Pruning Salvias Hard

We want our gardens to look good, pleasing to eye, whenever possible, but occasions arise when our gardens need tough love.

Right now, in late winter, is one such occasion, particularly for salvias.

Salvias, also called sage, are excellent garden plants in a large and varied family. There are almost 1,000 species of salvias, almost all of which are native to one of three distinct regions: Central and South America, Central Asia and the Mediterranean Basin, and Eastern Asia. A few species are native to the United States.

Salvias are popular garden plants because the genus includes many forms, sizes and blossom colors to choose from, the plants are easy to grow, with few problems with pests and diseases, and drought tolerant. Many salvia blossoms are various shades of red. Here is an example the relatively uncommon Forsythia Sage (Salvia madrensis), native to Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico, with yellow blossoms.

Salvia madrensis

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Salvias do require pruning, which is done best on an annual schedule. If your garden includes a lot of salvias, as does my garden, it is easy to skip a pruning session or two. As often happens, procrastination only postpones the task and does not eliminate the need.

When salvias are not maintained with regular pruning, they grow rangy and produce fewer blossoms. It is worth the effort regular pruning to control the size and shape of the plant, and stimulate blossoming.

There are two broad categories of salvias: perennial woody plants and deciduous soft-stem plants. Popular species in the woody group include Culinary or Purple Sage (S. officinalis), Autumn Sage (S. greggii), Germander Sage (S. chamaedryoides), Texas Sage (S. coccinea), and Baby Sage (S. microphylla). The best times to prune woody salvias, it is said, are lightly after the blooms fade (late spring or early fall, usually), and more heavily just as new growth appears at the base of the plant (late winter or early spring).

Popular plants in the category of soft-stem plants include Mexican Bush Sage (S. leucantha), Pineapple Sage (S. elegans), Brazilian Sage (S. guaranitica), Waverly Sage (S. waverly), and Gentian Sage (S. patens). These plants, which bloom on new growth, should be cut “to the ground” after the flowers have faded, or as new growth appears in the early spring.

When salvias have grown for two or three years without regular pruning, as just might have happened in my own garden, right now is time for rejuvenation pruning, also called catch-up time.

According to some advisors, pruning salvias involves careful planning and time-consuming snipping of individual stems, but when managing forty or fifty overgrown plants, the most practical tool is an electric trimmer, wielded with tough love.

We also shovel-pruned plants that had sprawled to form a large clump, moved larger plants that were encroaching into the pathway, and repositioned several low-growing, blue-flowered Germander Sages to form a border for this large collection of salvias.

Time will tell, but I expect that these plants will recover quickly from this hard pruning, , and respond with a fine new season of growth and blossoming. They are already producing new shoots.

Salvia corrugata, hard-pruned

Salvia corrugata, hard-pruned

If you are managing only a few salvias, you could prune individual stems and produce a more attractive result, but your plants are also likely to respond with a new season of growth and a profusion of flowers. Try a little tough love!

Learning More About Salvias

B. Clebsch. The New Book of Salvias: Sages for Every Garden. Timber Press, 2003.

J. Sutton. The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Salvias. Timber Press, 2004.

Basic Introduction to the Genus, on Wikipedia

Species of the Genus Salvia, from The Plant Encyclopedia

Cabrillo College’s Salvia Chart

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