How-To

Growing Stevia

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Although stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) looks like an average green plant, it is an exciting choice for the herb garden because of the natural, calorie-free sweetness found in its leaves. Appreciated by diabetics and dieters, stevia is a tender perennial that loves the warm sun and dies back in a freeze. However, in zones 9 and warmer, the roots usually survive the winter and will come back in the spring. It can overwinter in zone 8, too, with protection. Gardeners in frost-free areas enjoy growing stevia year-round, allowing it to grow into a small shrub. However, vigor declines after the second year, so if you want to harvest the maximum amount of foliage, it pays to replant.

Soil, Planting, and Care

Plant your stevia so that it has about 18 inches of room to call its own. In the loose, loamy, well-drained soil that the plant prefers, it will grow 1 to 3 feet in height, depending on the length of your growing season. Wait until after all danger of frost has passed before planting. Improve the existing soil by mixing in Miracle-Gro® Garden Soil for Vegetables & Herbs, or plant in pots filled with Miracle-Gro® Moisture Control® Potting Mix to help protect against over- and under-watering. Feed stevia with compost or Miracle-Gro® LiquaFeed® Tomato, Fruits & Vegetables Plant Food as directed on the label. Mulch to prevent the plant from drying out on hot summer days. Container-grown plants will benefit from the same plant food and mulch.

If you garden in containers, give your stevia plant at least a 12-inch pot with a quality potting mix. Place it in full sun, and water whenever the top inch of potting soil feels dry.

Grow stevia for its sweet leaves and for the green color it brings to your herb garden.
Stevia is a pretty, green plant that looks a little like some of the flowering salvias.

Troubleshooting

Stevia doesn’t like soggy soil, so make sure that it has good drainage, or the roots could rot. A sure sign of rot is wilting from which the plant doesn’t recover after watering. Fortunately, few insects bother stevia plants.

Harvest and Storage

Leaves are sweetest in the cool temperatures of autumn. They also taste best prior to the plant blooming.

Uses

Use the fresh leaves during the growing season to sweeten tea. The sweetness in the leaves is approximately one-fourth as concentrated as the white, powdered stevia sold at the store.

When sweetening with powdered leaves, use about 1/8 teaspoon of dried stevia to equal the sweetness of 1 teaspoon of sugar. Remember, while stevia will withstand the heat of cooking, it will not caramelize like sugar or feed yeast for breads.

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Get gardening info on the go with our free app, HOMEGROWN with Bonnie Plants. Find out more, or download it now for iPhone or Android.

Stevia grows well in most any garden.
Plant stevia in the ground or in a container in the loose, loamy, well-drained soil it prefers.
When your stevia plant blooms in fall, trim off the flowers and the plant will make more leaves.
Stevia bears small white flowers in the fall. At this point, the plant stretches out and offers fewer good leaves for harvest. Trim off the blooms to keep the plant producing leaves as long as possible.

FAQs

I tried packets of stevia from the grocery store. Do the fresh leaves taste better?

The fresh leaves of stevia are not as intensely sweet as the concentrated version sold at the store. Consequently, it is more difficult to overdo it, leaving food with a bitter taste. Many people seem to like fresh stevia (or the powdered dried leaves) better than the concentrate, but you should try it for yourself.

Can I simply put a leaf of stevia into my glass of tea to sweeten it?

Actually, you need to steep your tea with fresh stevia leaves. Heat releases the sweetness. If you use an instant tea or like to sweeten lemonade, make an extract by chopping about a cup of fresh leaves and pouring warm water over them. Let them steep overnight. Then strain and refrigerate. Your extract can be used to sweeten tea, coffee, fruit drinks, chopped fruit, and desserts. It will last about a month in the refrigerator – if you don’t use it all first.

Where did stevia come from?

For hundreds of years, stevia has been a staple of the indigenous people of Paraguay, where it is native. Early settlers began to use it, and it came to be known as yerba dulce, which is “sweet herb” in Spanish. It is widely used in Japan in lieu of artificial sweeteners. For many people, it is healthier than sugar because it has little impact on blood glucose levels.

How many plants do I need for a family of four?

That depends on how much your family uses and whether you plan to dry it for use during the winter. For sweetening an occasional pitcher of iced tea, 1 plant should be enough. However, you may want as many as 6 if you plan to cut and dry the leaves. Even then, you won’t need as much powdered stevia as you would sugar. For example, 1/8 teaspoon powdered, dried stevia is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.

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