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Salvia: Pruning & Trimming 3 Different Types of Salvias

Salvias are a very popular garden plant. Here are pruning & trimming tips for 3 different types of salvias which you can do in fall or spring.

salvia leucantha santa barbara in full bloom with deep purple flowers
Salvia leucantha “Santa Barbara.” It has a compact growth habit & the flowers are a rich purple.

Salvias are popular all the world over and 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’re loved because of their long bloom time.  It’s an added bonus that their nonthirsty ways are so appropriate for the water starved western US.

I first learned all about perennial salvias in the San Francisco Bay Area where I was a professional gardener for over 15 years. 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 (this is the big cut back, not the dead heading you do throughout the season) the two most popular types of perennial salvias which you probably have in your own garden.

Plus, I also mention a 3rd type which you may not be familiar with.

I did a post on pruning perennial salvias a few years ago but the video that went with it was under 2 minutes long.  Time for an update with much more detail.  I filmed this longer video in my client’s garden in Pacifica, CA (just south of SF) in early December:

I’ll be talking about pruning salvias here in coastal California. You can tweak the process for your climate zone if they’re perennials where you live.  There’s a long standing debate of sorts about giving salvias their big pruning in fall vs spring.  It’s simply a matter of preference.  I go back and forth on this topic but these days am more a proponent of fall/winter pruning.  I sometimes find it necessary to do a light “clean up” pruning in early spring too.

We have lots of year round interest in our gardens so that’s why I prefer to do it in mid to late fall.  This way the plant looks better over the winter months and growth is nice and fresh earlier on in spring.  If you’re in a colder climate, just make sure to prune in the a fall well before the threat of frost and after the last chance of it has passed in spring.

a large salvia elegans pineapple sage with red flowers in full bloom
Salvia elegans, or Pineapple Sage.

#1  The Deciduous Herbaceous Salvias.  

This category includes: Salvia elegans, S. guaranitica, S. leucantha, S. waverley, S. ulignosa & S. patens.

With these 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.  These types of salvias are better to prune in spring (in colder climates) because the old growth will protect the fleshy new growth over the winter.  In the video you see me working on a Salvia leucantha  (Mexican Bush Sage), Salvia elegans (Pineapple Sage) and Salvia Waverley which I just talk about.  These salvias are very simple to prune.

When they’re 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.  I want to prune them all back but don’t want to get arrested for trespassing!

So, it’s best to give them the shearing back they need because this lets in the light and air they need to regrow.  That allows the soft new growth to appear 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.

salvia hot lips with red & white flowers growing in a garden
Salvia microphylla “Hot Lips”.

#2 The Herbaceous Salvias With Woody Stems.

This category includes: Salvia greggii (there are so many of these!), S. chamaedryoides, S. coccinea and S. microphylla (there are quite a few microphyllas too).  These are the shrubby salvias.

You prune these salvias back after flowering but not all the way.  Take them back to at least where the first set of foliage starts on the flower stem – this could be a pinch or you can take them down further if they need it.  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 throughout the year here.  We have a long growing season.  I give them their “more intense” pruning in late fall or early winter and lighter  ones in late spring and mid summer.

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.  Plus, they get straggly and sparse – not a pretty sight in the garden.

In my years of 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.  No worries though because they grow fast, especially if you purchase a 1 gallon plant.

salvia nemerosa may night with lots of blue flowers in a garden
Salvia nemorosa “May Night”.

#3 The Rosette Forming Herbaceous Salvias

This category includes: Salvia nemorosa, S. x superba & S. penstemonoides.

These salvias form low rosettes (which are evergreen here) and the stems with more foliage and the flowers emerge out of them.  The 1 that you see me pruning in the video is Salvia nemorosa (Meadow or Woodland Sage) and I’ve found that this has a very long bloom time.

I prune the stems all the way down to the rosette and also clean up any dead foliage growing close to the  ground.  The leaves tend to grow densely on this 1 so the undergrowth gets smothered.

Bottom line:  It’s best to know which kind of salvia you have before springing into action with the pruners.  All 3 types of perennial salvias really benefit from a good haircut. You’ll get much better flowering and shape if you do so.  Whether you prune in fall or spring is up to you.  Just keep those salvia blooms coming please – the hummingbirds and butterflies agree!

Happy Gardening!

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27 comments:

  1. Great information! Exactly what I needed to know for my variety of salvias. Thanks.

  2. Hi Andrea – I’ve been pruning salvias for years now so I’m so glad you found the info helpful. The choice now is: fall pruning or spring pruning! Best, Nell

  3. I have a Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria Blue’, which category of your 3 it goes?

  4. Hi Mary – It falls under #1, a deciduous herbaceous salvia. It’s often sold as an annual but is a great perennial in climates with warmer winters. If you’re somewhere where winters are on the colder side, it’s best to cut these back in spring. Nell

  5. This is the best video I have seen regarding pruning of salvias and the most informative as it tells me how to prune the different varieties of salvias and the time of year and how much to cut off.

