Chances are, you’ve seen packets of stevia in your local coffee shop. But did you know that the stevia plant can be grown in your own backyard? Here’s everything you need to know about how to grow, harvest, and enjoy stevia leaves at home.
Stevia has become all the rage lately, and for good reason! It is a no-calorie, plant-based sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Green stevia leaves can be grown in the home garden and harvested to make a huge number of sweet-tasting recipes that won’t spike insulin or cause inflammation like sugar does.
I love the flavour of green stevia, and I regularly give visitors stevia leaves from my garden to taste. They often have the same look after tasting it: a combination of “Wow, that’s sweet” and “Hmmm, it doesn’t taste like sugar.”
That’s because people tend to think of stevia as a diet product or a sugar replacement. Even though it is often marketed that way, the stevia plant is an herb with a wonderful flavour and a great many uses. If you are trying to kick a sugar addiction, stevia very well may help, but it should also be appreciated for the herbaceous, green, sweet flavour that is uniquely its own.
Jump ahead to…
How Growing Stevia Saved My Life
After I gave birth to my son, my hormones got all messed up and I felt awful. I went to talk to my doctor about what could possibly be making me so tired, puffy, sluggish, and craving food all. the. time.
It didn’t make any sense to me.
I exercised regularly and followed the Canada Health guide for eating a balanced diet: everything in moderation, lean meats, a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, low fat, and whole grains. I was doing everything right.
But I felt terrible.
And I was always starving. I craved sugar like it had an all-powerful control over me and I couldn’t figure out why. When I asked my doctor if I could possibly be insulin resistant she said “Oh, you most certainly are.”
I was shocked! I asked “Why didn’t you tell me this before? Can’t you do something about it?” She replied that what you do about it is what I was already doing: following a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
Clearly, that was not working.
Saying Goodbye to Sugar
So, three years ago, I changed my diet dramatically by cutting out all sugar: sugar, honey, maple syrup, and even fruit. Yes, even fruit.
I also cut out anything that my body could easily convert to sugar: carbs. Then, I cut out all grains and all starchy vegetables as well. Finally, I added more healthy fats into my diet, organic and grass-fed meats, and lots and lots of green vegetables.
These changes made an enormous difference in how I felt almost immediately. At first, I felt horrible. I was so sick and felt like I was going to die as I detoxed from sugar.
But then, after a few weeks, I started to get much better. I had more energy than I’ve ever had in my life. I felt much lighter and less puffy. And I lost a ton of inflammation, which helped to reduce my chronic pain dramatically.
How I Reversed Insulin Resistance
The numbers showed why I felt so much better. When I first had my blood tested, it showed a very high level of insulin resistance, and I looked like I was well on my way to developing diabetes. Within 6 months of a sugar-free diet, I’d cut that number in half. Within a year, I had completely reversed the insulin resistance. And then my doctor asked me to teach her what I had done!
It took a ton of willpower to cut out sugar for good. No sugar. At all. Not even on my birthday. Yup, that’s right, no birthday cake.
Living sugar-free is not easy. Sugar is in absolutely everything. It’s part of every celebration and social gathering. And it’s the first thing that your body wants when you’re hungry. Your body knows to ask for that quick fix of something sweet so that it can give you a burst of energy. And it tastes so good. So, so good.
I was committed to kicking sugar in all its forms so I could stop the cycle of insulin resistance and build a better life. I wanted to have the energy to be able to raise my son. And live a long life to see him grow up.
Needless to say, cutting out sugar has been a lifesaver for me. But also, it can be a bummer to have to pass on your favourite treats. I looked into how I could use something herbal and natural to create recipes that I loved that don’t replace sugar but are even better. That taste delicious, sweet, and green – just how I want to live my life!
That’s where stevia (and the stevia plant!) comes in.
All About the Stevia Plant
There used to be controversy around stevia, particularly in the United States where it was banned because there were not enough studies to say whether or not it was safe to consume. Even products like aspartame and other artificial sweeteners (oh, and sugar) were deemed safe to be sold on the market.
I won’t go into the politics behind sugar and sweeteners because there are more than enough resources out there to shed light on those issues. I can only speak to how everything that I do for my own personal health and the health of my family has to make sense and feel good to me.
In short, when I can grow an herb in my garden organically, I have a lot more trust in its safety than I do in man-made or synthetic products.
Stevia Plant Vs Powdered Stevia
Stevia that you buy at the grocery store is very different than the stevia plant you grow in your garden.
When I first tasted stevia it was in a powder form from a packet and it tasted quite bitter and very sweet. Honestly, I did not like it at all. But when I started growing the stevia plant in my garden, I experimented a lot to find the ways that it could help me feed my sweet tooth while doing good things for my body.
As an artificial sweetener, stevia is often either a clear liquid extract or a white powder. Essentially what’s been done is the sweet component of stevia has been extracted and added to either a powder or a liquid like alcohol or glycerin so that it dilutes the sweetness and helps to remove some of the bitter aftertastes.
Green stevia, or Stevia rebaudiana, is what you’ll grow in the garden. It grows like an herb with serrated-edged leaves and is native to South America. Indigenous peoples of South America have used the stevia plant for hundreds of years, both medicinally and as a sweetening agent.
