Salvias (ornamental sage) are a must in the summer garden. They come in a vast range of forms and colours and their nectar-rich flowers are a magnet for bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. They flower for months on end, often from midsummer until the first frosts, and many have aromatic foliage, too. The name ‘salvia’ derives from the Latin salveo, meaning ‘I heal’ or ‘I save’. The culinary herb, Salvia officinalis, was used as a healing plant by Greeks and Romans and is part of part of the huge Salvia genus.
Salvias look good in almost all planting schemes. They look great in a mixed or herbaceous border and are great for underplanting roses – they begin flowering just as the roses are going over and are said to keep mildew and black spot at bay. They also look great in a tropical or exotic planting scheme, alongside dahlias, bananas and cannas. Salvias are ideal for a coastal garden and are often a key plant in a dry garden. They also grow very well in pots, making long-lasting displays on the patio – check out this salvia, euphorbia and pelargonium pot.
The spikes of tubular, lipped flowers come in almost every colour imaginable, from white and pastel pink to deep purples, magenta, scarlet and electric blue. The size and appearance of salvias can vary greatly, and they can be divided into four main types:
Annual salvias such as Salvia farinacea, S. horminum and S. splendens are grown as vibrant summer bedding before being discarded at the end of the season.
Herbaceous perennial salvias such as Salvia nemorosa and Salvia x sylvestris are hardy and come back year after year.
Tender perennial salvias such as Salvia greggii can come back year after year but are not completely hardy and may need protection over winter.
Shrubby salvias such as Salvia x jamensis and Salvia microphylla are sub-shrubs, with woody stems. Most are hardy and some are evergreen in mild winters but they may also need protection in winter.
How to grow salvia
All salvias grow best in full sun, in well-drained soil. Deadhead to prolong flowering. Salvias may be lost over the winter if the soil is very cold and wet, so take cuttings at the end of the summer to insure against winter losses. Alternatively, grow tender varieties in pots and keep in a frost-free spot over winter. Wait until late spring to cut old growth back.
Growing salvia: jump links
- Planting salvia
- Caring for salvia
- Propagating salvia
- Growing salvia: problem-solving
- Where to buy salvia
- Salvia to grow
Where to grow salvia
All salvias thrive in a sunny spot. They need well-drained soil and thrive on stony or poor soils. If you are gardening on heavy clay, you will need to improve the soil before planting. All salvias are likely to die in waterlogged soil in winter.
How to plant salvia
The best time to plant salvias is from late May to early June, after the risk of late frosts has passed. If you buy a plant in autumn, it’s best to keep it it in its pot in a frost-free place and plant it out the following spring to avoid losing it in a cold, wet winter.
- Before planting, trim back the plant a little to encourage sturdy, bushy growth
- On heavy soils, such as clay, add some horticultural grit to the planting hole to improve drainage
- Dig a hole that is the same size as the pot your plant came in. Plant your salvia at the same depth it was in the pot
- Backfill with soil, firm in and water in well
If you’re growing a salvia in a container, plant into peat-free, multipurpose compost with some horticultural grit or sand added for extra drainage. Ensure that the pot has drainage holes at the bottom.
How to care for salvia
Salvias in the ground should get all the moisture they need from rainfall; they are drought tolerant once established. However rain rarely reaches the compost in pots, so salvias growing in containers need watering regularly.
There is no need to feed plants growing in the ground – they will produce foliage at the expense of flowers. Feed salvias in pots from spring to early autumn with a high potash feed such as tomato food.
Deadhead to keep new flowers coming.
In this Golden Rules video, William Dyson of salvia specialist Dyson’s Nurseries reveals his three top tips on growing salvias successfully, including when to water and feed.
Protecting salvias in winter
To ensure that you can enjoy salvias from year to year, take cuttings in late summer.
In mild areas, mulch tender salvias with a 10cm layer of well-rotted manure or garden compost to protect them from frost. In colder areas, lift them as you would dahlias, and overwinter them in pots indoors.
