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Bold Salvias for Pollinators

Salvia leucantha is a late-season bloomer with long, purplish wands of flowers visited by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Many Salvia species and varieties, whether annual or perennial, are tall, bold, and bloom continuously throughout summer or fall. Their flowers are favored by most pollinators, especially hummingbirds. An additional inviting fact: quite a few species are North American natives.

I have grown salvias in my garden for over 30 years, and annually plant favorites while seeking new varieties each year. When choosing new salvias, I look for brightly colored, low-maintenance options known to attract pollinators. Most require full sun, average soil with good drainage, and occasional deadheading. With good care, they should perform admirably into the fall months.

Mexican Bush Sage

Santa Barbara Mexican bush sage is a popular purple-flowered form.

Expect Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) to start blooming in late summer or early fall. The Mexican native has silvery strappy leaves, an upright habit, and wands of fuzzy flowers of purple, magenta, or silvery white. The plants thrive in warm weather and will tolerate moderate drought once established. A common variety with strong color is the purple-flowered ‘Santa Barbara’.

Salvia Rockin’® Blue Suede Shoes

One Rockin® Blue Suede Shoes plant will fill a large pot. (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

The award-winning Salvia Rockin’® Blue Suede Shoesfrom Proven Winners is a sensational cultivated hybrid of the 4-5 foot blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica), another plant worth growing. The cultivar has won awards and accolades for one good reason; its solid garden performance. The bushy, 3-foot plants bloom nonstop in hot summer weather and will continue to flower until frost. No deadheading is required of these self-cleaning plants.

Tall Scarlet Sage

The flowers of ‘Van Houttei’ scarlet sage are a darker shade of red than the species. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The old-fashioned Van Houtte Scarlet Sage (Salvia splendens ‘Van Houttei’, Zones 7-9, 3-4 feet) was first introduced in the 1800s and continues to be planted today. Its flowers are darker red than average, and the stems are taller than most scarlet sage varieties. Provide full sun and deadhead regularly for nonstop summer flowering.

Tall Orange Sage

Skyscraper™ Orange is a personal favorite. (Image thanks to the Ball® Seed Company)

Here is a salvia I’d like to see more of in gardens: Skyscraper™ Orange Salvia (S. buchananii x S. splendens Skyscraper™ Orange, Zones 10-11, 2-2.5 feet) from the Ball® Seed Company. It is a real beauty with spires of orange-red flowers that bloom all summer and fall. The blooms are profuse on the 2019 Classic City Award winner (University of Georgia garden trials). I try to plant one every year!

Texas Sage

A ruby-throated hummingbird visits the flowers of Texas sage.

The Texas and Mexican native Texas sage (Salvia greggii, Zones 6-10, 2-3 feet) is a bushy perennial with bright red flowers first appearing in the late summer. Bees and hummingbirds enjoy the blooms. There are many cultivated varieties available in traditional red as well as pink and white hues. A favorite is the choice, ever-so-lovely Teresa’s Texas Sage (Salvia greggii ‘Teresa’) with its pale pink and white flowers.

As the plant’s origins suggest, Texas sage tolerates hot, dry weather once the plants are established in the garden. Excess soil moisture can kill them, so plant yours on high ground.

Pineapple Sage

Golden Delicious pineapple sage (background) has bright fragrant foliage all summer and brilliant red fall flowers (inset). (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

Golden Delicious pineapple sage (Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’) has the benefits of delightfully colorful foliage through summer and spikes of scarlet flowers in the fall. Expect migrating hummingbirds to visit the blooms. The unflagging plants thrive in hot summer weather, and the decorative leaves smell of minty pineapple.

Wendy’s Wish Sage

Wendy’s Wish (Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’, Zones 9-10, 3-4 feet) has long, slender stems of tubular, magenta-pink flowers. It is a favorite in my garden and invites hummingbirds and bees by the dozens. I place mine in the back of the border alongside my favorite tiger-striped canna, ‘Striata‘.

