By MELINDA MYERS
Sweeten your meals by growing your own sugar substitute in gardens or containers. Stevia is nature’s own sweetener that can be snacked upon fresh or added to soups, sauces, or beverages.
Wait for warm nights and the danger of frost to pass before planting stevia outdoors. It is a perennial in USDA zones 8 and warmer, but those gardening in colder areas must grow stevia like an annual.
Start plants from seed, cuttings, or transplants. Seeds are difficult to find and even more difficult to sprout. Use this method if you like a gardening challenge.
Reduce your effort and increase success by starting with transplants. Check garden centers and mail order catalogs for plants. Place Stevia plants 12 inches apart in full sun or light shade with moist well-drained soils. You will get the best growth and most leaves during the long warm days of summer.
Incorporate a low nitrogen slow-release fertilizer in the soil or potting mix at planting. These provide small amounts of nutrients over a long period of time. Make a second application mid season if needed.
Water new plantings often enough to keep the roots and surrounding soil slightly moist. Gradually extend the time between watering. Thoroughly water whenever the top few inches of soil are crumbly and slightly moist. Spread a layer of evergreen needles, shredded leaves, or other organic matter over the soil surface. Mulching helps conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and improve the soil, reducing your time weeding and watering.
Harvest leaves as needed for sweetening your dishes. Munching on a single leaf can help suppress a sweet craving. You may be able to pass on a candy bar and go for a healthier option.
Wait for cool short days at the end of the growing season when the sweetness is most intense to make large harvests for drying. You can dry in a microwave, dehydrator, or a warm dark location in your home. Cut, bundle, and hang stems upside down to air dry. Knock leaves off the stem and save the dried leaves in an airtight jar. Grind the leaves by hand or use a coffee grinder to crush the leaves and release the sweetness. Dried leaves stored in an airtight jar will last for several years.
You can grow stevia indoors in a bright sunny window or under artificial lights. Purchase plants or start your own from cuttings. Check plants often and water thoroughly when the top few inches of soil is starting to dry. Fertilize with a dilute solution of any fertilizer labeled for use on indoor edible plants. Harvest the leaves as needed to sweeten your favorite dishes.
Growing stevia indoors or out can add flavor to your beverages and meals and fun to your gardening experience.
(Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is also a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.)