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Pruning Perennial Salvias

Red Salvia Pruning

Salvias are popular all the world over.  I’ve seen them growing in England, the Canary Islands, Mexico and in many different places here in the US.  These plants are so versatile because they can comfortably fit into many styles of gardens from old fashioned cottage right up to modern simplistic.  They grow well here in California where our Mediterranean climate suits them to a tee and they are loved because they have a long bloom time.  Their non thirsty ways just plain make sense given our lack of rainfall for the last 3 years.

I was a professional gardener in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 15 years. This is where I first learned all about perennial salvias. The nursery where I worked in Berkeley sold many different species and varieties of them.  This post is all about sharing what I know about pruning the two most popular types of perennial salvias which you probably have in your own garden.  There’s a video at the end which you can watch if you like to learn by watching.

Pruning Perennial Salvias

This is Salvia officinalis (with the lavender flower) or Culinary sage which is perennial here in Santa Barbara but an annual in colder climates. It is a semi-shrubby (or shrublet if you prefer to call it that), woody salvia which falls into the pruning category 1.  It’s smaller than the greggi below so I would only cut it back by 6-8″ after flowering. Then, you can dry to leaves to use for cooking.

I’m going to talk about pruning them here in coastal California. You can tweak the process for your climate zone if they’re perennials where you live. The first type are the herbaceous salvias with woody stems.  These are the shrubby salvias. A few which fall into this category that you may know are Salvia greggii (there are so many of these!), S. chamaedryoides, S. coccinea and S. microphylla. There are quite a few microphyllas too – the one you see in the video is “Hot Lips”.  These you prune back after flowering but not all the way.

Pruning Perennial Salvias

Above you see Salvia greggi which is a common landscape plant. It has woody stems & also falls in the 1st pruning category.  I would take it down by at least a foot after each flowering cycle.

Take them back to at least where the first set of foliage starts on the flower stem – this could be a pinch or a You can take them down further if you’d like.  I learned the hard way on an established plant to not cut it down to 3″.   It never fully came back and out it came.

With these types of salvias I thin out what I want in the middle and then shape the plant so it’s pleasing to the eye.  They usually go through 3 bloom cycles through out the year here.  We have a long growing season.  I would give them a mild pruning in the Fall and then a more intense one in the late Winter or early Spring if need be.  There’s the whole Fall pruning versus Spring pruning debate. I personally like to leave plants with a little more substance over the Winter and then do the early Spring haircut and shaping.

Be sure to take out any growth which has died over the winter.  If you don’t give these salvias some type of pruning they will get extremely woody and won’t repeat bloom like you want them to. In my years working with salvias I found that some needed to be replaced before or around the 5 year mark.  This is especially true with this type. Perennials don’t live forever after all. They tend to get straggly over time. No worries though because they grow fast especially if you purchase a 1 gallon plant.

Pruning Perennial Salvias

This is Salvia leucantha or Mexican Bush Sage. They’re deciduous salvias with soft stems & fall into the 2nd pruning category. Once the stems have flowered & died off, cut them down to the ground.

Second up are the deciduous herbaceous salvias.  The old growth eventually dies out and the fresh new growth emerges from the base of the base.  They have softer stems which either die off and/or freeze. Plants that fall into this category are Salvia elegans, S. guaranitica, s. leucantha, s. waverley and s. patens. In the video you see me working on a Salvia leucantha or Mexican Bush Sage.  These salvias are very simple to prune.

When it is through flowering, simply cut those stems all the way down to the ground.  It needs to be done once or twice a year.  They will still flower if you don’t but you’ll get more blooms and the plant will look 100% better if you do.  Here in Santa Barbara the leucanthas and the Waverleys get huge.  Many of them are not cut back leaving a tangle of dead twisted stems and they look like a ratty mess. Best to give them the shearing back they need.  You’ll see the soft new growth appearing at the base. Another thing to know is that these salvias tend to spread as they grow so you might have to do a bit of dividing.

Pruning Perennial Salvias

This is Salvia spathacea or Hummingbird sage which is also a deciduous perennial, pruning category 2.  In the left foreground is the new growth. Cut the flower stalks (the old growth) in the back all the way down to the ground after they’re completely spent.

It’s best to know which kind of salvia you have before springing into action with the prunersBoth of these types of salvias really benefit from a good haircut. You’ll get much better bloom and shape if you do so.  No ratty looking plants in my garden please! Do you have a favorite salvia?