Salvia and Pollinators

A black swallowtail acrobatically feeds on the flowers of a Texas sage.

All flowering sages are pollinator-friendly. Salvia flowers are most favored by bees and hummingbirds because their blooms are easily landed upon by visiting bees or fed upon by hovering hummingbirds. Nonetheless, the occasional butterfly may also manage to visit the flowers for nectar (image above).

Any of these salvias will grow beautifully in a sunny location with sharply drained, average to fertile soil amended with Natural & Organic Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. Their imposing heights make them most suitable as back-of-the-border plants or specimens in large pots. All mix beautifully with tall, airy ornamental grasses. Deadhead plants as their blooms begin to fade, and enjoy.

Essential Culinary Herbs of the Seasons

Essential culinary herbs are best planted in spring.

Stylish and serviceable herb gardens are a delight through the growing season when they appeal to the eye and senses and provide fresh herbs. In winter, stores of dried and frozen herbs make cooking a pleasure. If you don’t already have a culinary herb garden, you are missing out. And, there’s no reason not to grow one. Essential culinary herbs are the easiest plants in a food gardener’s repertoire.

Every culture relies on essential herbs to flavor its foods. In past blogs, we have written about French herb gardens, Indian herb gardens, herbal tea gardens, herb containers, lemon-scented herbs, and apothecary gardens, but oddly enough, we have never written about growing herbs essential to Western cuisine. These are the common (and pricy) herbs that homeowners buy at the grocery store (even though they grow like weeds). Herbs are yawn and water garden plants unless you want to make a show and create a formal herbary or knot garden.

Essential Herbs of Spring

Chives are lightly oniony and very springy. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The first chives of spring are so bright and welcome when added to fresh vegetables and salads, as are the tender leaves of parsley when they begin to unfurl and are at their sweetest. Fine cilantro and dill–both cool-season annuals–are two other spring herbs no garden should be without. In late spring, count on chamomile to produce its sweet daisies that are harvested and dried to make delicious, soothing tea to enjoy year-round. These are the spring herb essentials.

Chamomile

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8): Chives put forth tidy clusters of oniony, grassy foliage in spring. Pompons of edible mauve flowers bloom in mid-spring, rising above the upright foliage. Harvest them fresh, when they are most flavorful. In summer, chives wane in the heat but will often perk back up in fall.

Chamomile (Matricaria retutica, Zones 2-8) is a winter annual or short-lived perennial to sow in fall. It will overwinter as a ferny green rosette and then bloom in full glory with a flurry of small white daisies in spring. Harvest the flowers for drying when they just begin to open. Allow some plants to set seed to encourage new fall seedlings.

Cilantro

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a leafy annual that likes it cool and starts producing stems of white flowers and seeds as the weather heats up. But, that’s a good thing because its seedheads, which dry by summer, are crushed to make the spice coriander. Harvest the leaves while you can for guacamole, salads, and salsas. Also, consider cilantro a fall herb to seed in no later than early September.

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a true spring annual herb that you only need to plant once. Harvest the ferny green leaves to flavor salads, spreads, and pickles, and

Dill

let the yellow-green umbel flowerheads dry for flavorful dill seed. Let some seeds fall to the ground and sprout for a second dill harvest in the fall.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) comes in curly and flat-leaved forms and lends fresh flavor to sauces, salads, and meats. Lush clumps of parsley leaves flourish in the cool spring weather and give way to flowering in the heat of summer, after which the plants die. If you replant parsley in the fall, it will often survive through winter.

Essential Herbs of Summer

Oregano continues to stay green and flavorful until frost.

Sweet basil tastes like summer–whether used to flavor sauce, pesto or added to a citrusy summer drink. Mints of all kinds grow rampantly and need containment, but every gardener should have at least one pot of good mint. Thymes, especially lemon thyme, is a summer staple at my home that lends itself well to chicken, fish, salads, and vegetables. Oregano and piney rosemary are necessities for grilled meats and vegetables. These are the summer herb essentials.

