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How to cut back Russian sage

Russian sage in full bloom in August

Russian sage in full bloom in August

Russian sage is a beautiful plant that has gorgeous purple flower spikes in July and August. Not only is Russian sage attractive, it’s extremely drought tolerant. It makes a fabulous low maintenance addition to Colorado landscapes. It’s also pretty commonly used.

How should you cut Russian sage back in the spring? Be sure to watch my video that shows you the two best methods to prune Russian sage in spring.

Keep in mind it’s a “subshrub,” meaning the top half of each stem dies back each year, but the bottom part of each stem lives through the winter. This can make the whole process a little confusing.

Option one for bold people

Cut all the stems to the ground. This is my favorite option for mature Russian sage plants located at elevations under 7,000 feet. It helps keep the plant fresh-looking and clean, since all the old growth is removed. If the stems are left intact for years, they become grey, old, overly woody and ultimately unsightly. Removing all that growth makes a plant more symmetrical and mounded in its shape. Be sure to cut the stems as close as you can to ground level. Don’t leave any stubs. The new stems will be light grey and supple.

Cutting Russian sage back to the ground usually doesn’t affect the flowering time much. It might be a week later than normal, but the effect on flowering is almost unnoticeable. The flowers will be normal size, with the plant producing the normal amount (or even more).

Don’t worry about injuring these plants with this method. These plants are adapted to periodic fire, so they regenerate perfectly well from the crown. If you’re worried about the results, simply try this method on one plant. Then you can judge the results for yourself. If it works, you can do more the following year.

Option two for more conservative folks

If you’re worried about injuring the plant, you can take a more moderate approach. Step back and mentally divide the height of the plant into thirds. With each stem, cut off two thirds of last year’s growth, leaving a third of the original height in place. For example, if the plant was four tall at the end of last summer, cut each stem to 18 inches tall or so. This method ensures you cut off all the old growth, but you leave the live portion of the stems.

Taking a more conservative approach guarantees that Russian sage will grow to its full height and flower right when you expect it. This is also a good approach for plants were recently transplanted and haven’t reached their full size.

Option three for high elevation areas

If you live above 7,000 feet in elevation, cutting all the stems to the ground may not work that well. The plant will spend a long time growing new stems. By mid-summer, the plant will be shorter than normal and bloom later, or may not bloom at all before the growing season is over.

Instead of taking such a drastic approach, wait until the new leaves start to come out in May. Then simply cut off the dead portion on each stem. Clip right above a newly emerging leaf. After you cut off all the dead material, step back and notice how symmetrical the plant is. Trim back irregular height stems in order to make a nice, mounded plant.

Don’t do nothing

If you leave Russian sage alone, it won’t look attractive. The new growth that emerges this year will grow into the old, dead material from last year. The flowers will be obscured by all the dead stalks, and the whole plant will have a brown-grey cast. Instead, choose one of the three options, take action and look forward to a beautiful plant in the middle of the summer.

Feel free to alternate between different methods each year. It’s perfectly fine to rejuvenate a Russian sage shrub that’s several years old by cutting it to the ground. You can then be more conservative the following year, then cut it to the ground again some time in the future.

To see how the different pruning methods affect Russian sage plants in June, click here. If you’re wondering when to prune, check out this post on fall versus spring pruning.

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17 Responses to How to cut back Russian sage

  1. Joe Dixon May 7, 2013 at 2:40 am #

    Hi Catherine! I should have read about Russian sage two days ago, as I spent Saturday giving them all a haircut. By good luck, I may have done it right. I cut 2/3 to 3/4 of the plant. We’re at 7500 feet.

    Best, Joe.

  2. admin May 7, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    Hi Joe! Since you’re at a pretty high elevation, you were wise not to cut them totally to the ground. Good intuition! One thing I’ve noticed in high elevation areas is that the base of the stems will continue to get old and overly woody over the years.

    For high elevation residents, here’s an approach to consider to keep older Russian sage plants renewed. Select a few (maybe one to three) of the thickest, oldest stems on each plant and cut them to the ground. With the remaining stems, cut off 2/3 of the old growth or the new growth. With this hybrid approach, you take out a slight bit of the oldest growth each year. This allows new stems to eventually emerge from the crown and renew the plant. As they say, out with the old and in with the new.

    It’s a slower process, but it works well with the shorter growing season. Welcome to Colorado Yard Care. 🙂

  3. nancy April 8, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

    I’m a novice & after reading your article I took the bold approach on a few of my sages but I’m not sure I completely understand what you mean by “Be sure to cut the stems as close as you can to ground level. Don’t leave any stubs.” Does that mean to cut back every branch & just leave a crown? I believe I left 2-3 inches of branches sticking out close to the ground. Please advise & thanks for your help!

    • Catherine April 9, 2014 at 9:58 am #

      Glad you are giving it a try! That’s a good approach to try it on a few plants in order to see what happens. I normally cut the stems so that about a 1/2 inch of last year’s stem is sticking out of the ground. That’s as close as I can get it to ground level without getting a bunch of mulch stuck in my pruners. There’s really no reason to leave any more stem, since the plants will regrow from the crown. Any stems you leave will become overly woody and they’re not needed for the plant to regrow. I’d love to hear how it turns out.

