The sage that is most popularly grown for herbal and culinary uses (Salvia officinalis) is originally from the Mediterranean region, so is right at home in much of California. Like the various lavenders and some of the other related herbs, it is a shrubby perennial that behaves like a woody shrub, but lives only a few years like some perennials. Lower stems can be layered (buried where they touch the ground so that they form roots and grow into new plants) to replace older plants before they die.
Modern cultivars are quite variable with purplish, pink, pale yellow or pale white coloration or variegation to new foliage, as well as lower growth habit. The original sage gets almost two feet tall and broad, with very aromatic gray foliage. The narrowly oblong leaves are nearly two and a half inches long and one inch wide. The flowers that bloom in late spring or summer are typically pale blue, but can be purple, pink or white.
Because of the unusually mild weather this past winter, many plants are waking up from winter dormancy early. The shrubby herbs like sage, rosemary, lavender and tarragon are already outfitted with fresh new foliage that will soon obscure the foliage that lingered through winter. Those that have not yet bloomed may do so sooner than expected.
New herb plants can be added to the garden any time now. Even if rain resumes (or actually ‘starts’), there should not be enough to cause new plants to rot, particularly since the warming weather will keep plants growing faster than the root rot that can kill them through cool and damp winter weather. Sage, tarragon, marjoram, mint and thyme are easier to grow from small plants. Dill, cilantro and basil are easier to grow from seed sown directly into the garden. Oregano, fennel and chives can be grown by either means.
Many of the woody herbs, like rosemary and the many varieties of lavender, are commonly used in landscaping, so can be found in even the most basic nurseries that do not feature a selection of other herbs. Because almost all herbs have sensitive root systems, they should be planted while small. The smaller 1 gallon plants are easier to grow (as well as less expensive) than the larger 5 gallon plants are. However, sweet bay is an exception that does not mind being planted as a 5 gallon or even larger tree where it needs to look mature now, even if only a few leaves get used in the kitchen. Low growing rosemary is a common ground cover. Upright varieties can be shorn into small hedges. Thyme makes a nice small scale ground cover between stepping stones, where it shares its fragrance when stepped on.
Chives, oregano, parsley, mint and thyme are not often marketed as common landscape stock, but are visually appealing enough to appear in the landscape. Herbs that are not so visually appealing can be planted in a separate herb garden, among vegetables in a vegetable garden, or simply out of the way. Basil, cilantro, tarragon, dill, sage and marjoram can be too unkempt at times. Basil and cilantro look good most of the time, but then get harvested in large enough quantities to leave bald spots. Fennel can be a striking foliage plant for a while as long as no one minds that it will eventually get harvested.
Vegetables grow mostly in designated vegetable gardens because they are not appealing enough for the rest of the landscape. Flowers for cutting might grow in designated cutting gardens, from which they are not missed after harvest. Culinary herbs can grow in herb gardens for the same reasons. Some might not be very pretty. After harvest, some might be too shabby for the landscape.
Of course, such perceptions are debatable. Home gardens are casual and customized. If Swiss chard, artichoke and other vegetables can grow in front yard landscapes, then culinary herbs can too. In fact, some already do. Rosemary, thyme, lavender and a few other culinary herbs happen to be popular for landscapes because they are so appealing and practical. There is a slight catch.
Culinary cultivars of herbs are distinct from landscape cultivars. Trailing rosemary is a landscape cultivar with sprawling growth that works well as a resilient ground cover. Another cultivar exhibits more sculptural upright growth. Both are well flavored. However, neither is as richly flavored as culinary cultivars of the same species. Yet, culinary cultivars are not so remarkable for landscaping.
Most of us are satisfied with landscape cultivars of rosemary for culinary application. Alternatively, culinary cultivars, which are rare in nurseries and landscapes, can adapt to landscape functions. Cultivars of culinary rosemary happen to make nice low and mounding hedging. Infrequent shearing or selective pruning does not constantly deprive it of too much of its more flavorful new foliage.
The same applies to several herbs that have both culinary and landscape applications. Compromise might be in order.
Incidentally, two culinary herbs, Grecian bay and bronze fennel, are presently quite trendy. Grecian bay or sweet bay (which is not California bay) is a very popular potted plant. In the ground, it can grow into a midsized tree. Bronze fennel is supposedly comparable to common fennel, but with sepia toned foliage. Chive, parsley and borage all work nicely with mixed perennials and annuals.