is a subshrub or dwarf shrub. Mature plants are woody at the bottom with new growth at the top.

Over time, sage develops silvery woody stems that look like old driftwood. The woody stems do not set leaves.

In early spring, garden sage develops tall spires of violet flowers that, like the plant itself, are both edible and aromatic.

Although only two years old, this sage plant is already developing woody stems.
Although only two years old, this sage plant is already developing woody stems. | Source

The Best Sage for Your Garden

When selecting sage plants or seeds for your garden, be sure to choose the plant that best suits your needs.

Some varieties of S. officinalis are hardier than others. Some produce more flowers. Some have more aromatic leaves. Some are more colorful than others.

Like the leaves, sage flowers are edible.
Like the leaves, sage flowers are edible. | Source

Popular Sage Varieties

Hardiness Zones
broad green leaves
flavorful leaves
small green leaves
great choice for a container
waxy green leaves with wavy edges
esp. ornamental
small silvery green leaves
ideal for containers
'Holt's Mammoth'
large green leaves
vigorous grower
gold and green leaves
vigorous grower
'La Crema'
green leaves/cream borders
vigorous & showy
small green leaves
good for containers
dwarf variety
good for windowboxes & mixed herb container
deep purple, blue and green leaves
purple, cream & pink leaves
colorful, vigorous grower
'Robert Grim'
small green leaves
good for containers
purple, green and cream leaves
slow grower
'Variegated Woodcote'
green leaves with lighter green edging


Before purchasing sage, be sure to examine the plant tag or seed packet, keeping in mind that not all plants commonly referred to as sage are garden sage.

Labels for garden sage should read Salvia or S. officinalisSalvia or the abbreviation S. for the genus, and officinalis for the specific epithet. The name of the plant variety follows the epithet (Owen 33-35).

For instance, a plant tag would read, "S. officinalis 'Tricolor'" for the tender perennial variety of garden sage that has white, purple and green aromatic leaves.


In addition to its culinary uses, sage leaves can be used in homemade soaps, lotions and potpourris. They may even be used as a natural insect repellant. Just rub the leaves on exposed skin to keep bugs away ("Sage").

If you're looking for garden sage to harvest for potpourri, look for the variety 'Purpurea' or 'Icterina.' Like 'Tricolor,' both varieties have colorful leaves.

If you intend to harvest sage for heavy use in the kitchen, a hardy workhorse variety like Berggarten' is an excellent choice.

S. officinalis 'Berggarten' is a compact variety of sage that grows best in Zones 5-8. As noted above, it's a good choice if you're looking for a hardy, low-maintenance variety of garden sage.

'Berggarten' blooms infrequently in our garden, but it does bush out nicely and has grown to about two feet by three feet. It produces lots of leaves that can be harvested for immediate use or dried.

Over time, 'Berggarten' develops lovely thick silver wood at the base.


Wanted: Well-Draining Soil

Common sage is drought tolerant and deer resistant. It's also frost tolerant, and it doesn't mind poor soil. But over watering combined with poorly draining soil will kill it. The roots will rot, the leaves will yellow and soon, the plant will shrivel and die.

If you're not sure if your soil has good drainage, perform this simple test: dig a hole 12 inches deep and fill it with water ("Soil Drainage"). If the water in the hole drains in 30 minutes, the soil has good drainage.

Sage against a backdrop of Reemay. Because common sage is frost tolerant, I rarely place a row cover over it.
Sage against a backdrop of Reemay. Because common sage is frost tolerant, I rarely place a row cover over it. | Source

Location Counts

Like most herbs, garden sage needs full sun in order to grow best. That means about six hours of direct light per day.

Sage also grows best in a level or sloping area that has good drainage. Avoid low-lying areas or "frost pockets" where water may accumulate.

When grown in the appropriate Hardiness Zone, garden sage is a perennial. In other zones, it can be cultivated in outdoor beds as an annual or grown in pots in a greenhouse or sheltered area year after year.

It's an ideal plant for cultivation in pots, especially clay ones, which drain water better than plastic pots.


Know Your Zone

Most S. officinalis grows best in Hardiness Zones 4-10, although that varies depending upon the variety. If you opt to grow sage in a garden bed, be sure to select the variety that's right for your zone.

Where does your herb garden grow?

See results

To find your zone in the USA, visit the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map at the United States Department of Agriculture website. For links to other hardiness zone maps, see Edible Landscape Design.

Of course, your Hardiness Zone is immaterial if you intend to raise sage in pots. You can simply bring the plant indoors if the weather becomes too hot or too cold for the sage to survive.


Other Plants Called Sage

Russian sage
Russian sage | Source

Not all plants commonly called sage are garden sage. That's why it's so important to check the label for the scientific name Salvia officinalis when purchasing sage for culinary use.

Russian Sage

Although Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) has many similarities to garden sage, it's a perennial flower, not an herb.

Low-maintenance and drought-tolerant, Russian sage works beautifully in a border or at the back of flowerbeds in Zones 4-9. It has silvery, feathery foliage and striking spires of violet flowers. Russian sage attracts bees and butterflies, and blooms from summer into fall.

Jerusalem Sage

Phlomis fruticosa (Jerusalem sage) in Desert Demonstration Garden in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Phlomis fruticosa (Jerusalem sage) in Desert Demonstration Garden in Las Vegas, Nevada. | Source

Phlomis fruticosa is also commonly called sage-- Jerusalem sage.

Jerusalem sage is a tall perennial flower with soft, furry leaves. It produces yellow flowers and is a good choice for water-conserving gardens in Zones 7-11.

S. judaica (Judean sage) growing wild on Mount Carmel in Israel
S. judaica (Judean sage) growing wild on Mount Carmel in Israel | Source

Judean Sage

With its branched flowerheads, Salvia judaica (Judean sage) is thought to have inspired the shape of the Jewish Menorah.

According to the Old Testament, God instructed Moses to construct the Menorah along lines that sound very much like a description of S. judaica. “Make a lampstand of pure gold," God tells Moses. "Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flower-like cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other" (Exodus 25: 31-33).

Works Cited

Melchior, Caleb. "Sage Varieties: Growing Tips and Recipes." Mother Earth Living: Natural Home, Healthy Life. August/September 2010. Web. 11 May 2015.

Owen, Judith. "Botany." Master Gardener Handbook. University of Maryland, 2008. 23-42. Print.

"Sage." Better Homes and Gardens. Meredith Corporation, 2015. Web. 11 May 2015.

"Soil Drainage." CMG Garden Notes. Colorado Master Gardener/Colorado State University Extension 2013. Web. 24 May 2015.

© 2015 Jill Spencer


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