Don’t cut salvias back in autumn – wait until late spring, as the foliage gives a degree of protection from winter frosts. In late spring, cut the plant back to quite low down on the plant, above the fresh shoots that are appearing at the base.
How to take salvia cuttings
Salvia cuttings can be taken in April, August or September. This gives you lots of new plants that you can plant in your garden or give away.
- Remove non-flowering stems that are about 8cm long
- Remove the lower leaves and trim each cutting just below a node
- Insert cuttings into a pot of pre-watered cutting compost
- Cover the pot with a clear plastic bag – try to avoid the bag touching the foliage
- Place cuttings in a cool greenhouse and put up shading to prevent scorching from strong sunlight
- After three weeks, cuttings should be ready to pot on
In this video, Monty Don explains how which salvia shoots make good cuttings, what compost mix they need to root successfully, how to trim the cuttings and the best conditions to aid root development:
Growing salvia: problem solving
Pests and diseases are rarely an issue for salvias. Keeping plants through the winter is the biggest challenge. Plants growing in persistently wet clay soil over winter may die.
Some plants hit by frost in winter may re-emerge from the base in spring – if the plant is showing no signs of re-growth by mid-June, however, it has probably died.
Advice on buying salvia
- Make sure you buy the right salvia for your space – there’s a wide variety to choose from, and some are more hardy than others
- Ensure that you have the right conditions for growing salvias – the vast majority like full sun and well drained soil
- Check your salvia for signs of damage, making sure the leaves are healthy and there are plenty of flower buds
Where to buy salvias online
Great salvias to grow
Salvia ‘Amistad’ is a half-hardy perennial. It is long-flowering and particularly floriferous, with rich-purple flowers. It’s often still blooming when first frosts arrive, and is a good food source for late-season pollinators. Height x Spread: 50cm x 1.2m
Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’
Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ (balkan clary) is a hardy perennial with spires of electric blue flowers in July to early September. Deadhead to prolong flowering.
H x S: 50cm x 50cm
- Buy Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ from Thompson & Morgan
- Buy Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ from Primrose
Salvia x jamensis ‘Hot Lips’
Salvia x jamensis ‘Hot Lips’ is a striking, shrubby salvia with bi-coloured red and white flowers. It is a frost-hardy but may need some winter protection. Other ‘lips’ cultivars are also available, including ‘Amethyst Lips’ and ‘Cherry Lips’. H x S: 60cm x 1m.
Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ (balkan sage)
Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ (also sold as ‘East Friesland’) is a hardy perennial which is extremely popular with pollinators. It bears tall spikes of purple flowers from June to September. H x S: 45cm x 60ccm
Salvia patens (gentian sage)
Few flowers match the vivid blue blooms of Salvia patens, which contrast beautifully with the deep green foliage. It is hardy in mild parts of the UK; in colder areas, mulch or lift the tubers, as with dahlias. Watch out for slugs, which enjoy the young shoots. H x S: 75cm x 50cm
Salvia microphylla ‘Cerro Potosi’
Salvia microphylla ‘Cerro Potosi’ is a hardy, evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves and striking neon-pink flowers from midsummer to late autumn. H x S: 90cm x 75cm.
Salvia x sylvestris ‘Viola Klose’
Salvia x sylvestris ‘Viola Klose’ is a stunning hardy salvia with radiant violet flower spires. It is an excellent alternative to lavender, flowering over a long period. H x S: 50cm x 50cm
Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’
‘Love and Wishes’ has a generous flowering period, usually from June to November. Its rich pink-purple flowers, deep burgundy stems and a tidy growth habit make this a great choice for containers. H x S: 80cm x 50cm
Salvia uliginosa (bog sage)
As its name suggests, this sage prefers a moist (but not waterlogged) soil. This tall plant has clear blue flowers and is a good option for the back of a border. H x S: 2m x 90cm
Salvia x jamensis ‘Nachtvlinder’
Velvety, purple-hooded flowers in summer and autumn. This tender perennial is frost hardy but may need some winter protection.