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Finding plants that can not only cope in dry, poor soils, but will thrive, is the quest of many gardeners trying to plant ecologically sustainable landscapes that need a minimum of care. Russian sageshould be very near the top of that list for all that it adds to the landscape – color, texture, pollinators and presence. Though it isn’t a native plant, it is not invasive and will stay where you plant it for many years – as long as you give it the well-drained conditions it needs.
The Latin genus name, Perovskia is one that many gardeners enjoy learning, as it seems to impart an immediate Russian accent to the speaker, and virtually trips off the tongue. That name commemorates a 19th century Russian general, and not as many think, the country itself.
Russian Sage is native to Central Asia through to the Himalayas, and is therefore a lover of dry, rocky sites and alkaline soils – a terrific choice for the water-conscious gardener.
The almost shrub-like habit of Russian Sage gives it a unique presence in the landscape. Use it to create a backdrop for other traditional garden flowers to grow through it in garden beds, or to stand as a hedge or small shrub in its own right, providing an airy texture and cottagey feel to heavier plantings.
The biggest enemy of Russian Sage is wet feet. It doesn’t tolerate those conditions during the growing season and will stumble along weakly, often succumbing to root rot. In the winter, these conditions are an absolute death sentence – rotting the roots and destroying the plant.
If you have heavy clay soil, it is important to amend it with plenty of grit and organic matter to increase the draining capabilities of the site.
There are many options for building your soil up and creating great drainage for other xeriscape plants. Bringing in sandy or gritty soil and creating small ‘hills’ of earth for planting can create visual interest in the landscape AND create the drier conditions you need. Another option is to dig a traditional hole for the plant and refill with gritty soil – planting the Russian sage halfway out of the hole and building more soil up and around it by eighteen inches or so to protect the roots and keep it up and out of the heavier surrounding soil.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that plants will need a regular watering schedule during their first season in your garden. Let the soil dry out between waterings and then water deeply, encouraging roots to go deep into the soil.
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Russian Sage is an excellent plant for gardeners who do not have much time to maintain their gardens, as it does not spread, doesn’t need deadheading or dividing, and needs minimal care at the end of the season. For those in cold northern climates (Zone 5), it is a good idea to cut it back at the end of the season and cover with a light, free-draining mulch of straw or garden debris to protect the roots.
In warmer zones, the plant can be allowed to stay as a garden ornament throughout the winter – filtering light through frosted, wispy stems. In early spring before it has broken its dormancy, cut it back to 12-15” above ground.
You’ll find that over time a woody base develops, which makes Russian Sage a difficult plant to divide. If you wish to make more plants on your own, take cuttings of new shoots in the spring and use a rooting hormone with damp vermiculite as a rooting medium.
In summer, you can take semi-ripe shoots with a heel (grasp the shoot and pull down and away from the plant, pulling off a small “heel” at the bottom of the cutting). These are also rooted with hormone and vermiculite. Offsets are often formed at the edges of parent plants which can be severed and replanted to increase or replace stock.
Its size places it squarely in the middle of the classic perennial border and its wispy flower clusters pair beautifully with traditional flowers that will find their way through and around it, such as sea hollies or globe thistles. Planting several together in a gravel garden is another strong way of making a statement without much work on the gardener’s part!
Paired with grasses, Russian Sage can give the garden a wilder, more naturalistic look, and is a terrific way of planting larger areas with strong repetition and texture.
In addition, Russian Sage makes a great hedge and contrasts sharply with the tawny colors of gravel pathways, giving a Mediterranean feel to the garden. Care must be taken to give this plant plenty of room however; it is not a demure wallflower and will stretch out in a diameter of up to three feet.
When you’ve got a plant that gives you tons of design options, attracts pollinators, loves poor soil and yet makes the gardener’s maintenance life easier – you’ve got a great plant. Russian Sage well-deserves its place in gardens all over the world.
About the Author: Marianne Willburn is a columnist, blogger and author of the new book "Big Dreams, Small Garden: Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space." Originally from California, she now gardens in Virginia – read more at www.smalltowngardener.com.
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