How to Revive a Dying Sage Plant


Revive dying sage plant

Sage are low-maintenance perennial plants that originate in the Mediterranean region of Europe and are specifically adapted to their environment.

To revive dying sage plants it is important to recreate some of the growing conditions of the Mediterranean with an emphasis on full sun, well-draining, sandy soils, and infrequent watering.

If your sage plant looks as though it is dying, there are several ways you can revive it but it is important to understand what in particular is causing your sage to look unwell.

Identifying why the sage plant requires reviving:

The most frequent reasons for sage plants in need of reviving are…

  • Root rot due to excess moisture around the roots because of overwatering or slow-draining soils.
  • Sage has poor growth with few leaves and without much of an aroma or flavor.
  • Sage dying in a pot due to the pot being too small or a lack of drainage holes in the base.
  • Sage that has turned woody with poor growth due to not pruning annually.
  • Sage plants that do not recover from Winter.

Keep reading to learn how to solve these problems so that your sage plant revives and the leaves have a pronounced aroma and flavor…

Sage Plant with Root Rot

  • Symptoms. Leaves turning yellow, brown, or black with a drooping or wilting appearance. Roots appear dark brown and have a rotten, somewhat slimy texture.
  • Causes. Too much persistent moisture around the roots of the sage due to overwatering, slow draining soils or pots without proper drainage.

Sage is a Mediterranean herb that grows on hillsides and in sandy soil in Southern European countries. Therefore sage is adapted to well-draining soils with relatively infrequent rainfall in blazing sunshine.

Sage is a drought-tolerant plant that prefers the soil to dry out between bouts of watering, however, it is an adaptable plant that can grow in many different climates with some adjustments.

Sage requires watering only once every two weeks if the weather has been overcast and with perhaps some rainfall. Do not water sage if the soil is somewhat moist.

Water sage about once per week in hot weather if it is planted in a pot. In a lot of temperate climates, sage that is planted in garden borders often does not require any additional water.

Sage is a drought-resistant plant that thrives on neglect, so remember, there are more problems (such as root rot) because of overwatering than underwatering.

Sage prefers a soak and dry style of watering with a generous amount of water which stimulates the roots to establish, followed by a drought for 1 or 2 weeks.

Revive Sage Plants with Root Rot

  • The first thing to do is to scale back the watering to once per week in hot weather and once every two weeks during mild weather. Only water sage during Spring, Summer, and Fall, and only if the soil is dry.
  • With a garden fork, gently lift the sage plant out of the ground if possible and inspect the roots. Snip off any infected roots that are soft, dark brown, slimy, and infected, and snip off any brown foliage. Sterilize the pruners after each cut (with a cloth soaked in alcohol disinfectant) to prevent the spread of fungal disease and burn any infected parts of the plant.
  • Replant the sage in a pot (as you can control the soil profile) with new soil (as the old soil will be host to the fungal disease that causes root rot). Add at least 20% horticultural sand or grit with new multipurpose compost for the optimal soil mix so that it is well-draining to give the roots a chance to recover.
Sandy soil for sage

Re-planting the sage in new soil with improved drainage and scaling back the watering allows the roots to dry out which gives the sage the best chance of recovery from root rot and the plant should revive over the next few weeks (depending on the severity of the root rot).

If your garden soil has a high clay content or is perhaps boggy and low lying then it is not suitable for growing sage as clay retains moisture around the roots which promotes the conditions for root rot.

However, you can still grow sage and other Mediterranean herbs successfully in pots, containers, or raised beds as you can easily amend the soil and pots have far more favorable drainage conditions which sage plants prefer.

By amending the soil before transferring the sage to a pot you are essentially replicating the sandy soil conditions of the sage’s native environment which prevents root rot and keeps the plant healthy.

Also remember to locate sage in full sun and plant sage around 2 feet or more apart from other plants for the roots to establish properly in the soil without having to compete for space, water, and light.

With the appropriate well-draining soil and watering schedule the sage should start to show signs of reviving in 3-4 weeks.

Sage is not Growing

  • Symptoms. Sage is either growing very slowly or not at all with few leaves, poor fragrance, and not much taste.
  • Causes. Lack of sun, competing for nutrients with other plants, or sage plants being in the same pot, and has exhausted the nutrients of the soil.