Basil

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a warm-season herb that’s grown as an annual. The key to keeping it sweet and flavorful is to clip off the flower heads as they appear. Grow it in the garden or in containers. (See the video below to learn how to care for container-grown basil.), and clip the leaves all summer to keep plants tidy and flavorful. (Click here to learn how to grow basil indoors in winter.)

Mint (Mentha spp.) leaves flavor summer mojitos, tabouli, and fresh mint tea. The plant is so easy to grow you can plunk a stem in a glass of water, and it will root in a week. Its aggressive nature is a mint’s only downfall. One seemingly harmless plant can take over a garden in no time, so plant it in a big pot filled with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil to keep its roots from roaming. When it starts to

Mint

outgrow the pot, divide it, and give the spare to a friend (with fair warning).

Oregano (Origanum vulgare, Zones 4-10) has rooting stems that tend to spread, so be sure to give it space to grow. You can also contain oregano in a pot. Clusters of edible purple flowers bloom in midsummer, which attracts bees. Use the leaves to flavor meats, vegetables, and sauces in summer. In the fall, dry or freeze the leaves for winter cooking.

Thyme

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Zones 8-10) is a drought-tolerant, shrubby, evergreen herb with resinous needle-like leaves that taste great on meats and in sauces. Bees are attracted to its violet-blue flowers that bloom in late spring. The cold-tolerant variety ‘Arp’ (Zones 6-10) is a hardier option for northern gardeners. Dry the leaves for winter use.

Thyme (Thymus spp., Zones 5-9) has small, aromatic leaves that are evergreen. In late spring, the low, spreading, shrubby herb bears small clusters of flowers for bees that may be pink, purplish, or white. Plant it along a patio edge where it can spill across the pavement or in a pot. Harvest the leafy stems any time of year to add to many dishes or dry the leaves for herbal mixes.

Essential Herbs of Fall and Winter

Bayleaf is a great indoor/outdoor potted herb.

Sage tastes of turkey stuffing and pairs well with pumpkin. And bean soups never taste quite as good without the complement of winter savory. A big pot of bay leaf should be a winter houseplant for every gardener who cooks. Just be sure to take the pot outdoors in summer to let the Mediterranean tree to enjoy the sunshine. Spicy ginger is another indoor/outdoor tropical herb that will grow well in a sunny window. These are the essential herbs of winter.

Sage in winter

Bayleaf (Laurus nobilis, Zones 8-10) will grow as a 20-30 foot evergreen tree where it is hardy, but if kept pruned in a pot, it will stay compact. Harvest the leaves for soups, sauces, and meats, but keep in mind that new leaves will not be produced until spring, so be sure not to strip the plant of all greenery and kill it. Pot-grown specimens thrive in OMRI Listed®Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. (Click here to learn more about growing bay leaf.) 

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) grows very well as a potted house plant in a brightly lit spot with good humidity. Its roots can be harvested as the plants grow and used to make sweet and savory dishes. As with bay leaf, bring your potted ginger outdoors in summer to allow it to grow to its fullest. (Click here to learn more about growing ginger.)

Winter savory in summer

Sage (Salvia officinalis, Zones 4-8) has felted, gray-green, evergreen leaves with a pungent flavor. The hardy shrubby perennial bears pretty lavender-blue flowers in summer, which are also edible and attract bees. It is best to harvest and dry leaves in the fall for winter cooking, but if you run out, you can always pick off a winter leaf or two without harming the plant.

Winter Savory (Satureja montana, Zones 6-8) The low, semi-evergreen winter savory looks attractive throughout much of the season. Its peppery leaves add flavor to green beans, soups, and stews. In summer, it has clusters of white or pinkish flowers that attract bees. Plant it along the edge of an herbal border.

Growing Herbs

Perennial herb borders are attractive and have permanence.

To make it easy, all of these essential culinary herbs grow best in full sun and fertile soil with good drainage. Most are not too demanding when it comes to fertilizer, but a little all-purpose plant food at the beginning of the season never hurts. Spring is the best time to plant them, aside from tender indoor/outdoor herbs. Before planting, amend your garden soil with good compost, such as OMRI Listed® Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, to encourage good rooting and drainage.

