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Ask Mr. Sage: How to Select Plants for Garden Triumph

First posted on Aug 19, 2017

Ask Mr. Sage: How to Select Plants for Garden Triumph

Dear Mr. Sage,

While visiting Santa Barbara Botanic Garden during winter two years ago, I fell for white sage (Salvia apiana). I loved its silvery green foliage and incense-like fragrance. So, I decided to try growing it in my coastal Florida garden and had visions of a triumphant accent plant rising shoulder high.

Wrong! I just don't get it. There must have been something wrong with my plant, because it barely reached a foot tall by spring and then died early this summer. I didn't buy it from you, but notice that you do sell them. I need some advice about whether I should ask the online nursery I bought it from for reimbursement and get a new plant from you so I can try again. I've heard you have a good reputation.

Sad and Upset in Sarasota


Dear Sad and Upset,

Thanks for the compliment. We do value our reputation at Flowers by the Sea, which is why I would never encourage you to plant another Salvia apiana in the Southeast. I understand how bad it feels to lose a plant that you love. However, White Sage is not a good choice for Florida. It's native to Southern California's dry climate from San Luis Obispo down to the Mexican border at Tijuana. Conversely, water-loving Central American sages that thrive in Florida would wither in Southern California.

Planning for garden triumph requires following the rule of selecting the right plant for the right place. We'll talk about how to select plants that are right for your climate in a bit. But first, I want to explain why you shouldn't blame your plant or the nursery it came from for its failure to thrive.

So, this is a tale of two different climates with opposite schedules for rain and huge variations in humidity despite both areas being coastal. Florida's wet season is late spring to summer, which is when S. apiana is accustomed to almost no rain. Both regions have relatively mild winters, but Southern California's Mediterranean-style climate is rainy -- except during drought -- from late autumn until spring.

Santa Barbara has almost no measurable humidity in June while the figure for Sarasota can be up to 100% on days when temperatures average around 88 degrees F. The National Weather Service reports that on a day in the high 80s with 100% humidity, it feels like 121 degrees F.

S. apiana is a sage evolved for rainless summers as well as Santa Barbara's relatively dry summer air and June highs rarely exceeding 80 degrees F. So, it faces a trifecta of trouble during summer in Sarasota.

Similar to S. apiana, most silvery or gray sages have fine, white-to-clear hairs on their foliage to help conserve moisture. They are great choices for semi-arid climates and are more likely to die from too much rather than too little water. Appreciate them when you visit the West, but take them off your list for garden success back home. Even during drought, Florida gets lots more rain than the chaparral lands where S. apiana grows wild.

Even among closely related sages, tolerance of moisture and heat can vary significantly. An example is the Autumn Sage-Mountain Sage Group. Autumn Sage (S. greggii) is a desert plant native to Texas and northwest Mexico. It's adaptable to many areas, ranging from California and the High Plains to New York state as long as it isn't overwatered or grown in soil with poor drainage.

In contrast, the native range of Mountain Sage (S. microphylla) stretches from the relatively moist canyon lands of southeast Arizona to extremely wet Guatemala. Its ability to thrive in damp conditions makes it an option for Southeast gardeners.

Despite being opposites when it comes to water, S. greggii and S. microphylla cross freely in the part of northern Mexico near the Village of Jame (pronounced "ha-may") where they share native territory. Their offspring, Jame Sage (S. x jamensis), tend to side with the Mountain Sage side of the family when it comes to water. Consequently, most S. x jamensis aren't cut out for desert climates.

So, how do you select plants that are right for your climate and yard? The first rule is to consider the growing conditions of a plant's native area and think about whether you can approximate them. Demand for water isn't the only growing condition, but a good rule of thumb is not to grow desert plants in humid climates and vice versa.

More Tips for Fostering Salvia Garden Success

Visit local botanical gardens. You can gain ideas beyond the plantings that are typical in your neighborhood and notice the outdoor settings where they are doing well. Lucky you -- there are three in Sarasota. Don't be shy about asking curators questions concerning specific plants. It's part of their job.

Talk with other gardeners. If you know someone whose home landscape you particularly admire, take notes and ask questions.

Visit local garden centers. Seek information from knowledgeable staff if you want to buy a plant but know little about it. Downloading an encyclopedic, cellphone garden app that covers your region may also be helpful.

Do online research. Review plant descriptions in online nursery catalogs, such as ours at Flowers by the Sea, to gather information about the winter hardiness, cultivation needs and bloom season of plants. When you visit a plant description at our site, be sure to click on the "Cultural Icons" tab above the plant picture. Here's some information about understanding our cultural icons.

Read gardening blog articles. After a while, you become familiar with and grow to trust garden writers and nurseries whose information has proved reliable. We hope you'll feel that way about us. Here's one of our blog posts about Salvias that grow well in Florida

Contact FBTS. For questions about Salvias and companion species, such as other mint-family plants, please call or write to us. We're glad to share what we know, including ways to search for information in our online catalog.

Salvia Finder Search

One last thought: Become acquainted with the FBTS Salvia Finder. You'll find the link in the green ribbon at the top of each catalog page. It assembles galleries of flower choices based on information you input, such as:

  • Your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone indicating average winter temperatures
  • Whether you want perennials or annuals (tender perennials)
  • Sun and shade exposure
  • Water and drought tolerance
  • Kinds of small wildlife you want to attract and
  • Plant size, flower color and bloom season.

If you ever get confused by any of the plant descriptions in our catalog, remember that we're glad to help you make great choices for your local conditions.

Thanks for your question,
Mr. Sage


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