How to Grow and Use Stevia
Stevia is an herb which serves as a natural and safe sweetener, it has zero calories and is considered the safest and healthiest sweetener available. Various compounds are extracted from the leaves of Stevia plants, different forms have varying levels of sweetness. Stevia possesses multiple health benefits. It has hypoglycemic effects when ingested, and will also improve improve insulin production. It is a natural antioxidant, can alleviate hypertension and high blood pressure. It is believed that it also inhibits the bacterial growth that leads to tooth decay.
Commercially available products marketed as Stevia are highly processed with toxic chemicals including methyl alcohol. Commercial Stevia that you buy in the grocery store or products that it is infused with, so called 'all natural' products you purchase are not natural at all.
'... it's far from being natural.
Be it Coke's Truvia, Pepsi's PureVia, or Wisdom Natural Brand's SweetLeaf, they all are stevia. Specially, these products are the result of an extraction process from a specific species of the stevia plant, stevia rebaudiana, from which the active compounds rebaudioside and stevioside are extracted and isolated.
We have forgotten, however, how companies like Coca Cola hold a patent to make it and can get away with calling it stevia even though they should really call it rebaudioside and stevioside sweetener. Sound natural and authentic to you? ' The Bitter Truth About Stevia: It Ain't Natural'
Home gardeners can and do grow their own stevia and the leaves are used as a natural sweetener for tea, coffee and assorted recipes. Using Stevia leaves in cold drinks does not have the same results, although you can use it brew iced tea so long as start with hot tea. I like to add some to my preserves. Fresh leaves straight off the plant during their active growing season can be used to sweeten tea, iced tea, coffee and so forth.
The sweetness of the raw natural leaves is not as concentrated as the processed stevia. It is roughly 1/4 the strength of store bought powdered Stevia and 10X as healthy not to mention tasty. Many varieties of Stevia will fit well into a small herb or vegetable gardens and kitchen gardens.
Home gardeners who grow their own stevia are able to make their own sweetener with stevia leaves. See: Stevia Extract
Stevia is a delicate perennial that will only do well in USDA hardiness zones 11 and up, although some specimens will survive a mild winter in zones 8 and 9. Elsewhere it can be grown as an annual or grown indoors, it has also been grown successfully hydroponically. In colder climates, Stevia should be planted after the last frost and treated as an annual. Longer summer days favor leaf yield and quality . Stevioside content increases with the warmth and sunlight of summer, stevioside is the natural compound that gives this remarkable herb its sweetness .
Stevia requires more moisture than most plants, as it is native to marshes and swampy areas, it doesn't tolerate arid conditions or drought at all. It also does not tolerate standing water for prolonged periods. Organic mulch and frequent watering will ensure consistently moist conditions, while hills or raised beds will help prevent fungal problems associated with standing water.
Stevia does best in a well-drained sandy loam or loam soil. A rich organic compost made with will certainly improve soil structure and supply necessary nutrients. Stevia when grown wild does okay with a Soil pH of 4 to 5, but thrives even more with a soil pH as high as 7.5. Stevia does not tolerate excessively saline soils.
Although Stevia is grown for its leaves, it has been proven that high nitrogen fertilizer, which promotes foliage growth is not advisable for Stevia plants. It produces excessive low quality growth with poor flavor and low stevioside concentrations. Bone meal or blood meal, as well as well dried manure will provide adequate nitrogen that is slowly released. Bone meal will also provide phosphorous and many trace minerals. A low nitrogen formula is recommended at the initial planting and again in mid summer.
Raised Beds are great for Stevia Plants. Raised beds prevent standing water and helps to reduce soil compaction. A organic mulch will help retain adequate, but not excessive moisture and also suppress weeds.
The hill system is also good for Stevia, as excessive moisture will drain quicker - but an adequate organic mulch will retain enough. Set Stevia plants in low hills spaced about a foot to a foot and a half apart. You need to put more soil around the plant base during the growing season.
Stevia seeds aren't always easy to find and when you have them , they frequently have a low germination rate. If you do have Stevia seeds, they can be easily germinated indoors, under Grow Lights is best. Seedlings grow slowly, so allow 6 to 8 weeks from seeding to outdoor transplanting. And sow more seed than you expect to plant, as the germination rate is frequently very low. Try to maintain a temperature of 70 F to 75 F. Small containers with drainage or plastic cell packs are best.
Plants / seedlings from reputable suppliers are more advisable than seeds. There are different plants that are called Stevia, it is actually a genus of plants, not a single cultivar, such as pumpkins being related to squash . Stevia rebaudiana is the species you want. Stevia stem cuttings will root easily under long day conditions. Grow Lights are ideal for this if being done indoors.
In outdoor garden beds, space Stevia plants 8 to 10 inches apart in a row, generally with two rows per raised bed or. You may want to stagger the rows. Cooler night temperatures will cause plant growth to cease. in cooler areas Pre Fabricated Cold Frames, hot caps or row covers will promote faster growth and protection from rogue frosts.
A consistent moisture supply is vital to a successful Stevia harvest. Irrigate frequently , but not excessively. Sandy soils require more frequent irrigation. At the peak of Summer I prefer to water every other day, however common sense observations will of course influence this. Dry hot weather or heavy wet rainy conditions should influence how often you supply water.
Try not to water from above , although this is not always feasible. Watering from above will attract disease and pests to the plants. Try not to splash dirt onto the plants as many plant diseases are from soil borne pathogens. This of course is minimized assuming your plants are properly pruned.
Mulch helps to keep water where it's needed and slows down the evaporation process. Drip Irrigation systems for Stevia and other garden plants with an automatic timer provides regular and consistent watering. Drip Irrigation also allows water to penetrate deeper into the soil, increasing uptake by plant roots.
Stevia stems are brittle and frequently break under windy conditions. Pinching the tips out every 3 to 4 weeks will encourage side branching, resulting in a bushier plant less susceptible to wind damage. If possible try to grow Stevia in a protected area . Supports similar to that used on tomato plants is also a good idea.
Aphids, Thrips, and whiteflies are sometimes pests of Stevia, particularly whiteflies when grown indoors or in greenhouses. Horticultural oil will suffice in mild infestations. Neem Oil in severe ones.
Harvest And Storage
Flavor of Stevia, it' sweetness, is best just before bud break and flowering. This occurs anywhere from mid summer to late Autumn depending on growing condition. Plants should definitely be harvested before the first frost. When growing Stevia as a annual cut the entire plant at the soil level.
When growing Stevia as a perennial cut the plants about a half foot from the soil level so they will re-grow the following season. Harvest in the morning, after any dew has evaporated, or in the early evening under dry conditions is best.
Plants can be dried by hanging them upside down in a warm, dry well ventilated location. Once dried they can be stored in mason jars and have a shelf life of several years so long as they are kept dry. A food dehydrator on low heat about 100 F will also do the job. The leaves should be green, crisp, and crumble easily when done.
Fresh Stevia Leaves can be harvested at anytime in the active growing season.