When planning an herb garden, it’s smart to keep your annual and perennial herbs apart. Perennial herb borders are attractive and have permanence. They look right at home in raised beds or even pretty herbal rockeries. Just remember to reserve mints for big patio pots. Annual herbs are nice to plant among complementary vegetables. Dill is right at home planted alongside cucumbers, and almost everybody plants their sweet basil around garden tomatoes. Chamomile looks pretty when planted in a row beside spring greens or cabbages. Then keep your herbs harvested and well-tended to make the most of them all year round. (Click here to learn how to harvest and store herbs.)

Favorite Old & New Salvias For Flower Gardens

The red and white ‘Hot Lips’ is heat-tolerant and beautiful.

It would be difficult to come up with a group of plants that can add as much to the garden, in so many ways, as the flowering sages in the genus Salvia. Their colorful, two-lipped blooms are lovely and the many garden representatives have diverse growth habits, flower colors, fragrance (usually in the leaves), as well as being long-blooming and low-maintenance.

In addition to the above-mentioned attributes, salvias are excellent plants for a pollinator garden–attractive to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds–and most are summer bloomers that love sunny garden spots. In my garden, the flowers are hummingbird magnets. It is delightful watching the territorial antics of these amazing birds.

Of the more than 900 species of these mints (Look for the square stems!) distributed throughout the temperate and tropical zones of the world, only several species are commonly cultivated in the garden. With so many types of salvia across the world, it stands to reason that there is lots of variation among the species and their hardiness. While many are technically perennial and perform exceptionally well in my Pacific Northwest summers, they may not survive a winter. Poor drainage can be a factor for winter survival, so I add additional perlite for increased drainage when planting them. Gran-i-Grit and coarse sand can also improve the drainage of raised gardens to enhance salvia survival.

Great Garden Salvias

‘Amistad’ has glorious purple flowers that hummingbirds love.

For me, salvias were a late addition to the plant palette in my garden, however, once I started growing them, it was as though I could not stop. I re-planted favorites each spring and always add some new varieties that I have not grown before. I discovered they were wonderful container plants, and now we always have salvias in pots on our deck. From my own experience, I have discovered what I would consider outstanding performers. Below is a listing of some of my favorites.

Introduced nearly 20 years ago, Black & Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’, Zones 7-10) was one of the first ones in my garden. It was recommended by the owner of a local garden center, and this salvia has become such a favorite that I plant it every year. The 4-foot plant has deep blue flowers with black calyces, hence the name ‘Black & Blue’.  Amistad salvia (Salvia guaranitica ‘Amistad’, Zones 7-10) is another good performer with deep purple flowers. It has a more compact growth habit than ‘Black & Blue’ with a final height under 3 feet. Both are excellent hummingbird attractants and will bloom all summer. They are also technically hardy to my area but very sensitive to winter moisture.

Black & Blue sage looks the part with its bicolored flowers.

Proven Winners has recently released a series of salvias in the Rockin series. I have grown several in this series, and they are excellent. My favorite is Rockin® Fuchsia (Zones 9-11) and as the name implies, the flowers are brilliant fuchsia. It is an excellent salvia for a container in a location where bright color is desired. It is also a heavy bloomer and hummingbirds love it. Another in this series that I have grown and liked is Blue Suede Shoes (Zones 9-11), which has light blue flowers with black calyces.

Rockin® Fuchsia is a very heavy summer bloomer.

For fragrance, I have not grown any better than Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii, Zones 8-11). This southern California native has the most aromatic leaves of almost any plant that I have grown. It has a mounding growth habit with wrinkly, leather-textured leaves. The flowers are in rounded clusters and may be lavender to purple. Plant this where people can walk by and rub or touch a leaf.

Cleveland sage is a California native with an enticing scent.

