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Stevia is an herbal sweetener that can help you keep calories low when you want something sweet. Research has demonstrated that not only are stevia sweeteners extremely low in calories, but they do not have an effect on blood glucose. Check out our November/December 2011 issue for a wonderful stevia recipe. Most of the stevia products you’ll find in health food stores are derivatives of the stevia plant, but you can actually grow the herb yourself.
Freshly harvested stevia leaves can be steeped in water to create a liquid sweetener, or simply added directly to your coffee or tea. Stevia plants are adaptable to many climates, from the American South to Canada.
Step 1: Buy plants
For consistent levels of sweetness, it’s best to start with plants instead of seeds. If your local nursery doesn’t carry them (it probably won’t), check these great resources for live stevia (Stevia Rebaudiana) plants:
Step 2: Set Out Stevia Transplants
Stevia will grow in most soils that are suitable for growing vegetables. You can also grow stevia in containers in a sunny spot.
After all danger of frost is past and soil temperatures are into the 50s and 60s, you can transplant your stevia starters to your garden. In order to help strengthen your starter plants, it’s a good idea to expose them to the outdoors for a few hours at a time over the few days before you plant them. Plant your starters about 20 inches apart in all directions.
Step 3: Maintain Healthy Stevia Plants
Feeding: Sprinkle finished compost around the base of the plants, where the roots near the surface will make great use of it. This is especially great if your soil is sandy. Follow package directions on slow-release organic fertilizers that aren’t too high in nitrogen.
Watering: Stevia roots are sensitive to excess moisture, so take care not to overwater them, and make sure the soil is draining well. Frequent light watering is recommended.
Pest Control: Most people report that stevia plants are relatively pest-free, and may even repel insects.
Step 4: Harvesting Stevia Leaves
Your best harvest will probably come in year two, but you should be able to harvest some sweet leaves the first year. (By the third year, you may want to start with new plants.) Once temperatures are cool in late autumn, but before the chance of frost, cut the branches off leaving about 4 inches of stem, then pluck the leaves off of each branch.
Step 5: Processing Stevia Leaves
For outdoor drying, place all your harvested stevia leaves on a screen and place the screen in an area with good air circulation. On a mild autumn day, your leaves will dry in the sun in about half a day. Otherwise, use a food dehydrator to dry the leaves.
Step 6: Using Homegrown Stevia
You can use the dried leaves whole to sweeten beverages. You might also want to grind the leaves (using a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle) into a sweetening powder. To make a liquid sweetener, steep a quarter cup of crushed stevia leaves per cup of warm water for about a day, then refrigerate.