    Thank You.

  6. Thank you so much Maggie. I’m glad you found the video to be helpful! I planted & maintained many Salvias when I was a professional gardener & wanted to share my experiences. Best, Nell

  7. Great video – for a beginner gardener it was so helpful! – Love from NC

  8. Hi Brittany – Thank you! I create my videos & posts in the simplest, clearest way I can so I’m glad you found it helpful. Hugs from the Arizona desert, Nell

  9. Hi Nell! I’m in Northern California (Sonoma County) and this past summer I put in a bunch of “Willow Veil” salvia.
    They were gorgeous over the summer but now they look like dead sticks. Should I prune them now or in the spring? And what type of pruning would be best for them? Thanks in advance!

  10. Hi Katee – That’s deciduous perennial so you want to cut it all the way back sometime in late winter/early spring (depending on where in Sonoma County you are) after evening temps have consistently warmed above freezing. Nell

  11. Hi, Nell, thanks so much for this info! I have a Wendy’s Wish – salvia hybrida, is that considered #2 Herbaceous Salvia with Woody Stem?

  12. Hi Kim – Yes, it’s an evergreen shrub with woody stems. It’s a beauty but they can become leggy over time, just like the greggiis. Nell

  13. Nell,

    Great article!I found so much helpful information in it.
    I also live in the Bay Area.
    Is Salvia ‘Amistad’ also in the #2 category, Herbaceous with woody stems?

    Thanks!

    Susan

  14. Hi Susan – I’ve never grown that one but it’s a beauty. It’s a cross between 2 salvias, 1 of them being S. guaranitica. It’s exact origins are unknown so I can’t really say. I’d give it a good prune (to about 1′ tall or so) in late winter/early spring. Dead head after flowering. Nell

  15. Hi Nell,
    Great post, thank you. I wish I had read it before I pruned my salvias ‘hot lips’; I cut them back to 30/40cm from ground level just above a set of new leaves. Will they come back and flower this year?
    Thank you for your precious opinion.
    Andrew

  16. Thank you Andrew! 40 cm is about 16″. I’ve found that a young woody salvia (planted the previous season) can take a harder pruning than an older established salvia. I learned this the hard way many years ago. When I 1st started gardening on the west coast, I pruned a older salvia greggii back to 12″ & it never recovered. If they’re young ones, they should be fine & flower this year. Nell

  17. Thank you very much Nell, much appreciated you taking the time to answer. My salvias are 3 years old. I will let you know if they flower this year.
    All the best, Andrew

  18. Thank you so much for this post! I was amazed at how a dwarf salvia greggii bloomed and grew all year round here in Tucson. After one year, it is a little woody. Thanks sooo much for explaining I should give it a light pruning (not down to 3″ stubs).

  19. Hi fellow Tucson resident – Oh yes, I learned this the hard way when I was new to gardening with salvias! After 4-6 years, I’ve found they get too woody & need to be replaced. Nell

  20. Thanks so much for your advice on pruning salvias. I did not realise Sage was a salvia, Doh!! Anyway both my Sage and Hot Lips have gone woody so will prune as advised when the weather warms up in England UK. We are set to get snow over Easter……

    Can you list the most fragrant salvias please? Some salvias I have bought in the UK do not seem to have a fragrance. Thanks

  21. Thanks for the video! Woody salvias are new to me, so I wasn’t sure how to care for them.

    I appreciate the information!

  22. Hi Cathy – You’re very welcome. Most salvias that I know have a scent to their foliage. The most known are S. elegans, S. melissodoa, S. clevelandii & S. spathacea. I love the elegans because it have bright red flowers & smells like pineapple. Nell

  23. Hi Caprice – You’re welcome! I’ve found that many woody salvias need to be replaced after 5 years or so because they get too woody & start to fail. Fortunately they grow fast & aren’t expensive! Nell

  24. Good Afternoon,
    I’m in California and I have a 11 foot strip of dirt along my house to fill. Gets sun from about 1pm to dusk. I’d like to plant 1 gallon greggii in that area. My questions are…
    *Is July okay for new planntings?
    *And about how many 1 gallons should I plant there?
    Thank You, Kimmi

  25. Thanks, I really appreciate the information

  26. Hi Kimmi – July is fine for planting as long as you give them enough water to get going. Most greggiis get 2-3′ wide. 3-5 would be fine depending on the which greggii you get & how close you want them to be. Nell

  27. You’re very welcome Migdalia! Nell

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