Sage advice for your water-wise garden

With the ongoing drought and escalating water costs, more and more people are opting to substitute water-wise plants for thirsty ones. In many cases, they are choosing as replacements native plants, the kind that have grown in the area for time untold.

Here in Claremont, using plants that reflect the local chaparral ecosystem—most of which thrive in full sun and dry rocky soil—can help residents establish a sense of place.

Whether you are tearing out your lawn entirely, using a landscaping company or elbow grease to go native all at once, or changing out your water-wasteful garden bit-by-bit, sage is a great place to start.

Sages are members of the genus Salvia in the mint family. They are hardy and adaptive, requiring little water and, once established, minimal care. These evergreens are attractive as well as practical, with felt-like leaves and blooms that come in a spectrum of colors including white, purple, pink and indigo.

Sage complements area architecture as well as the natural environment according to Emily Green, an LA Times gardening writer. “The silvers, grays and greens of its foliage anchor the local Craftsman color wheel,” she noted in a 2009 column.

Peter Evans, director of horticulture at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, recently took the COURIER on a tour of the sage that proliferates at the RSABG, one of the premier resources on California native plants.

Specimens examined included those growing in an exhibit called  “The Secrets of Sage: Container Garden,” on view at the Garden through July 5. Other stands of sage—including white and black sage, purple sage, Cleveland sage, hummingbird sage and bees’ bliss—can be seen in the California Cultivar Garden as well as throughout the botanic garden’s 86-acre campus.

As the names of the two latter varieties indicate, cultivating sage helps provide a habitat for area wildlife. “Throughout California, the nectar of sages is an important food resource for bees and hummingbirds. These animal visitors in turn pollinate the flowers,” a recent Garden release notes.

Mr. Evans counts himself as a sage enthusiast: “You could plant an entire garden out of sage, with all of the different colors and textures.”

Sage also varies in height, which can make for vertical interest in a garden. A stand of desperado sage, a hybridized mixture of white and purple sage with purple flowers, is currently growing on a path near the container garden display. It has reached a height of nine feet. A sage like bees’ bliss, by contrast, is a good groundcover because it never exceeds two feet. 

The scent of sage, which runs the gamut from fruity to minty to woodsy to medicinal, adds to the aesthetic appeal, so much so that it has long been used as incense. Native American people and those who draw inspiration from American Indian spirituality often dry and bundle sage—particularly white sage—and then burn it to purify or bless people and places.

Ms. Green waxed positively poetic on sage’s fragrance. “Many gardens go without sage in California but at the cost of soul. Sage is to the West what lavender is to France. Sage has it all: Its pungent aromas contain the signature scent of the Western chaparral.”

As if sage needed any further recommendations, it can also be used in cooking. Most people use common garden sage, which is native to Europe, in the kitchen. An increasing number of people, however, are experimenting with recipes employing California native sages. Andrew Chambers, who helps run RSABG’s Grow Native Nursery, is among these intrepid chefs.

Mr. Chambers cultivates native plants when he is off-duty, too. He opts for container gardening, often in simple, five-gallon pots, because he is a renter. His home collection includes Salvia “Allen Chickering,” a dense shrub that can grow to five feet tall and which he says is quite flavorful. He is currently perfecting a pesto that substitutes sage for basil and sunflower seeds for pine nuts.

Mr. Chambers related a number of tips for growing sage in containers. Pea gravel mulch can prevent water from evaporating while adding an attractive component to the display. “It dresses it up a little,” he said.

Mr. Chambers advises that you avoid using bark mulch, because it can retain too much moisture. “Sages like to get wet, then dry out,” he explained.

The biggest challenge of growing sage in containers is monitoring the water level. When a sage plant gets thirsty, the top of its stems tend to droop. If it is morning and your plants are already drooping, you’ll want to water your sage. If the wilting occurs during the heat of the day and your plants have been watered recently, you may want to bide your time.

Mr. Chambers will share more advice on Saturday, April 25 from 10 to 11 a.m. at a free workshop, held in the Grow Native Nursery, called Container Gardening With Native Plants. Register online at the Garden’s website,, by clicking the learn/explore tab and selecting “Community Education.”

Fall is the best time for planting sage in the ground, Mr. Evans said. However, hummingbird sage, one of the few varieties that likes a bit of shade, will do just fine if planted now.

You can purchase all of the sages displayed, as well as those growing throughout the Garden, at the Grow Native Nursery. Offerings at the nursery range in price from $1 to 32. A little can go a long way. Hummingbird sage, for instance, spreads like grass through rhizomes.

Mr. Chambers, who previously worked as part of the California Conservation Corps, said his post at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden lets him educate people about the proper stewardship of nature.

“Sometimes it might be tempting to take a cutting home when you find sage in the wild,” Mr. Chambers said. “From a conservation point, it’s better to grow it yourself.

Between the exhibit, the Grow Native Nursery and the Garden’s extensive grounds, RSABG is a great place to learn about sage as well as companion plants. These are species that enjoy the same dry conditions as sage and provide a perfect visual counterpoint, like apricot mallow and pitcher sage, which contrary to its name is not an actual sage.

Thinking of taking some sage advice and putting in plants that are indigenous to the area?

“Spend an hour or two in the garden to get ideas,” Mr. Chamber urges. “All of the plants are tagged and you can find what you need in the nursery.”

Not only will you be making a move towards sustainability, but your yard will have a contemporary look, according to Mr. Evans. “Plants go in an out of fashion. California natives are the new fashion,” he said.

This weekend, RSABG is hosting its annual Wildflower Show, free with Garden admission, on Saturday, April 18 and Sunday, April 19. The event continues with a Wildflower Show Senior Day on Monday, April 20, with free Garden admission and complimentary walking and tram tours for guests over age 65.

The Wildflower Show offers visitors a chance to view southern California wildflowers, gently collected and brought indoors and take guided walking tours. It’s also a great time to view the Secrets of Sage exhibit.

The Grow Native Nursery is open from Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, email or call  (909) 625-8767, ext. 404. The RSABG is located at 1500 N. College Ave.

—Sarah Torribio


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