  4. Steve June 10, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

    Hello Catherine, my Russian Sage is coming very nice for its second year it starting to flop out towards the lawn in the front of it. So I saked it up with string so it won’t flop onto the lawn. Is that ok to do that? Will that train it will grow upward or should I pruin it back a bid. It’s not in flower yet. Thanks.

    • Catherine August 19, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

      Hi Steve, I’m sorry for replying late. I had a baby this spring and so my time available to blog has become scarce for a while. Anyway, yes, you can stake up Russian sage with string if it’s floppy. You might need to put on several “belts” throughout the summer as it gets taller. It probably won’t train it to grow upright permanently, but that’s ok. I find Russian sage gets floppy when it gets more water than it needs, which would make sense if it’s located close to a lawn. You could either move it to a drier area of your yard when it’s not in flower, or you could just simply tie it up each year to make it look normal. Please let us all know what solutions worked for you.

  5. Sarah September 9, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    I live in NE Colorado and want to plant some russian sage. When is the best planting time? Spring or fall?

    • Catherine September 11, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

      Hi Sarah. You can plant Russian sage in spring or fall (or even summer). However, it’s best to plant when you will be paying attention to the plant to make sure it gets enough water until it can grow a new root system. It usually takes Russian sage one to two months to begin growing new roots. For most people, this means spring because that leaves the rest of the summer for them to water regularly until the plant is “established.” It’s perfectly fine to plant in fall, but it’s important to water fall-planted plants once or twice per month during the fall and winter months. That way, your new plants stay hydrated until they begin growing again next spring. The take away message is this: if you’re willing to winter water regularly, it’s fine to plant in fall. If you don’t want to winter water, wait until spring. Hope you have lots of success!

  6. LJ Simms April 18, 2015 at 2:02 pm #

    Hello,

    I watched the video “How to Prune Russian Sage in Spring” and you mentioned that cutting back the stems to the ground should be done by late March, early spring. Is the reason for this that it is only recommended while the plant is dormant otherwise you are cutting off live growth and it will take longer for the plant to begin to grow again? Our Russian Sage plants are well established, growing at 6500′ in Golden, CO. We just had a major snowstorm in the area but prior to that we had mild weather and it is possible the Russian Sages have already started to put on some new growth so we should probably just cut back to the live wood and try the “cut the stems to the ground” method next year, right? These are growing in a non-irrigated garden. Thank you.

    • Catherine April 18, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

      Hi LJ, yes, I would suggest cutting back to the live wood this year since Russian sage has already started to leaf out (at least at my elevation of about 6,100 ft). It’s best to cut plants to the ground before the new growth emerges. Especially since the plants are in a non-irrigated garden, cutting to ground level after they leaf out can set them back a bit. Russian sage is a really tough plant in our climate, but the plants will be healthier in the long run when you modify your maintenance practices to harmonize with the plants’ growth stages. Great question!

  7. Mafie July 19, 2016 at 9:02 am #

    Hi Catherine, i just saw a couple of your videos about how to prune russian sage. I have planted one about 2 years ago (unfortunately in a shady area), no wonder its floppy and sprawling and no blooms in the last 2 summers. My question is, i have a well drained sunny spot for it but can I transplant it now ( mid summer)? Or should i wait till spring?

    Many thanks!

    • Catherine August 1, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

      Hi Mafie, you can go ahead and transplant it now if you can keep the soil moist until it grows new roots. You have to water a bit more in mid summer which can be hard to do if you’re not home much. In the cool weather of spring you don’t have to water new transplants as often. I’ve had good luck transplanting as late as October if I watch the soil moisture throughout the winter. Good luck #

  8. Rollie Hill November 6, 2016 at 6:48 pm #

    I read the trimming method for Russian sage relative to spring. Can it be cut back in a similar way in the fall? Thanks

    • Catherine November 7, 2016 at 10:40 am #

      Hi Rollie, yes, you can use the same general methods. Of course you won’t see how far back it has died until next spring, but you can touch it up then if you like. Hope it goes well.

  9. Pam March 23, 2017 at 4:58 pm #

    Hi Catherine,

    I’m so glad I found your article and video on Russian Sage! I do have a question though – I have four rather young (and small) Russian Sage bushes that were only planted by our landscapers in the last year or two. The first year I think I didn’t even know what they were, and now that I do for sure, I’m wondering what you recommend for a much smaller plant. Should I cut them all the way back to spur on some growth, or can that be harmful to a younger plant? I do see that one is already putting off some new stalks at the base, so I would assume I should leave those, but can I still cut back the dead parts all the way? I don’t think I see any leaves on the old stalks, just new stalks coming up.

    Also, they’re planted in rock beds. Would you recommend that we pull the rocks away a bit to give them some room to grow?

    • Catherine March 25, 2017 at 10:20 am #

      Hi Pam, with younger plants I would take a more conservative approach. They’re still growing a new root system, so the less stress the better. I would cut the old stems to the new growth, if there is any. If there’s not, you can cut them to ground level and let the new growth come from the base. There’s nothing wrong with waiting a little while to see if the new growth will emerge later. Glad you found the site!

    • Catherine March 25, 2017 at 10:21 am #

      Yes. I would pull the rocks away from the crown by a few inches.

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