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As an evergreen subshrub, common sage causes many gardeners a headache when pruning is part of the maintenance program. This applies equally to the harvest, shape and maintenance cut. With woody branches near the ground and herbaceous shoots above, the Mediterranean spice plant thrives neither as a shrub nor as an herbaceous perennial, which requires a modified pruning. That sounds more complicated than it is. These instructions explain in a practical way when and how to cut sage correctly.


What is a subshrub?

The professional pruning for subshrubs takes their special growth cycle into account. True sage treads a middle ground between a herbaceous perennial and a fully woody shrub. If you briefly familiarize yourself with this plant physiology in the following, it will no longer be a gardening mystery as to which shoots you cut correctly, when and to what extent.

  • Shoots near the ground: progressive lignification with few leaves
  • Previous branches: semi-lignified growth with a tendency to lignify
  • This year's expulsion: herbaceous, densely leafed and with flowers in summer

In regions with mild winters, sage retains its aromatic foliage. Severe frost, on the other hand, causes the leaves to fall and the herbaceous growth to freeze back. In spring, common sage sprout fresh from the sleeping eyes of its not frozen, half-lignified and woody branches.

In order to cut kitchen sage correctly, a little judgment is required. If you cut the subshrub too deeply, vital buds fall victim to the scissors, whereupon the fresh shoots remain meagre. If you prune a garden sage too little, a Salvia officinalis will visibly become woody and bare, which significantly reduces the harvest yield and the splendor of the flowers. The following instructions will tell you in detail how to do it correctly.


Professional pruning pursues three goals of equal importance: the regulation of size growth, a rich harvest of rich sage leaves and the lowest possible extent of woody growth. This results in a three-pronged approach with a shape, harvest and maintenance cut.

The following time frame has proven itself in practice:

  • May to early September: Harvest time for fresh needs or storage
  • June to early September: regular topiary
  • June/July: Remove inflorescences if self-sowing is undesirable
  • February/March: maintenance cut

In the period from autumn to early spring, sage is unmolested by the scissors. Pruning measures from mid-September cause fresh shoots, which significantly weakens the winter hardiness of kitchen sage.

cut flowers

Cut flowers - yes or no?

The extent to which you cut off the pretty flowers of common sage is your individual decision. If seeding in the bed is not desired, you can enjoy the blaze of color until the black Klaus fruits appear with the seeds. At this point at the latest, cut off the inflorescences until the next healthy pair of leaves.

In this context, it should not be overlooked that the flowering splendor of garden sage affects the aroma of its leaves. If the focus is on the unique enjoyment of herbs and less on Mediterranean blossom magic, ideally cut off budding shoots in early summer. In connection with the last topiary in autumn, we recommend cleaning out the last withered inflorescences. Otherwise, the plant will continue to invest floral energy in the growth of the Klausen fruits until the onset of winter. This applies equally to sage in beds and pots.


Continuity is key

The time window for topiary on sage is open from the beginning of June to the beginning of September. A periodic pruning prevents the vigorous sage from spreading blatantly, causing distress to neighboring plants. If you give the Mediterranean aroma artist free rein to grow, it will quickly take up one to two square meters of bed space. In the pot, the branches gesture in all directions and fall apart over the course of the summer. Furthermore, regular use of the scissors will help you better control detrimental woodiness.

How to expertly cut a sage into shape:

  • between mid-May and mid/end of June all shoots pinch off for compact growth
  • regularly cut back some branches until just before the old wood
  • selectively remove shoots that grow out of the mould

From September you will stop all cutting measures. The remaining twigs and leaves serve as a natural protective wall against frost and permanent winter moisture for the rootstock in the ground. With this moderate pruning, you regulate the growth and degree of woodiness of your sage and strengthen its resistance to the hardships of winter.

crop cut

Important details at a glance

Starting in the second half of May, give hot and cold dishes an inimitable aroma with fresh sage leaves from your own harvest. In order for the Mediterranean herbal plant to fully develop its potential as a culinary building block, the following procedure plays an important role.

  • on the eve of harvest, clean a sage of dust and dirt with a fine spray
  • the best time to harvest is late in the morning
  • Pluck individual leaves or cut herbaceous shoot tips

Sage gives your food special strength and fullness if you harvest the main harvest before the flowering period begins. If the harvest exceeds the daily requirement in the kitchen, bundle the branches and let them dry upside down in a breezy, dark place.

Combined topiary and crop pruning

If the separation between topiary and harvest is not in your interest, sage easily tolerates a combination of both measures. In order to use this variant efficiently, sufficient space should be available for storing larger quantities.

How to do it right:

  • the day before, rinse off the sage plant in the early evening
  • harvest the leaves and shoot tips for fresh consumption in the late morning of the following day
  • If necessary, cut between 2 and 5 branches down to the old wood

The excess clippings can be dried, pickled or frozen. If the quantity far exceeds the need as a fresh culinary herb, use sage leaves to make spicy vinegar, healing throat drops or refreshing jelly.

winter pruning

This keeps your sage young and vital

Sage officinalis does not tolerate a radical pruning well in summer or autumn. A winter pruning provides valuable services to ensure that the spice plant retains its youthful vitality.

With this cut you can:

  • on a frost-free day in late winter, take a pair of sharp, disinfected scissors
  • Cut back all branches to a hand’s breadth above the ground
  • Thin out dead shoots close to the ground

A radical cut into the old wood should be avoided if possible, as the fresh shoots will be delayed and, in the worst case, will be miserable. If you are pursuing the goal of rejuvenation with the winter cut, we therefore recommend a division into 2 stages. In the first year, only cut half of the shrub up to two fingers above the ground and limit yourself to one cut of the other half until just before the old wood. In the second year, radically cut back the over-aged half of the plant and subject the already rejuvenated half of the sage to the normal maintenance pruning described here. The gradual rejuvenation ensures that you never have to go without a sage harvest in any season.

Ornamental Sage Cut

Special case ornamental sage - this is how the pruning succeeds

Sage is not only useful as a spicy kitchen herb. With its magnificent flowering ornamental species, the Mediterranean labiate transforms perennial beds, flower borders and tubs into a summery sea of flowers. The Bund Deutscher Staudengärtner bowed to this extravagant flower magic by choosing the Salvia genus as the perennial plant of the year in 2003. It is obvious that the pruning of ornamental sage takes place under different conditions than the harvesting and shaping of kitchen sage.

How to do it right:

  • Cut back steppe sage and other ornamental sage after the main bloom
  • best time: mid-July to early August
  • Shorten all faded shoots to a hand’s breadth above the ground
  • leave some leaves on the branches

Ornamental sage only retains its slightly tousled appearance for a short time after a replacement cut. The reward for the effort is a beautiful second bloom in September and October. Incidentally, you can get the perennial flowering mood again very quickly if you give some fertilizer and water generously after the summer pruning.

Since ornamental sage does not become woody as a herbaceous perennial, cut the plant down to the ground before the onset of winter. Alternatively, move the pruning to early spring to use the dead shoots as a natural winter coat. Only the withered inflorescences of the autumn rebloom are cleaned out to prevent seeding. In harsh winter locations and in tubs, we recommend winter protection.

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