Monday, August 8, 2011

Russian Sage

Good gardening friend Paul Parent of the Paul Parent Garden Club sends out a great newsletter every week with pertinent gardening topics. I encourage you to go to his website to sign up for his newsletter. Paul can also be heard every Sunday morning from 6 AM to 10 AM at his website or at WBACH (104.7 FM) every Sunday morning from 6 AM to 9 AM. Paul recently sent this article out called "Russian Sage" (I occasionally add a few comments in italics) and here it is:
Russian Sage
(Picture from Paul Parent Garden Club)

With all the heat of the last month, you need to know about a perennial flower that loves the heat and will thrive in dry, sandy soil. The plant is called Russian sage but is not native to Russia; it's from Afghanistan. Until 1995 it was not a plant that most gardeners had it their gardens but the Perennial Plant Association named it the "Perennial of the Year" and today it is found everywhere. Let me tell you about this plant so you too will know the story of this wonderful perennial garden plant and why it was named the perennial of the year.
First of all, Russian sage is not in the Sage family of plants, it's actually in the Mint family--a close relative. The Genus name Perovskia was given to the plant after a Russian general, V.A. Perovsky (1794 to 1857), who was much admired by the Russian people. The plant can be found growing all over Russia today. The sage part of the name came because, like the mint plant, it has a pungent mint-like scent to it.

Let me tell you why you need to have this plant in your garden. The stems of the plant are gray-white to silver in color and they develop at the base of the plant, like wonderful outward-arching branches. The foliage is small, less than an inch long and narrow, needle-like but a unique fuzzy gray-green color. When the foliage stops growing the plant will make wonderful tall spikes of light blue flower spikes. Each flower spike will quickly develop many side shoots of spike flowers that will quickly cover all the foliage of the plant. The flowers come in clusters on these spikes and resemble tiny tubular blossoms that cover the plant, giving them the appearance of lavender blue to pale blue cloud.

The plant itself is woody looking, and also looks like a shrub, because it will grow 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide. If you want to control the height of the plant you can pinch the tips of every stem in the spring when the new growth reaches 12 to 15 inches tall. Each of these flower spikes can grow 2 to 3 feet tall on the plant. The flowers are long-lasting on the plant, usually lasting from June to September. If the blooms should end early, cut back the plant by removing all the faded flowers and one third of the foliage of the plant. Fertilize with a granular fertilizer like Flower-Tone or Dr. Earth Flower food with Pro Biotic and the plant will bloom again, lasting until the first hard frost in the fall.
Russian sage will grow best in a soil that is well drained; average to poor soil is best and never clay-like or heavy. This wonderful plant will tolerate a dry soil, sandy soils, acid soil, and open areas with a lot of wind like the seashore, making it the perfect plant to grow in a seaside garden or at a lake front garden where most plants fail. If your soils are heavy, make a raised flower bed or create a mound of soil to grow the plant on, as this will keep the crown of the plant and the roots out of the water especially during the winter months and early in the spring when the ground is wet.

Plant in a garden located in sunshine all day long for the best flowers on the plant. If you have a location that gets real hot during the summer and where watering can be a problem, this is the plant for you. If you plant in a partial shade or shade garden they will not do very well for you and will not flower. This is one plant for which conditioning the soil when planting is of little importance but you must keep the plant well watered the first year until is it well established and able to find its own water. Mulching around the plant is helpful in holding water in the soil during the growing season (along with weed control) but in cold climates like Northern New England mulch also helps to protect the root system.

In the fall, you can leave the plant as-is and enjoy the unique plumage-like winter branching or you can cut back the plant to 12 inches. This is a woody perennial and the new growth will develop on the branches that remain from the previous year's growth. New shoots do not develop from the base of the plant but from the woody branches.

In a cold climate, never cut back the plant right to the ground or it may not develop in the spring. If your climate is cold, be sure to build a mound of mulch 4 to 6 inches deep around the base of the plant to protect the plant just in case snow falls lightly to protect the plant from winter wind and frost heaves. The plant will tolerate temperatures that drop to minus 30 degrees when mulched in the fall. (This is an important paragraph. I lost my first Russian Sage because I cut the plant back too much in the fall and did not mulch enough. This plant is typically planted in the bright sun which means it is usually found in an exposed area in the winter so mulching through the winter is very important!)

You can plant Russian sage in containers like whiskey barrels as long as they have good drainage; you can also lift them off the ground with bricks or pot feet to encourage good drainage during wet weather and the winter when they freeze. If you're growing in clay or ceramic type pots, bring the pot into your tool shed or garage for the winter months and do not water until you move back outside in the spring; around March.

Put several plants in your cut flower garden for unique textures and the long flower spikes will be the most talked of among your fresh-picked bouquets on the dinner table. These flower spikes will outlast all of your cut flowers used in the arrangement. Blue is difficult to find in cut flowers and this flower will replace baby's breath or statice in your arrangement.

In a mixed border the Russian sage should be planted in the back of the garden or on the end of the bed, as the plant will get tall--3 to 5 feet. Give it room, as the flowers will develop from the ground up to the top of the plant. In a rock garden they will thrive with all the heat the rocks draw to the garden, and in a stone mulch garden they will outlast most plants in the garden.

I like the plant when planted in mass or in groups to create a splash of color in the planting bed for summer color. Mix with blue mophead type hydrangeas to create different textures in the garden.  (Great idea!) You can plant just one on the end of a fence to soften the hard surface, and if you live on a street with a rotary or traffic island, it will make the perfect maintenance-free plant; use instead of grass that needs watering and mowing. Create a garden on a slop or steep hill where mowing could be a problem or the soil is not very good.

You will like planting Russian sage in flower beds with daylilies, coreopsis,r udbeckia daisies, Oriental lilies, fall-flowering sedum and, in the late summer with an under planting of flowering cabbage or flowering kale for wonderful contrast. They will also flower at the same time as perennial hibiscus, rose of sharon, butterfly bush and all the new types of hydrangea--P.G. hybrids--for wonderful summer color near your swimming pool or patio. If you're spending a lot of time outdoors this summer, the Russian sage is the plant that will give you more color than any other perennial plant in your garden today.

Fertilize in the spring with a granular organic fertilizer, once a year and then forget it. Russian sage has no insect or disease problems to worry about and butterflies love this plant. Enjoy!

Thanks to Paul Parent!

Mike Skillin
Skillin's Greenhouses
August 9, 2011


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