The Dry Garden: Go forth and boldly prune those sages
Last spring, horticulturist Lili Singer remarked to me that one of the most touching mistakes she sees made by novice dry gardeners is timidity in pruning their sages. And so, in the summer edition of the Theodore Payne Foundation’s Poppy Print newsletter, she nudges native gardening converts to do it.
With thanks to Lili for the push, I am going to echo the prompt in this column in the hope that others may learn to work out their frustrations on their gardens in such a timely fashion.
If it seems late, it isn’t. Only the most ferociously organized gardeners dead-head sage as soon as the flowers fade in June. Watching the flush of flowers drying on the branch through July and August makes for too many sunset grace notes. As Lili notes, birds move in and glean the seeds. Yet by late August, those fluttering elegies to spring just look dead, and it’s as obvious to the most laissez faire gardener as it is to the fire marshal that it is time to prune.
How hard to cut back sage depends on the species. Salvia apiana I leave alone until the inflorescences begin to go black, then I cut them to the first live joint. Experts far more expert than I recommend deeper cuts to achieve a dense, round and bush-like form the following year. If space demands, do this. But I love this plant precisely because of a habit that yawns and stretches, and only cut vividly dead or dying old flower stalks. Passing dogs and kids then knock limbs off and contribute to the shaping process.
By contrast, if it is looking leggy and ragged, Mexican sage can be and should be cut almost to the ground – leaving 6 inches to a foot or so of stalk and some flowers to placate the angry hummingbirds (take those off after the cut branches recover).
Salvia greggii and its brittle-limbed ilk, whose spring clouds of fragrant foliage and flowers now look like a mass of kindling, benefit from two passes with the pruners. The first should reduce and shape the crown. The second should get at the tangle of old undergrowth, removing dead wood and getting out any grasses and weeds near the trunk.
Mediterranean kitchen sage and its wild California cousins such as S. Clevelandii will tell you where to trim. Old, dark inflorescences should go. Ditto deadwood. Once the flowers are removed, think of it as a woody shrub rather than an herb. Reduce, thin and shape it, but avoid severing main branches. Do not under any circumstances stump these plants as one might a Mexican sage, unless of course you are trying to kill it.
Two flamboyant Mediterranean sages often seen in California are Jerusalem and Canary Island sage. My Jerusalem sage generally gets reduced by half, cut to the point where I can see new foliage starting, then it’s thinned and cleaned up. I love the look of this plant, but compared with natives, it’s got mediocre wildlife value here in California. What saves it from removal every year is a long show of yellow flowers and handsome foliage that make it a handsome sentinel almost year round.
No sage gets the pruning hand itching quite like Salvia canariensis. When Canary Island sage flowers in June and July, its mauve to purple flowers are glorious, but in a single season, this plant is perfectly capable of growing to 8 feet tall and becoming just as wide. When cutting, it will need reducing by two-thirds, even three-fourths, which can leave a large gap 10 months of the year.
If you want to remove it, now is the time to do it. The last of mine is about to have its swan song this year, leaving a large and tantalizing gap to put a better-proportioned, more fragrant and nectar-licious native in its stead come fall planting season.
-- Emily Green
Photos: Top: Black sage flower. Middle: white sage and ceanothus in need of pruning, in front of sunset palms. Bottom: Cleveland sage flowers that were purple for most of the summer, then provided seed for birds and are ready for pruning. Photos by Emily Green.