Classic garden salvia that has distinct bi-color flowers is Hot Lips littleleaf sage (Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’, Zones 7-10). The flowers are white at the base and bright red on the petals. A grouping of these in bloom makes a very striking summer display that hummingbirds cannot resist.

The flowers of ‘Hot Lips’ appear all summer.

Garden centers are continually increasing their salvia choices for customers. It was not many years ago when the selection was perhaps two to three different kinds, but today that is not the case. If you are new to growing salvias, check with other gardeners to discover what varieties perform best in your particular area. The salvias that I have mentioned are sun-loving, but there are some varieties that require at least partial shade. Others are very reliable hardy perennials.

Try some salvia plants in your garden this season. I think you will become hooked on them just as I am.

One-Pot Herb Garden – Anywhere!

Repurposed wood crates become one-pot herb gardens featuring thyme, rosemary, cilantro, chives and more

Fresh-from-the-container culinary herbs turn a New York loft, a Chicago studio, or a Los Angeles condo into flavor central.  Nothing is quite like fresh mint in your mojito, just-picked basil on a mozzarella sandwich, or cilantro in your salsa.  No store-bought herb carries this intense flavor, because once cut, the essential oils immediately begin to lose pungency.  Cut and eat immediately, and you’ll find intense herbal resonance in every dish you make.

In a single good sized pot or any other repurposed vintage container, it’s possible to plant a garden of culinary herbs today and start tasting in just a matter of weeks.

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‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil is a great container option.

Choosing the Right Herbs

Blending the right herbs that share similar preferences makes care and watering a snap.  Most herbs need direct sun, so choose a bright planting spot, such as a fire escape, a window box, a terrace, or balcony. Just beware of direct exposure to the heat of intense afternoon sun, and be sure to water heavily on a daily basis at the height of summer.

In cities like Chicago, winds whip through downtown creating challenges for rooftop gardens and other plants exposed to such conditions.  As we approach summer, the wind combines with the hot sun, causing herb garden to struggle for moisture.  It dries herb’s tender, oil-rich leaves if moisture is inadequate.

Choosing Potting Soil

Thanks to the amazing ability of Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix, contained herbs will stand up to the rigors of urban life without fail.  This amazing moisture-holding potting soil ensures that when your pot heats up, your plants don’t suffer wind damage due to the strengthening effects of RESiLIENCE®.  Despite its absorptive qualities, this potting soil also provides adequate drainage to ensure there’s plenty of oxygen in the root zone.

Parsley - Pam- Beck
Fresh parsley and thyme are easily contained in pots, window boxes, or small beds.

Annual Herbs

An annual herb garden typically features two popular summer plants: cilantro and basil.  Both are annuals grown fresh from seed each year and mature into large plants.  These blend perfectly with chives for a triad of often used and delicious foliage.  If perennially nipped and cut, they remain small for a time, but with rising heat and extended days, they will stretch out to flower and their flavor will become stronger and less palatable.

Perennial Herbs

The second group is the smaller, long-lived perennial herbs sized for a grand herb pot.  In-ground gardeners treat these as landscape plants, enjoying new growth and harvest each year without replanting, though overwintered plants may lose verve and require some replacement in the future. Key to success is growing the right herbs that won’t become too large over the season.  Start with those you use most often and organize them in pots by form with spreaders around the edges and upright herbs toward the center.

Thyme is one of the best cascading herbs that will spill over the edge of the pot, buying room for more upright plants in the center.  Oregano is spreading too, but since this herb is so often used in the kitchen, it manages to retain a modest size from frequent pinching.  Sage is very slow growing and loves the sun, so place this fuzzy-leaved fellow on the hot side of the box.  The same is true for creeping groundcover rosemary that spills off the face of the box.  Plant purple fennel in the center for an incredible bronze-colored haze that yields lots of anise-flavored cuttings for cooking and baking.

Everyone can dive into herb gardening no matter where they live by selecting a large, well-drained container, and using high-quality potting soil to reduce watering demands.  Once planted, begin dreaming of all sorts of herbal dishes, then snip your way to fresh and easy all summer long.