Salvias are very popular garden plants. Here are tips for pruning Salvias (3 different types) in fall or spring to keep them healthy & blooming like crazy.
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
Note: This had been previously published & was updated on 8/6/2020.
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
They grow all over the United States as well as in other countries. Whether you do the big pruning in spring or fall depends on your climate zone and the type of salvia.
I grew up in New England and my dad always pruned our 2 or 3 winter hardy salvias in the fall. He cut them down almost all the way down to the ground and put mulch over them as winter protection. Check with your local garden center or extension office to see what is recommended in your area.
This post shares what I know about pruning (the big cut back; not the ongoing
Speaking of deadheading your salvias, this is always a good thing to do throughout the season to keep those blooms coming on.
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.
How to Prune Salvias
Here I’ll be talking about pruning salvias 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 I’m more a proponent of fall/winter pruning. I sometimes find it necessary to do a light “clean up” pruning in early spring too.
There is lots of year-round interest in coastal California 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 fall well before the threat of frost and after the last chance of it has passed in the spring.
It’s important to make sure your pruners are clean and sharp before you start pruning your salvias. If your tools aren’t sharp, you’ll make jagged cuts and pruning will be hard on the plant and possibly difficult for you. Clean cuts are important for the health and aesthetics of any plant.
Salvia elegans, or Pineapple Sage. The leaves really do smell like pineapple!
Type #1 The Deciduous Herbaceous Salvias
This category includes Salvia elegans, Salvia guaranitica (including the popular “Black & Blue), Salvia leucantha, Salvia waverley, Salvia ulignosa, and Salvia 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 that 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’ll 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 these types of salvias are 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 next season if you don’t, but you’ll get more blooms and the plant will look 100% better if you do.
I lived in Santa Barbara for 10 years where the Salvia 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 wanted to prune them all back but didn’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 require to regrow. This allows the soft new growth to appear at the base.
Another thing to know is that these salvias (unrelated to this pruning subject) is that they tend to spread as they grow so you might have to do a bit of dividing.
Salvia microphylla “Hot Lips”. Another very popular salvia!
Type #2 The Herbaceous Salvias With Woody Stems
This category includes Salvia greggii (there are so many of these), Salvia chamaedryoides, Salvia coccinea, and Salvia microphylla (there are quite a few microphyllas too including the popular “Hot Lips” pictured above). 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 this the hard way on an established plant when I cut it down to 3″. It never fully came back. Out it came and into the compost bin it went.
With these types of salvias, I thin stems out in the middle and then shape the plant so it’s pleasing to the eye. They often go through 3 bloom cycles throughout the year in coastal CA. Yes, it’s a long growing season.
I give them their big 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’ll get extremely woody and won’t repeat bloom like you want them to. They get straggly and sparse – not a pretty sight in the garden.
In my years of working with these types of woody, shrubby salvias I found that some needed to be replaced before or around the 5-year mark. Perennials don’t live forever after all.
No worries though because they grow fast. If you purchase and plant a 1-gallon plant in early spring, it’ll be a good size with lots of blooms by the end of the season.
Salvia nemorosa “May Night”. These salvias are blooming machines!
Type #3 The Rosette Forming Herbaceous Salvias
This category includes: Salvia nemorosa, S. x superba & S. penstemonoides.
These salvias form low rosettes, which are evergreen in coastal CA. The stems bearing 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 this one has a very long bloom time and comes in different colors.
By the way, The National Garden Bureau named Salvia nemerosa plant of the year in 2019. Quite the honor and rightfully so!
In fall, I’d prune the stems all the way down to the rosette and clean up any dead foliage growing close to the ground. The leaves tend to grow densely on this 1 so the undergrowth gets smothered.
The 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 and the climate zone you live in. Just keep those salvia blooms coming please – the hummingbirds and butterflies agree!
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