In the video below you’ll see me pruning these two types of salvias. Enjoy!


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26 comments:

  1. Hi Nell!
    I just happened on your site when I was looking for info on pruning Salvias. I have a Salvia guaranitica “Black and Blue” that was beautiful when I planted it last Spring. (I put in a Salvia Sampler garden with about 25 different salvias.) But unfortunately we got hit with a terrible freeze that lasted for several days. It looks completely dead. Sunset book says something about it getting woody and to cut it down to the ground when it dies in winter. Have you had experience with these? How far is “down to the ground”? Last year’s wood, previous year’s wood, or literally down to the ground?
    BTW – love your site! Super fun!

    – Cammie
    Gilroy, CA SS Zone: 14

  2. Hi Cammie- I just drove through Gilroy on my way home from the Bay Area. I was a professional gardener based out of San Francisco so I’m familiar with where you live. Salvia guaraniticas can take temps into the 20’s so yours should be fine in Spring. They are interesting because of their classification as a woody salvia (a sub shrub actually) but with herbaceous stems. I only have experience with 1 of them in Palo Alto & this is what I did: I deadheaded it in Fall after the bloom was over. Then I waited until late Winter/early Spring (depending on the cold or amount of rain) & cut it back to 12″. Here in Santa Barbara, they get quite large. I’ve found that the warmer the climate, the more like a shrub they act. I know someone who had one (in a much colder climate) & it got hit by the cold temps but started coming back from the ground in mid-Spring. Hope that helps! Nell

  3. Thanks Nell. I’ll give it a good whack and see what springs back!
    Cammie

  4. You’re welcome Cammie. The temps are milder now so it should be fine. Nell

  5. I love salvia’s. I never really thought to cut them back that drastically but it makes sense. Here in zone 6 they don’t always make a comeback, but sometimes I get lucky. Black and blue is one of my favorites just like the one Cammie was talking about. The hummingbirds love it. Another favorite is Wendy’s Wish. Great site.

  6. Hi Jaime – Thank you. Black & Blue is a great salvia. 1 of my favorites is Limelight – be sure to check it out if you’re not familiar with it. Wendy’s Wish is a beauty too. Plus, there are a number of new salvias introduced every year to keep us intrigued. In this temperate climate salvias need to be pruned regularly to keep them from looking “ratty”. And yes, all salvias are hummingbird fodder! Happy gardening, Nell

  7. I have hot lips and a salvia chiapensis, would I probé them the same?

  8. Hi Melissa – You have 2 different types of salvias. The “Hot Lips” is a woody salvia & falls into pruning category #1 on my vlog. Salvia chiapensis is herbaceous & falls into pruning category #2. Hope that helps, Nell

  9. Hi Nell! Thanks so much for your web page. I had a CA native garden planted last summer. I live in San Jose, CA. I have not pruned anything yet which I’m afraid may have been a mistake. I have three types of Salvia: Hot Lips, Clevelandii and another one with blue flowers (not sure what it’s called). The Hot Lips seems to have bloomed the whole year even though I’ve read that they should have three bloom cycles. The clevelandii are still blooming very nicely and smell delicious !! I am not sure if I should do any pruning now or wait until the fall or winter. I couldn’t find your “vlog” on the web page to read about this. Could you advise me? I have several other plants as well that maybe I could consult with you about. Thanks very much. Diane

  10. Hi Diane – You’re certainly welcome. With Salvia “Hot Lips & clevelandii, you can just dead head them now. Hot Lips can be cut back by about a 1/3 in mid-fall late winter/early spring is fine too). It’s best to take it down a bit after each bloom cycle so it doesn’t get too woody. Clevelandii is more of a shrub so don’t give it any kind of severe pruning. Just remove spent flowers, the dead wood & open it up a bit – that’s all you do. Many salvias have blue flowers so I can’t advise you on that 1. I call this my vlog because I do videos & blog – it’s not a daily vlog. Sorry if it confused you! I’m heading up to Pacifica at the end of Sept to do a Halloween decorating & work in a client’s garden so I could do a short in person consult if you’d like. Or, over skype f you’d prefer. Nell

  11. Hi Nell – We live in San Ramon, Ca. and have what I think is Salvia Clevelandii. It is 3 years old and about 4 feet high & wide . I just pruned it yesterday cutting about 1 foot off and hoping I did it right. I am not sure to cut it more, or leave it be. I have the before and after pictures, but I am not sure how to include it in your vlog. -Thank you, Rolando.