Sage is a low-maintenance plant that does not require a lot of care and attention.

However, it is important to ensure some of the growing conditions emulate their native Mediterranean conditions to keep the plant growing with fragrant, leaves with great flavor.

Sage grows in soils that are medium to low in nutrients with a high sand or stone content.

Therefore sage plants are not heavy feeders in terms of nutrients and a lot of cases, sage does not require any additional fertilizer in garden soil.

However, when sage is planted in pots it is possible the plant has exhausted the nutrients in the container and requires some additional nitrogen fertilizer to grow.

Also, sage is adapted to blazing sunshine in the Mediterranean so it does not grow well if it is shaded for most of the day.

How to Revive Sage Plants that Are Not Growing

  • Locate the sage in full sun for better growth and a stronger fragrance and flavor from the leaves. If the sage is planted in garden borders, consider cutting back overhanging plants or trees that may be depriving your sage of light or transfer the sage to a pot and place it in full sun.
  • Ensure that the sage has enough space by planting it around 2-3 feet from other plants. With extra space, the sage does not have to compete with other plant’s root systems for space in the soil, water, or nutrients not to mention light.
  • Sage that has been planted in the same pot for a long time may require some fertilizer. Apply a half-strength, all-purpose fertilizer in the Spring to stimulate the growth of new leaves. Too much fertilizer will cause the sage to produce abundant foliage but there will be a lower concentration of essential oils, so the leaves will not be as fragrant or have the same pronounced flavor.

Sage is a Mediterranean herb and the more you can recreate the growing conditions of its native environment the better it will grow.

In full sun sage will grow more and the leaves taste much better. Whilst sage is not a heavy feeder, it does tend to grow in open areas and does not like competition for space, light, or nutrients in the soil from other plants.

Sage actually has a preference for soils that are not overly rich in nutrients so adding fertilizer can often be the determinant of the aroma and flavor of the leaves.

However, sage that has been in the same, pot, container, or raised bed for a long time may be deprived of nitrogen or other trace minerals.

A half-strength fertilizer should stimulate the healthy growth of leaves however too much will do more harm than good and turn the leaves yellow and leggy so do not apply too much.

(To learn more read my article why has my sage plant turned yellow?)

Also, it is best practice to apply fertilizer to sage in the Spring, however, you can apply it later in the season during the summer months if necessary, but if you apply it after August then you will stimulate new growth which will be much more vulnerable to the cold (sage is not a particularly cold-hardy plant generally).

Water the sage appropriately for your climate and with more space, full sun, and perhaps some fertilizer, your sage plant should begin to grow and revive in 2-3 weeks.

Sage Dying in Pots or Containers

  • Symptoms. Poor growth, drooping, or wilting appearance with leaves that are turning yellow or brown.
  • Causes. The pot is too small so the pots dries out quickly or the roots become pot-bound. Sage requires pots with drainage holes in the base to avoid root rot.

Sage plants grow very well in pots and containers because of the favourable drainage conditions however it is important to plant sage in an appropriate pot or the sage can suffer.

If the pot is too small the soil can dry out in the sun, too quickly for the sage to uptake enough water which causes poor growth and the plant to wilt.

(To learn more specifically about wilting sage plants and what to do, read my article on why sage plants wilt).

A pot that is too small also has less capacity for soil and therefore nutrients so sage can suffer from a nitrogen deficit.

Decorative pots sometimes do not have drainage holes in the base and excess water collects in the pot which causes root rot.

The use of drip trays is common for sage that is grown indoors. Drip trays also collect water which causes persistently damp soil and can cause an increase in the risk of root rot which turns sage brown or yellow.

How to Revive Dying Sage Plants in Pots

  • Ensure that your sage plant is in a pot or container with some drainage holes in the base and avoid using a drip tray so excess water can escape and the soil can dry.
  • Re-pot the sage plant into a bigger pot as it grows. At maturity, sage should be in a pot around 12-16 inches across to accommodate the root system and ensure there are enough nutrients in the soil. Larger pots do not dry out as quickly which prevents the soil from drying out for the sage’s roots to uptake water.
  • A general all-purpose fertilizer at half strength can help to stimulate growth in potted sage that is deprived of nutrients.

