Growing stevia is a way to produce some of your own natural sweetener (it’s calorie free!). Plus, the stevia plant is easy to grow and makes a pretty addition to your herb or edible front yard garden.
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Introduction to stevia
You might know stevia as a natural sweetener, an alternative to those nasty little pink packets of sweetener you’d get at a restaurant. If you opt for natural sugar replacements rather than the pink packets, you might be using a sweetener derived from stevia.
Stevia is an herb that is cultivated for its sweet leaves. The leaves of a stevia plant are small and serrated, and it’s one of those nice looking herbs that you can easily tuck into an edible garden. It grows about 18″ tall and as wide.
Why not try growing a stevia plant yourself?
Why consider planting stevia in the home garden
- The novelty factor, especially for kids. It’s quite a surprise to chew on a leaf and get such a pop of sweetness!
- This pretty herb does well in patio containers.
- It makes a fun and surprising gift, either by itself or mixed into a custom tea blend.
- It has zero calories and is not metabolized by the body.
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Requirements for growing stevia plants
You can often find stevia plants at a nursery, but you can also grow stevia from seed. You’ll need to start the seeds indoors, about 8-10 weeks before your last frost. If you opt to start with seeds, here are some guidelines for getting started.
The stevia plant is a short-lived perennial, but they’re frost tender. In zones 8 and 9, stevia roots will overwinter and the plant will sprout new leaves in the spring.
Soil and maintenance
Once stevia seedlings have reached about three-to-four inches in height, plant them out in your garden after all danger of frost has passed. Choose a spot where it will get plenty of warm sunshine. Mix a little compost into the planting hole to get it started on the right foot! When planting stevia, remember that it needs well-drained soil; it doesn’t like soggy roots. Loose, loamy soil is best and will make your stevia plant happy.
As the stevia plant grows, pinch off the stem tips on occasion to encourage the plant to branch out into a fuller shape.
Stevia plants are rarely bothered by pests, making it an easy addition to the herb garden.
Growing stevia in containers
Planting stevia in pots allows you to move them inside during the cold winter months for protection. Choose a container that’s 12″ in diameter and has a drainage hole. Place it in full sun and water as needed to maintain moist but not wet growing conditions.
The best time to harvest stevia is just before the plant enters its blooming stage. When you see flower buds starting to form, it’s time. To harvest stevia growing in your garden, use scissors or snips to cut the stems several inches from the base of the plant. (Depending on your climate, the stevia may very well put out another round of fresh growth before winter sets in.)
Drying the stevia you’ve grown
I stripped the leaves from the stems, cleaned them in a bowl of water, and took them for a spin in the salad spinner. And this is where I got a little crazy. Instead of drying the leaves in my dehydrator (hardly worth the energy for just a few trays) or my oven (again, with the wasted energy),
I spread it out on two cookie sheets and put them in my car. I am so serious. It gets warm in there! Even with our overcast and cloudy weather, the leaves dried overnight.
If you’d prefer more traditional methods of drying the leaves from your stevia plant, set the dehydrator to 135ºF and dry for 2-to-4 hours, or until crispy. Store dried stevia in an airtight container for up to a year.
For starters, growing stevia means you can pluck a leaf or two when you’re out in the garden. Just chewing on a fresh leaf gives a burst of sweetness that’s welcome when you’re trying to cut back on processed sugars. I’ve tried tossing a few fresh stevia leaves in with hot tea, but don’t notice much in the way of sweetening with this method.
Drying stevia leaves allows you to store the sweet leaves more easily, and it works well for sweetening hot drinks. If you brew loose leaf teas, the easiest way to use your dried stevia is to add some to your tea strainer along with your tea.
You can also grind the fresh leaves of the stevia plant in a simple mortar and pestle, though be aware that unlike the powdered stevia you can buy, the ground leaves don’t actually dissolve. Using them in this manner might require a bit of experimentation!
Originally published August, 2012; this post has been updated.