  12. Hi Rolando – Salvia Clevelandii is a CA native plant & very easy to grow. They do get woody over the years though. I’ve found that it’s best to prune them back (how much depends on the age) after flowering & then again in fall. You can give it a light pruning in spring, more like a tip pruning. What you did now is fine. After flowering cut it back by about the same amount & then again in fall. Woody salvias which are older respond better to that type of pruning. Nell

  13. Hi Nell – You provide homeowners like us a lot of knowledge and encouragement. -Thanks so much, Rolando

  14. My pleasure Rolando The 1st time I cut back an older, overgrown woody Salvia greggii to about 10-12″ from the ground, it never recovered. I learned from experience – easy does it with those! Nell

  15. Hi!

    I have a large raised flower bed in my yard (I live in Long Beach, CA) and have the Mexican Salvia. They have gown large and wide and have bloomed with their lovely purple felt flowers. I would like to cut them back, as they are overtaking my garden. Can you tell me if it is ok to prune back, if so, how much and how far down on the stems. I would like them to grow and bloom again this season, but am a novice at this. Can you give me any suggestions? Thanks for your help, Mary-Jo

  16. Hi Mary-Jo – Yes, they are deciduous herbaceous Salvias whose stems which have bloomed need to be cut all the way back each year. The new growth appears from the base. I explain it more in this updated post on Salvias: http://www.joyusgarden.com/pruning-salvias/ You’ll see it in that video too. By the way, do it soon. Hope that helps! Nell

  17. Planted Hot Lips about a year ago. My soil is heavy clay- I cut back the plant a bit a few months ago but it still looks woody, thin, and is barely flowering. Its about two feet in both directions. Is there any amendment or anything else that would help? (Yes I should have done something about the soil before I planted it)Its being watered on drip. I don’t think its getting too much water. I have a cleveland sage in the same area and its doing great. Just got a Salvia chamaedryoides- what’s the care for that? thanks for the help!

  18. Hi Liz – It’s best to amend those heavy clay soils before you plant. Worms always help to aerate the soil by the way. You can try mixing in a good local compost, which loosens the soil, around the plant. Regarding the S. chamaedryoides, care for it like the other salvias. It is a woody stemmed perennial by the way to you want to prune it like the S. greggiis, microphyllas, etc. Nell

  19. I live in Dallas area. When should I prune my Black and Blue salvias and how much.

  20. Hi Janice – That’s a woody salvia. You want to deadhead it after each bloom. You can cut it back a few weeks before the 1st frost or wait until after danger of frost is over in spring – your choice. I choose to cut them back in fall. Don’t take it down lower than 1.5 – 2′ from the ground. Hope that helps, Nell

  21. I planted mystic spires blue salvia in April and It is spreading more than I expected. Is it OK to prune it in midsummer? Should I prune it in Fall or Spring? Can you also give me tips in pruning this plant?
    I live in Fort Worth, Texas.
    Thanks.

  22. Hi Manoj –
    Thanks a great salvia & would grow vigorously in the warm Texas summer. Prune it back by 1/2 now (mid-summer) & then take it down to about a foot from the ground in late winter or early spring, whenever danger of frost has passed. Hope that helps! Nell

  23. Hi, Nell,

    Thanks for this great site! Can you stand another question? I’ve got black and blue salvia here in Coastal Georgia (zone 8b). I’ve also got the worst Cottony Cushion Scale problem you can imagine. Since we’re pretty warm year round, the salvia are still blooming — that is to say, as well as they can given the infestation. Any suggestions on how to get rid of the scale? I believe they came in on the plants and I’m very concerned about them spreading to the rest of this bed and into the other gardens.

    Thanks,
    Dyana

  24. Hi Dyana – You’re very welcome! Scale can be very hard to control because of its protective shell, especially when the infestation is bad. I’ve used horticultural oil in late winter through fall to control hard scale or alcohol (if the infestation is manageable). I have no experience with Cottony Cushion Scale but I do know there is a biological control which is a beetle. I’d check with your local agricultural extension office & see what they have to say. Best, Nell

  25. Your pruning video was very helpful! My hot lips leaves have gone from a green to a dark purple/brown color. Not sure if this is natural and I should prune…or let them go as is. I’m in the bay area.

  26. Hi Kat – I lived in SF for 20 years so I’m very familiar with that area. Yes, it’s very normal. I now live in Tucson & my Salvia Hot Pink is doing it also. It’s just a reaction to cooler temps. Salvias love sun & heat! Nell

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