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closeup of russian sage

How to Grow Russian Sage

When it comes to bloom time, texture, and drought resistance in the ornamental garden, Russian sage is a top-notch performer. Its long clusters of lavender blooms have been known to last up to fifteen weeks in some gardens, and ten weeks is easily achieved with this aromatic woody perennial that starts blooming with the heat of mid-summer.

Russian Sage is a tall plant with an airy, texturally-rich habit, and pairs beautifully with perennials that can match its height and pull out its color, such as coneflowers or tall verbena. It’s a pollinator-magnet and a perfect plant for those areas of poorer soil in your garden. Just make sure that soil is well-drained, Russian sage doesn’t like wet feet during any season!

When & Where to Plant Russian Sage

Russian Sage can be planted in either the early spring or late fall. Choose a sunny site for your plants with soil that is on the grittier side (sandier loam) to promote good drainage and ensure a successful overwintering.

Light: Full sun is recommended for Russian sage. Part sun conditions will cause the plant to become leggier and flop over.

Soil: Russian sage is a terrific choice for poorer soils that are on the rocky side. It does well in alkaline conditions (pH > 7) and does not tolerate boggy, acid soils.

Spacing: Space Russian sage 24” apart at planting time to allow for the eventual wide growth of the plant.

Russian sage is a slow grower and does not spread, creating a woody structure of stems at the base of the plant. At maturity, it can create offsets (‘mini’ plants with partially developed root systems) at its base.

Planting: Plant Russian sage in the early spring or early fall which will allow its roots to develop during the off-season.

russian sage in garden
Russian Sage in Garden

How to Grow Russian Sage Throughout the Season

little spire russian sage
Little Spire Russian Sage is perfect for small gardens due to it's compact form

Growth Habit: Russian sage is a tall plant, 3-5 feet in height with a spread of 2-3 feet. Gray-green foliage is reminiscent of lavender, as is the color of the flowers borne on tall panicles that have an airy, textured feel. Plants create a woody base over time that should be cut back in early spring.

Staking: Though Russian sage is a tall plant, it is not normally staked. Locating it in a very sunny position will create a strong plant that will not flop over.

Watering: Exceptionally drought hardy when mature, Russian sage does require a regular watering schedule during the first year in your garden to ensure a deep, drought-resistant root system. At that time, allow it to dry out between waterings. It should not be overwatered in following years, and will perish in soils that are not well-draining.

Fertilizing: Additional fertilizing is not necessary, though it can benefit from a light top-dressing of compost in the spring.

Mulching: Mulching can be used in the winter to protect vulnerable plants, however mulching is not necessary for Russian sage during the growing season. If mulching is required for aesthetic reasons, mulch lightly and keep mulch away from the crown of the plant. Consider using gravel or creating a gravel garden with other drought tolerant plants.

Trimming & Pruning: Deadheading will not affect bloom time for Russian sage, however it should be cut back each year in early spring to approximately 12-15” above the ground. In the winter landscape it is a visual bonus, offering a ghostly, airy appearance on frosty mornings.

In colder northern climates, the plant may die back completely to the ground and can benefit from being cut back in fall after the first frost and lightly mulched for protection with straw or garden debris.

Russian Sage: End of Season Care

Dividing and Transplanting: With its woody stems and static habit, Russian sage is not a candidate for dividing. If you wish to propagate new plants, either take stem cuttings from shoots in spring or semi-ripe cuttings with a heel in summer; or look for little offsets at the base of the plant and using clippers and a trowel, remove them and replant.

Pests & Disease: There are no major disease or pest problems for Russian sage. The main concern for the gardener is stem or root rot caused by improperly siting the plant in wet conditions.

Overwintering: Gardeners in northern regions may wish to cut the plant back in the fall after the first frost and mulch with straw to protect it over the winter, taking care to ensure that the plant is not in an area that will collect water over the winter – which will kill it. Gardeners in warmer regions can let the plant overwinter as is and cut it back in the early spring.

echinacea and russian sage
Echinacea pairs nicely with Russian Sage

Russian Sage: Extra Info

Companion Plants: Because of the wispy nature of Russian Sage, it is fabulous planted with a flower that can pick up the violet-blue of its many flower panicles, and ‘grow through it, such as Coneflower (Echinacea spp.), globe thistle (Echinops ritro) or tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis). It is also marvelous paired with a tall tawny grass like maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.) or Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), or contrasted with the strong vertical lines of ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora).

Consider planting Russian sage as a ‘hedge’ along a walkway, particularly in a gravel garden, where its color contrasts beautifully with the camel color of average pea gravels. Just make sure to allow plenty of room for expansion, as Russian sage loves to stretch its long arms in the garden.

Additional Uses: The foliage and flowers of Russian sage are aromatic, and have a calming effect upon the nervous system. It is used topically in alternative medicine as a fever reducer, and as a tea.

Bees love the many flowers of Russian sage, and during the summer it is alive with pollinators – so it makes a great addition to a pollinator-friendly garden. For those with gardens by the ocean, Russian sage is a great choice as it is salt-tolerant and thrives on poor soils.

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