A fall-blooming perennial with edible leaves, growing stevia plants can be useful to your edible garden both in a design sense and as a herb for your home. The stevia plant is used in many countries as an alternative to sugar, and may have medicinal properties as well.
It's best to buy stevia plants rather than try to grow stevia from seed. Taste a leaf before you buy, as some varieties are sweeter than others.
Plant outdoors after all danger of frost is past -- the best time is when the temperature is consistently above 60 degrees F (16 C). The stevia plant might survive an unexpected frost with protection, but a hard freeze will usually kill it.
Stevia plants do well in rich soil with good drainage, in areas that receive six to eight hours of full sun, but it can also grow in poorer soils as well.
The plants are sensitive to overwatering, so don't plant them in areas that tend to flood. The roots of stevia plants lie just below the surface of the soil so frequent light watering is important, though. Mulching is very helpful in dry areas to keep the soil moist and to keep weeds down.
In the case of container plants, a wide shallow pot is all you need, as the roots don't go down very far but do like to spread out.
Compost is the favorite fertilizer of stevia plants, but if you must use other fertilizers, use one with a relatively low nitrogen content.
Stevia blooms in late summer and early fall with clusters of small white flowers. I haven't been able to determine whether stevia flowers are edible by my research, but if anyone has any information one way or the other please contact me! If the flowers are edible I can think of a lot of uses for them.
Stevia leaves can be picked from the plant at any time to use fresh, but I've heard that they are sweeter right before the plant flowers. This may be dependent on the variety as I haven't noticed a difference.
Drying the leaves makes them sweeter and is a good way to preserve the leaves for over the winter.
If you want to dry a lot at one time, cut the plant off about two inches from the ground, just as it's beginning to make flower buds, and dry in the sun or in a dehydrator. The plant will put out new leaves for another harvest later in the year.
Alternately, cuttings can be taken and rooted indoors in late summer for planting in the spring, if a window or sufficient artificial lighting can be maintained, as the plant will not do well in shade except in hot climates.
Most times you can put the cutting in water and it will root, but some people prefer using rooting powder instead.
Stevia leaves can be used fresh to sweeten fruit salads or in other desserts, or you can powder the dry leaves to use in place of sugar.
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