Fundamental Facts

PREFERRED SOIL pH: Near neutral
PREFERRED LIGHT: Sun or partial shade
ATTRIBUTES: White, pink, salmon, purple, or red flower spikes on naturally neat plants; for edging, pots, or beds
SEASON OF INTEREST: Late spring to Fall
FAVORITES: Salvia splendens; S. forinacea for blue flowers; S. coccinea for drought tolerance
QUIRKS: Mature plants need abundant water
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Blue ageratum, cockscomb, marigold, petunia
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Rich, moist soil; partial afternoon shade
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Japanese beetle, whitefly, red spider mite
SOURCE: Bedding plants, seeds
DIMENSIONS: 2 ft (0.6 m) tall, 12 in (30.5 cm) wide

Salvia in the Landscape

Salvias feature an abundance of small tubular flowers in warm colors. They are clustered along upright flower spikes held above the foliage. Reliable garden salvias (Salvia splendeas), sometimes called St. John's fire or scarlet sage, grow best in full sun but adapt to a half day of shade, and are easy to grow in both containers and beds.

Because of their naturally neat shape, salvias make a handsome border for a driveway or walkway, and they are ideal for growing near buildings that cast shade for part of the day. Red-flowered salvias mix beautifully with white petunias, or you can pair them with blue ageratum. For a festive look, mix purple or salmon-flowered salvias with marigolds and cockscomb. Salvias also make fine upright flowers for container bouquets composed of several different annuals.

Beyond Red

Red has long been a popular color in annual salvias. 'Flare' produces scarlet 18 in (45.7 cm) tall spikes on top of handsome green foliage through the hottest summer weather. You will probably find several other choices in red when shopping for bedding plants in the spring. For a broader color range, try the Hotline hybrids, which feature purple-flowered 'Blue Streak' as well as burgundy, salmon, scarlet, and bright white flowers.

All in the Family

Mealycup sage or blue sage (S. forinacea) is a half-hardy plant that is usually grown as an annual. A valuable source of hard-to-find blue flowers on an upright plant, mealycup sage is ideal for mixing with zonal geraniums, yellow marigolds, and numerous other summer-garden annuals.

Another care-free relative is coral sage (S. coccinea), which is a drought-tolerant salvia that blooms nonstop all summer, producing red, white, or coral flower spikes that are of tremendous interest to hummingbirds and honeybees.

A salvia grown more for its foliage than its flowers is silver sage (S. argentica). With big, broad, lobed leaves covered in woolly silver hairs, this salvia brightens up the garden and adds a feltlike texture that you'll want to touch. Its yellow or purple upright flowers are a bonus.

Growing Salvia

You can start salvia seeds indoors 8 weeks before your last frost, but because potted salvia seedlings are very sensitive to the accumulation of minerals often found in tap water, it is easier to buy them as bedding plants. Look for young plants that have not yet begun to bloom. Young salvias grow and flower better than plants forced to grow too long in cramped nursery containers.

It is safe to plant salvias in the garden after the danger of frost has passed. When planting, mix organic fertilizer, such as composted manure, or a controlled-release fertilizer, into the soil before setting out plants. Set seedlings 1 ft (0.3 m) apart, and mulch between plants with a 2 in (5.1 cm) thick layer of moisture-retaining shredded bark, compost, or other organic material. Water as needed to keep the soil slightly moist at all times. Snip off fading flower spikes to encourage production of new ones. After each grooming, fertilize plants with an all-purpose liquid plant food at half strengh to ensure summer-long performance.

While salvias are relatively carefree, they can be chewed by iridescent daytime-feeding Japanese beetles, and minute sap-sucking whiteflies or red spider mites can cause leaves to appear yellowish and limp. Pick and dispose of Japanese beetles early in the morning, when they are sluggish. Spraying the undersides of leaves with water will dislodge whiteflies and red spider mites, which prefer feeding in dry conditions, or control these pests with insecticidal soap applied according to the package label directions.

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