A saga of sage - from kitchen garden to kitchen

If you want to cultivate the traditional American holiday cooking herb, sage is for you. The warm pungent aroma and bold peppery taste of this hardy perennial are actually improved by frost, and it can generally be cut as needed right up until Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps that's why sage takes its place as the nostalgic favorite for seasoning the holiday feast.

A member of the mint family, sage shares with herbs such as sweet basil, sweet marjoram, and thyme the characteristic square stems, opposite leaves, and superior fragrance and flavor for culinary use. Although there are many different varieties of sage, the most readily available and most often used in the kitchen is common gray or garden sage (Salvia officinalis).

Sage is a graceful plant with a softly old-fashioned appearance. Its oblong leaves are gray-green and have the rough texture of a cat's tongue due to heavy veining.

Cultivated outdoors, this plant may reach a height of two feet. The sharply aromatic foliage can be harvested for drying two or three times during the summer. In fact, regular cutting controls the plant's tendency to sprawl.

The first time we planted sage seed, it sprouted within a week and soon eight pretty seedlings graced that last garden row.

The young plants flourished until sunny weather changed to rainy days and the leaves started to shrivel and blacken. When only three plants remained, the sun came out again and survivors immediately revived.

Later we learned the reasons for this near-miss with sage, which grows best in rather poor, sandy soil. Our soil was heavy with clay. Simply, sage won't tolerate soggy conditions at all.

The herb succumbs more often to ''wet feet'' than to drought and to overfeeding than to underfeeding.

We soon discovered that this herb can be rather persnickety, transformed almost overnight from an invincible-looking little bush to a pitiful mess, if conditions don't suit it. So keep an eye on young sage or new transplants. They won't object to being transplanted again, if necessary, to higher ground or a sunnier, better-drained spot. Three or four plants set about a foot apart provide plenty of fragrant foliage for the average family.

For a good supply of fresh sage the first year, seed may be started indoors in late winter. To hasten germination (which may take a week), soften the hard outer shell by soaking overnight. Keep the seed flat somewhat drier than usual, misting carefully but regularly.

After the seed sprouts, apply moisture at the base of the plants only when the soil surface is dry.

About two months later, young sage plants can be set out in the garden, first ''hardening'' out in a sheltered spot for a week. Old-time gardeners believed that sage makes an excellent companion to rosemary and discourages cabbage moth and carrot fly. For this reason, you may want to set some in the vegetable patch.

Wherever you decide to plant this hardy perennial, protect it from extreme temperatures with plastic covers (even though it can tolerate some late frost).

Sage also can be propagated from seed outdoors in early summer, if the conditions are right. Or for the indoor garden try scattering a few seeds in small pots in August or September. Another economical way to acquire sage plants is by stem cuttings, if you can find a willing herb gardener.

Small cuttings from indoor plants can be taken and rooted in wet sand in late winter and from outdoor plantings in early summer.

If you are a beekeeper, you'll let at least some of your sage bloom. Sage honey is a delicacy. However, for the finest flavor for the table, snip off flower stalks before violet-blue blossoms appear in early summer and harvest the soft young stems of new growth.

Don't cut woody old stems for drying.Hang 5-inch lengths, tied in small bunches, in open shade, if the weather is hot and dry. Or you can spread the leaves on screens or trays in a warm, airy place - an attic or large closet - for up to two weeks.

Sage takes somewhat longer to dry than some culinary herbs because of its tougher leaves. When the foliage is crisp and crackly, strip the stems and store the herb away from extreme heat in screw-capped jars. If moisture appears on the inside of containers, spread the leaves for drying again, perhaps carefully watched in a slow oven.

Label and date the jars and plan to refresh your supply of this tasty cooking herb once a year.

Sage makes a delightful houseplant, providing a handy source of fresh herb all winter. You can dig a small plant or two from the garden in the fall and pot in 3- or 4-inch pots filled with a good garden loam, sand, and well-rotted compost with some lime and bone meal, if available.

Keep sage on the dry side and give it plenty of bright sunlight. As you pinch out the tender center growth to add to food, you promote an attractive shape and prevent ''legginess'' as plants reach for dwindling winter light. Indoors, stem growth may be rather weak but produces a pretty spilling effect at a height somewhere under a foot. In the spring you can set the plants out in the garden again.

The distinctive flavor of sage is especially delicious in soups, stews, and chowders. Be sure to use it this holiday season in cheese and cheese spreads, herb butter for sweet vegetables, game meats, and of course poultry stuffing.

Remember, however, that you need as little as one-quarter teaspoon of dried sage where the recipe calls for a full teaspoon of fresh herb.

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