Who says we can’t have it all? We began homesteading because we wanted control over what we eat and use. That includes our sweeteners. Minimally processed sugars can be difficult to find, and most aren’t locally sourced unless you live in the tropics or where date palms are farmed. Growing stevia indoors provides a lot of healthy sweetness for a little effort.
If you don’t live on a sugar cane plantation, or don’t have the patience to grow then boil down sugar beets, your sweetening options are limited. You could start a honey bee farming project, benefiting from pollinators and harvesting both honey and wax. Perhaps you could grow crops naturally high in sugar then cook them into foods such as healthy sweet potato recipes.
The aforementioned ideas involve having homesteading land, or at least garden space. Whether you live on acreage or in an apartment, you can try growing stevia indoors.
A Different Kind of Sweetness
Though stevia tastes eight to 150 times sweeter than sugar, it has a negligible effect on blood glucose because it isn’t sugar. The molecular compound consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, as both fructose and glucose do, but the arrangement is more complex. Stevia does not ferment. It’s pH-stable and heat-stable. Because of these characteristics, you cannot use it as the sugar in kombucha; it must be added after the fermentation is complete. It cannot feed yeast in bread or beer. Stevia cannot replace sugar in candy or within jam recipes for canning because sugar’s acidity is necessary for food safety and to help the pectin set. But you can use it to sweeten teas and within your baking.
Though the leaves have been used for more than 1,500 years by native peoples in South America, use of whole leaf or raw extracts has not been studied enough to be approved by the FDA. The highly refined extracts have been deemed safe and are available as liquid, powder, and dissolvable tablets. This raises questions among food safety critics. Though extracts have been approved, some undergo 45 different steps, involving chemicals and GMO-derived products. Which is safer: the raw product or the processed one?
Growing Stevia Indoors
As a Brazilian and Paraguayan plant, stevia thrives in Zone 9 or warmer. It can overwinter in Zone 8 with protection but will certainly die back in a frost. Gardeners in colder areas plant stevia in the spring and harvest when the weather gets cold but before an actual frost strikes.
Growing stevia indoors lengthens the season and allows you to harvest perpetually.
Since seeds are difficult to germinate, purchase started plants from a nursery or garden center. Stevia continues to gain popularity so the plants should be easy to find. Use a fertile, loamy potting mix and a container that is at least twelve inches wide. If you’re planting several in the same container, separate by two feet of space. Keep the soil well-drained, watering only when the top inch is dry. Place within the full sun of a greenhouse or provide as much light as possible, supplementing with strong ultraviolet bulbs when direct sunlight isn’t available.
Stevia will reach 18 inches to two feet, depending on location and temperature. Growing stevia indoors often results in smaller plants. To encourage branching, trim back plants before they flower, leaving about four inches. Either dry the cuttings as a sweetener or root to grow more plants.
Though stevia can live about three years in warm climates, it loses potency with each year. The sweetest leaves grow in the first year. It’s recommended that gardeners growing stevia indoors keep several parent plants, removing cuttings to start tender new crops. Propagate more stevia by using a rooting compound. Plant rooted cuttings in fertile soil, watering carefully until the roots take hold.
To harvest, cut branches several inches above the base, leaving enough leaves to photosynthesize and regenerate the plant. Dry the leaves then strip them from stems. Store in a cool, dry location such as an airtight jar.
How to Use Stevia Leaves
Though you can use stevia fresh or dried, be wary of using too much. Over-sweetening may leave a bitter, licorice-like flavor.
Place a fresh leaf within a cup of hot tea, letting the sweetness infuse. Or mix dried leaves into your tea blend before brewing loose or spooning into bags. One eighth teaspoon unprocessed stevia equals about one teaspoon of sugar. Make a 50/50 tincture of leaves soaked in grain alcohol for several weeks then carefully heat the alcohol for a half hour, without actually boiling it, to reduce volume and remove some bad flavor. Or avoid alcohol by steeping leaves in near-boiling water at a ratio of one part leaves to two parts water. Strain out the leaves then pour the water into a dark container and refrigerate.
Whether you want to harness natural sweetness, reduce calorie and sugar intake, or avoid GMO ingredients and chemicals, growing stevia indoors provides a lot of sweetness for very little work.
Originally published in 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.