The sage garden
by AMY STEWART
NOW THAT SPRING IS HERE, I CAN'T RESIST putting some new plants in the ground. Most perennials do better if they are planted in the fall and get to spend the winter putting down roots before warm weather invites them to bloom, but there's something counterintuitive about this scheme. To me, fall is the time to prune, yank out dead annuals, and mulch. By October or November, I'm ready for a break from the garden and I just can't get excited about new plants. Besides, the selection at the nursery starts to dwindle around that time.
But in spring, the temptation to run down to the nursery and buy enough plants to keep myself occupied all weekend long is irresistible. There are plenty of empty spots in my garden waiting to be filled. And now that the farmers' market has started, there are even more plants around to tempt me.
This year, I'm going to focus on adding more salvias (sages) to my garden. They're drought-tolerant, they attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees, and they don't require any maintenance other than a light pruning after they bloom. I've never seen a salvia with a pest infestation or a disease, and they actually prefer little or no fertilizer. Some of the long flower spikes even make good cut flowers. Oh -- and you can eat some varieties. So what's not to like?
Here are a few interesting salvias to look for in the nursery this spring:
Salvia clevelandii, or Cleveland sage: Native to southern California, this plant grows into a lovely mounding shrub about 5 feet wide and 3 to 5 feet tall. It produces whorls of lavender flowers that bloom in summer. This is a great salvia for hillsides, where it can withstand strong winds and deer.
Salvia mexicana, "Limelight" or Mexican sage: Don't confuse this plant with S. leucantha, or Mexican bush sage, a widely grown salvia with narrow leaves and velvety purple and white flower spikes. Mexican sage has a more upright habit and its leaves are heart-shaped. I particularly like the "Limelight" cultivars because the purple-blue flowers emerge from chartreuse calyces. This makes it a striking cut flower even when the blue blossoms themselves have dropped from the plant. It can grow over 8 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.
Salvia spathacea, also called crimson sage, pitcher sage or hummingbird sage: This is another California native, and you might have to visit a native plant nursery to find it, but you'll be glad you did. The flowers are often described as "beetroot-purple," and the calyces themselves are a dark red, which makes the plant quite ornamental even when it is not in bloom. It is a low-growing plant, reaching up to 3 feet at the most, and it puts out creeping rhizomes to form a dense mat.
Salvia confertiflora (no common name): This salvia is getting more popular and easy to find each season, for good reason -- it produces velvety spikes of deep red flowers similar to those of Mexican bush sage. The plant blooms in autumn and stands 4 to 6 feet tall, spreading to about the same width.
If you'd like to expand your salvia repertoire, here are a couple of books to get you started. If you see a variety you like, contact your favorite local nursery first and see if they can special-order it for you. If they can't, both books list a number of specialty nurseries that offer salvia for sale.
The New Book of Salvias: Sages for Every Garden, by Betsy Clebsch (Timber Press, 2003). This is an expanded and revised edition of the 1997 book by the same title. As soon as the first edition was released, it became the classic salvia reference book. The new edition is even better, with more photographs, beautiful illustrations, and the inclusion of 50 more plants. Salvia are indexed according to the season in which they flower, cold tolerance, country of origin and color. Although there is not a section on garden design, Clebsch includes suggestions for plant combinations with almost every salvia she describes.
The Sage Garden: Flowers and Foliage for Health and Beauty, by Ann Lovejoy (Chronicle Books, 2001). This is a lovely little book on salvias by an author who is well-respected for her knowledge of organic gardening, garden design and Pacific Northwest gardening. Although she does not list as many salvias as Clebsch does, she does include useful sections on using sage for cooking and for making beauty products like toners and lotions.
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College of the Redwoods is hosting its 13th Annual Plant Sale on Friday, April 25, from 12 to 6 p.m. and Saturday, April 26, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The sale is held on the CR campus (7351 Tompkins Hill Road, Eureka); just follow the signs. They'll be offering a wide selection of annuals, perennials, vegetables, culinary herbs and houseplants. I went to the sale last year, and I was pleased to see such a wide variety of interesting and unusual plants. Refreshments are served and tours of the agricultural program's facility are offered (proceeds go to support the program).
E-mail garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.
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