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The wisdom of Sage in my garden

Once you get to know sages in your Sierra foothill garden, it’s easy to become obsessed! Colorful, easy to grow and very hardy, sages, called ‘ Salvia’ in Latin, need little water and lesscare. Here I’ll describe some of my favorite salvias growing now in my very drought tolerant garden.

Autumn sages are my absolute favorite due to the long blooming period, color selection and general hardiness. Salvia is very deer and drought tolerant and I’ve collected more than 25 of them in my hillside garden that bloom non-stop from early Spring through Fall! Evergreen Autumn sages, both Salvia greggii, Salvia microphylla and their hybrids behave the same way in our mountain gardens, needing little water after the first year of planting and growing to a bushy three by three feet, covered in blooms. You can easily find them in our local nurseries in red, pink, lavender, white and purple. Look for the coveted true blue variety, Blue Oak sage, too.

My next favorite is Pineapple sage ( Salvia elegans,) for its fabulous chartreuse color, its height of four to five feet and the surprising red blooms. Mine grows cheerfully in the ‘hand watering zone’ at the bottom of the garden where deer reliably pass it by.

Native Cleveland sages, both tall and creeping hybrids, are the next most plentiful in my garden. The periwinkle blue blossoms, the distinctive three colorful pompoms on a stem of Salvia clevelandii, float above the airy four by four foot tall foliage with its intoxicating, fresh soapy fragrance. The creeping form, Salvia sonomensis ‘Bee’s Bliss,’ grows only one foot tall and can cover an eight by eight foot weed-suppressing area. There is an attractive mid-sized variety called Salvia ‘Dara’s Choice.’

Culinary sage ( Salvia officinalis) is familiar to many of us. Long, thick, oil filled leaves are the most fragrant for cooking. This sage needs regular planting mix, a bit of fertilizer and frequent cutting to encourage a bushy plant. Also try Tricolor culinary sage with leaves of purple, cream and pink. Meadow sage has leaves like culinary sage and tall dark-blue flower spikes.

Since its flowers are nondescript, the popular native California white sage ( Salvia apiana) is grown primarily for the velvety grayish-white foliage which can be made into ‘smudge sticks,’ bundled, tied and then burned to create smoke believed to have healing powers. White sage is a wonderful moon garden plant if grown with other white, reflective flowers or as a ‘front of a dry garden’ focal point.

Depending on the size, I trim sages to a rounded, compact shape in winter to keep them bushy and filled with blooms. Most are evergreen through our relatively mild winters and need hand watering only after the first year. All sages may be grown in containers and the predicted full size of perennial sages should be considered when choosing the size pot.

A few tender sages are worth noting. Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ has a dramatic combination of black stems with clear medium-blue flowers on its tall stalks. Additionally, Mexican bush sage ( Salvia leucantha) is a three foot tall fountain of purple blooms and worth growing as an annual each year.

Though these more tender sages like warmer winters, they can be protected with a thick 6 inch covering of mulch in fall, will completely die to the ground and return in spring to grow to their gorgeous full size again. I clip them in fall to no less than 6 inches.

Once you learn how wonderfully sages perform in your garden, you may want to search for more. One excellent source for unusual and hard to find salvias is Flowers by the Sea in Elk, California.

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