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Don Kinzler, Published January 03 2014

Fielding questions

Q: I have read and heard much about the plant called stevia, which is reportedly many times sweeter than sugar but has no calories. It is supposed to be a natural sugar substitute that is healthier than aspartame and chemical sweeteners. Can this plant be grown in our area?

– Amanda Nicholson, Fisher Minn.

A: We first grew stevia about 15 years ago when we offered plants for sale in the herb section of our greenhouse. Stevia can be grown quite successfully as an annual in the vegetable and flower garden or in containers.

Seeds should be started early indoors in late March and then transplanted outdoors in May after danger of frost is past. You might find plants available at garden centers. Maintain stevia during summer as you would other garden plants.

Leaves can be used fresh during summer as a sweetener for tea and lemonade. The main harvest should wait until just before autumn frost because the short, cool days of late summer favor the accumulation of additional sugars within leaves. After picking the leaves, allow them to sun-dry or use a food dehydrator. Stems contain very little of the sweet compound. The quicker the drying process, the sweeter the product. When crisp, grind the leaves to a fine powder and cover tightly. Stevia powder can last for years if kept cool and dry. Because stevia varies in strength from 30 to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, it can be difficult to use in recipes. It is easiest to use in drinks, teas, smoothies and recipes in which you can taste-test to reach the desired sweetness.

Q: I bought a small red-tipped jade plant, but it is losing the red markings around the edges of the leaves. What could be causing this?

– Betty Schouviller, Callaway, Minn.

A: Jade plant is a great houseplant that becomes like a small tree in structure. The spoon-shaped glossy leaves are thick and succulent, which tells us the plant likes a very well-drained potting mix and needs to dry out thoroughly between waterings to prevent root rot.

When grown in high-intensity light, as in production greenhouses, the leaves tend to develop pretty red margins. Some varieties were bred especially for this coloration. Under lower light levels common in homes, the red margins fade. Even with green leaves the jade plant is beautiful. If you would like the red margins to redevelop, try moving the plant to a window receiving direct sunlight, especially in winter.

If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler at ForumGrowingTogether@hotmail.com. Questions with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city, and state for appropriate advice.