Grow Your Own Healthy Sugar Substitute: The Sweet Herb Stevia

The herb stevia is an excellent sugar substitute for people who have diabetes. Consuming it does not raise glucose levels and it contains no calories.

Anyone can enjoy adding fresh stevia leaves to a hot beverage by keeping a stevia plant on the windowsill. People who enjoy gardening can easily create a supply of powdered stevia by growing several plants to maturity and then harvesting, drying and crushing the leaves.

By most accounts, growing stevia from seeds is tricky. Unless you have a set-up at home for germinating seeds, as well as some passion for gardening, you will want to purchase stevia plants from a greenhouse or find someone who has stevia plants and is willing to give you cuttings.

Stevia Growing Basics

Stevia rebaudiana plants can be grown in containers, raised beds, or backyard plots. Gardeners should place them about 10 to 12 inches apart in sandy soil for good drainage. They prefer a neutral pH. In northern states, the plant grows best in full sunlight, whether sitting in a window or parked in a garden row. Farther south, they like a few hours of shade during the hot months or to be planted in filtered light.

This herb, which is a perennial in South America, cannot handle frost or cold soil. The roots are shallow, so seasoned growers suggest mulching around them to maintain moisture. Watering with a drip or soaker hose is recommended to avoid soggy soil. Enriching the loam from a compost pile or with a high nitrogen fertilizer will help the plant flourish.

Stevia Harvesting Basics

Harvesting fresh stevia leaves during the summer months to sweeten drinks should be done sparingly and from the outer branches. To reap this herb at its sweetest, the fall harvest should be done just before the plant flowers, usually in September or October. The plants can be dried either naturally (air dried) or in a dehydrator, after which the leaves are ground to a fine powder using a food processor or coffee grinder.

Before frost sets in, stevia plants can be repotted and brought indoors. Although the plant may look done for, the roots remain alive. Given sunlight and adequate water, the plants will survive the winter and thrive.

You can also take cuttings from this year's stevia plants to root for use next year. Dip them in a rooting compound and pot in moist soil. Keep the container on a sunny windowsill throughout the winter.

Seven Stevia Tips

  1. High-quality stevia seeds can be germinated using indoor lights; allow seven to eight weeks. Only dark brown or black seeds are viable.
  2. Stevia plants prefer a soil depth of about eight to 12 inches.
  3. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch.
  4. Pinch the growing tips of the plants every two to three weeks to ensure compact, dense foliage and healthy growth.
  5. To dry the herb you can bundle the stems (bundles should be less than one inch in diameter) and hang them upside down in a dry, warm, and preferably drafty place; strip the leaves off after drying.
  6. Place ground stevia leaves in airtight containers; store in a dark, dry area.
  7. You can make a liquid sweetener from crushed leaves by steeping 1/4 cup leaves in a cup of warm water for 24 hours. Strain, and store liquid in the refrigerator.

Approximately two to three teaspoons of stevia powder provide the sweetness of one cup sugar. It will take some experimentation to find out how much stevia is just right in your cup of tea or coffee. Cooking or baking with stevia as a sugar substitute will affect the texture of the finished product. You will again have to experiment or find recipes that are already stevia-tested.

Sources: Stevia.com; Common Sense Home

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