Flavorful and aromatic leaves of sage (Salvia officinalis) complement meat, pasta, bread and vegetable dishes with their distinct flavor. Sage grows as a perennial herb in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8. It's gray-green evergreen foliage and purple summer flowers make it an attractive addition to the herb garden. Picking the leaves at the right time ensures the best flavor.
Sage plants must establish themselves before you begin picking leaves. Though it's best to wait until the second year after planting, you may begin harvesting leaves late in the first year. Sage leaves may be picked at any time during the summer and early fall, although the leaves have the best flavor when picked before the plant flowers. Harvest leaves from healthy plants that are growing well and pick the youngest foliage for the best flavor.
Picking a few leaves only as needed will supply you with an ongoing supply of the fresh herb. Snip or pull off leaves from the outside of the plant, removing them where they join the main stem. For a larger harvest, cut out whole stems that are covered in many leaves from the outside of the plant. Shearing back the sage by 6 to 8 inches once or twice a year when it becomes large helps keep the plant full and compact and provides a larger harvest.
The leaves are ready to use fresh from the plant. You can rinse them lightly under cool water immediately before use to remove any dust or dirt. If you harvest full stems, pull the individual leaves off and dispose of the stem portion. Only the leaves are used as a culinary herb. For storage, select healthy leaves with no visible damage to ensure the best quality and flavor.
Fresh sage leaves have the most intense flavor, so it's best to pick them as you need them. You can store the leaves in the refrigerator for up to three days if you wrap them in a paper towel and place in a plastic storage bag. You may also dry the leaves. Spread them out in a single layer on a tray and dry them for about one week or until they become brittle. The dried leaves retain their quality for six months or longer when kept in an airtight jar that is stored in a cool, dark pantry.