The flavour of green stevia leaves reminds me of a bit of green tea mixed with sweeteners. It is quite sweet, so a little goes a long way. Over the past three years that I have been growing and testing out stevia in various recipes, I have learned how to harvest and prepare it so that I don’t miss sugar one bit. And, more importantly, stevia helps me to stay away from sugar so that I don’t fall off the wagon.
Benefits of Stevia
I’m not the only one who noticed a change! In a 2010 study, stevia has been shown to significantly lower insulin and glucose levels. The plant can help to keep blood sugar levels in check. And as a nonnutritive sweetener, it has no calories.
When you look at stevia as a herb, you see it in a whole new light. The herbal properties of stevia help to scrub away the biofilm in the gut, which can hide bacteria and cause digestive problems. The stevia allows your good gut flora to neutralize the bad flora. Plus, you’re not adding sugar and therefore avoiding a bad bacteria gut party.
Most of all, it works well to kick that sugar habit. Since it’s so much sweeter than regular sugar, a little goes a long way. One stevia plant can provide you with more than enough sweetness for your daily cravings.
Stevia leaves have not been approved by the FDA for commercial use, so you can only grow and use stevia leaves from your garden. Little research has been done on using stevia leaves. But in my experience, they’re a wonderful alternative and have made all the difference in kicking my sugar habit.
How to Plant Stevia
Grow green stevia in full sun in containers or in loose, loamy, well-draining soil. Space plants 18” apart so they can fill out and grow 12-36″ tall. Like basil, if you continue to pinch the plant back and use the top leaves it will become bushier and fuller with stronger stalks.
Stevia can be grown from seed in the winter or from rooted cuttings. As far as herbs go, growing stevia takes a little more effort than most. They require some heat to get started and it may take a few practice seedlings.
Green stevia can overwinter in zones 8 and above, although the older the plant, the tougher the leaves become. It’s better to start new cuttings or new seeds each year for the freshest stevia.
Prune back your stevia plant a few times throughout the growing season to prevent flowering and to encourage branching. Once the plant flowers, the leaf flavour becomes less appealing. Similar to most herbs and vegetables that you eat for their leaves, once the plant energy starts to go into flowering, the leaves become bitter or less flavorful.
Where Can I Buy Stevia Plants?
Stevia plants are now usually available at your favourite garden center in the herb section. Since most plants from garden centres have been treated with pesticides, don’t eat the stevia leaves right away. Wait for new growth, prune back your stevia plant, and enjoy the new (untreated growth) for consumption.
How to Harvest Stevia
If you prune back your stevia plant a few times in the year, you’ll have plenty to use fresh and in recipes throughout the summer months.
Check out the delicious coconut ice cream and melon dessert that Chef Andrea from Burdock & Co made from my garden stevia when I hosted a garden-to-table event there last year.
Remove the leaves from the stems and use the leaves to make fresh tea or liquid extract. You can also dry the leaves by tying the stems and bundles and hanging them in a cool, dark place until the leaves dry.
In the fall, harvest the entire plant after the weather has dipped. Cooler temperatures enhance the sweetness of stevia leaves.
Harvest green stevia in the morning when it has the highest sugar content.
Drying and Storing Stevia
To dry stevia, cut the stems and bundle them together with garden twine. Hang them upside down on an herb drying rack in a cool, dark place out of direct sunlight. When there is no moisture left, you can remove the leaves and store them in Mason jars or grind them into a powder.
How to Use Stevia Plants
Now that you have your stevia plant harvested and dried—what do you do with it? Depending on the form of the stevia, you can use it for many different things including smoothies, coffee, and even baking. Dried stevia powder, the leaves themselves, and a liquid sweetener are all great ways to use the herb.
Homemade Green Stevia Powder
To make a green stevia powder that can be used in baking recipes, take the dried leaves and put them in a powerful blender or food processor (I use the “dry ingredient” attachment on my Vitamix) to create a very fine powder.
Even though this powder may be quite fine, it will not dissolve in liquids. Instead, it will just float to the top, so you probably won’t want to use it in your morning coffee. I like to use it in baking and in recipes where it is dispersed throughout, like in a mousse.
Stevia Sweetened Tea
Use fresh or dried stevia leaves to sweeten tea. Add one small bit of leaf to hot water in combination with your other tea herbs to add a natural, earthy sweetness.
Stevia will not steep in cold water so the water must be warm in order to release the sweetness. Always keep in mind that stevia is so much sweeter than sugar that you only need a little bit as it will go a long way.
Making an extract involves adding the stevia leaves to a liquid to draw out the flavours. You then strain out and discard the leaves, leaving you with a sweet stevia extract that is easy to use in liquids like tea, soda, smoothies, and other recipes where powdered stevia would not dissolve.
I like this recipe for making stevia extract because you can make it in alcohol, but there are also instructions on how to dealcoholize it if you wish.
I hope that the stevia plant changes your life for the better as it did mine. Let me know in the comments how you use stevia and feel free to share your favourite recipes!
More Herbal Growing Guides