If the sage is wilting and the leaves are turning yellow then you should transfer it to a pot with drainage holes and amend the soil with sand or grit to improve the drainage.

This will allow the roots to dry out and give the sage a chance to recover. If there is significant brown foliage then the sage most likely has root rot and you should follow the same steps pertaining to root rot.

(Read my article to learn more about how to solve sage plants that are turning brown).

Smaller pots limit the growth of your sage with less access to water and nutrients so it is always a good idea to re-pot your sage every year or so (in the Spring) to a larger pot which also prevents the soil from drying too quickly and more soil insulates the roots more from cold weather.

Sage that is planted in a pot of around 12-16 inches across, with drainage holes in the base and soil amended with sand or grit should give the plant a good chance at reviving and growing well.

If growth is particularly poor then try a half-strength, all-purpose fertilizer in the Spring to stimulate growth.

However, sage is adapted to growing in soils that are low to medium in nutrients and if the sage is planted in an appropriately sized pot then there is often it does not require any fertilizer.

Sage that has gone Woody and Leggy

  • Symptoms. Sage that has woody stems that are not producing much new growth and look untidy.
  • Causes. A sage plant that has not been pruned annually.

Sage, lavender, and rosemary are all woody sub-shrubs from the Mediterranean and all require annual pruning either at the start of Spring or in the Fall, to stimulate growth and to slow down the woody growth from the base which does not produce as much leaf or new stem.

Sage does turn progressively woody over time but annually pruning the sage slows down the formation of growth and keeps the plant looking tidy.

This will help to increase the sage’s longevity (note sage often only grows flavourful leaves for 3 years). Neglecting an annual prune results in a woody plant that requires reviving.

How to Revive Woody Sage Plants

Woody sage can be difficult to revive if it has not been pruned for many years however if it has only been neglected for a short time then it is possible to revive with some careful pruning.

The key is to avoid pruning the sage back into the woody growth at the base of the plant as this woody part that is more than a year old does not support much new growth and a harsh prune can kill the sage.

Prune just above any emerging leaves at the start of spring (which will stimulate more stems to support more leaves) and try to prune sage into a mound shape so that the new growth is even and the plant is not as leggy.

Watch this YouTube video for a great visual guide on how to prune woody sage:

If the sage is too leggy and produces very little growth in terms of new leaves then you can either pull it up and replace the sage or take cuttings from the healthy part of the plant and propagate them.

Propagating sage from cuttings is fairly simple and can be done without hormone root powder or any special equipment.

The best time to take cuttings is in the Spring and Summer and you can have more salvage your original sage plants with new smaller plants which is much more cost effective.

Here is a video for how to propagate sage for cuttings:

How to Revive Sage after Winter

Sage is adapted to the Mediterranean and requires mild Winters therefore it is not the most cold-hardy of plants (USDA Zone 5-9) and often dies because of frost damage.

Sage that has been left outside in Winter with freezing temperatures is vulnerable to the cold so the key in colder climates is to plant sage in pots and containers and bring the plant indoors.

Place the sage on a sunny window sill when the temperatures start to go below 10ºC (50ºF) in your home or perhaps a garage to protect the plant, or you can treat the perennial sage as if it were an annual and buy a new plant or propagate the sage from cutting if you do not have room to store your sage plant over Winter.

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason why sage needs reviving is usually because of root rot, woody growth, the wrong type of pot or container or the sage is not growing due to a lack of nutrients or Winter damage.
  • To revive sage with root rot you need to cut away any diseased part of the roots or foliage, scale back the watering, and plant it in new, well-draining soil mix, in a pot.
  • Sage that is not growing properly often requires re-potting to a larger pot and the use of a weak fertilizer in the Spring can stimulate some growth. Ensure pots have drainage holes in the base.
  • Sage that has turned woody requires a good prune to stimulate new growth and slow down the formation of wood which does not support leaves. Prune back each branch to the nearest new growth in the early Spring to keep the plant tidy.
  • Sage is susceptible to frost damage in Winter so plant sage in pots and bring them indoors if you live in a cold climate, otherwise, they are hard to revive after Winter.

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