How to Grow and Use This Delicious Natural Sugar Substitute

Unlike other sugar alternatives such as honey, maple syrup, and molasses, stevia is not metabolized by the body and has absolutely zero calories. This sweet sensation has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years and is quickly becoming the go-to sweetener for people with diabetes, those looking to lose weight, or people with a sweet tooth who still want to eat a healthy diet. Thankfully, growing stevia at home is super easy and is a great way to round off an herb garden, increase your sustainability, and improve your health by ditching processed sugar. 

How to grow stevia

Stevia can be grown from seed, cuttings, or small plants. Starting stevia from transplants is the most foolproof method since the seeds are often finicky to germinate and cuttings don’t always produce roots. Look in your local nursery or garden center in the herb section for a healthy stevia transplant. To harvest enough of this herb to last an entire year, it is usually a good idea to plant at least two plants, or more depending on how often you use stevia. 

Plant outdoors after the last threat of frost has passed, and the soil is warm. Stevia grows well in containers since it prefers, light, well-draining soil and will struggle in soggy ground. Containers can also be brought indoors in the winter which could help the tender perennial survive for another growing season. Stevia will grow well outdoors over the winter in zones 9 or higher and will survive in zone 8 with mulch protection. Otherwise, grow it as an annual or overwinter it as a houseplant. When grown as a perennial, flavor and production will often decline after the second growing season, so it is a good idea to replant for maximum harvest.

Place stevia plants in containers that are at least 12” to give the herb room to grow. If you are planting in the ground, leave 18” of open space around stevia and place plants 2’ apart to provide good air circulation. Ensure good drainage by using a light, loamy potting mix in containers with large drainage holes and amend the soil with natural compost. Water whenever the top 1” of soil feels dry to keep the soil moist but don’t overwater since soggy soil can lead to root rot. Stevia should be grown in part shade in areas with hot summers, while it will benefit from full sun in more mild climates.

How to harvest stevia

To harvest stevia, pick fresh leaves and use throughout the growing season, or cut the plant down by ½ in midsummer for a bulk harvest. This will allow you to get another crop in early fall once new growth has ceased. Keep in mind; stevia loses much of its sweetness and flavor if you let it flower, so always pinch off early buds and harvest when blooms just start to appear over the whole plant.

Wash the leaves and pat them dry with a paper towel. Lay out the leaves on a cookie sheet and cook in the oven at 150 degrees F until they are totally dry and crumbly. You can also use a food dehydrator, if you have one, or tie the bunches together and hang upside down to air dry. Air drying doesn’t produce as much flavor so choose your drying method accordingly. Once leaves are totally dry, crush them by hand or grind them to a fine powder in a food processor or coffee grinder. Store in an airtight container.

How to use stevia

Figuring out the amount of stevia to use for optimal sweetness can be difficult. A good comparison is to use ⅛ tsp of powdered leaves for every 1 tsp of sugar. Stevia can be used as a sugar substitute in most recipes for sweetening purposes, but it will not carmelize or act in the same way as sugar. Stevia is significantly sweeter than sugar, so less is always best. Start with a small amount and then increase by increments. Too much stevia could leave a bitter taste. The flavor may take a little while to get used to if you haven’t had stevia before so it may be helpful to still sweeten with a small amount of sugar combined with stevia at first. 

Have you ever grown stevia? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!

-Taylor Ramsey

 

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