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  • Upcoming Garden Events in Middle Tennessee

    March 1 – 4: Nashville Lawn & Garden Show, Fairgrounds Nashville: The annual all-indoors garden event that features live garden displays, lectures, vendors, floral designs and special programming Wine Festival featuring Tennessee wines is Saturday (March 3), noon – 5 p.m. For more information on the events and the complete lecture schedule, visit www.nashvillelawnandgardenshow.com.

    April 7: Perennial Plant Sale hosted by the Perennial Plant Society of Middle Tennessee annual Perennial Plant Sale at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Find newly released and hard-to-find perennials along with a wide range of tried and tested varieties, all from top local nurseries. The sale opens at 9 a.m. and usually sells out by early afternoon. For more information, visit www.ppsmtn.org.

    April 14: Herb & Plant Sale hosted by The Herb Society of 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., at The Fairgrounds Nashville Sports Arena building. The sale offers common and rare varieties of herbs and heirloom vegetables and handmade pottery and herb markers by artist Roy Overcast for sale. For more information and a list of available plants, visit www.herbsocietynashville.org.

    April 21: Herb & Craft Fair hosted by First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, 1808 Woodmont Blvd., 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Top quality perennial and annual herbs, heirloom tomato plants, native and companion plants, along with food and craft items reflecting an interest in the homemade and homegrown: fresh homemade sweet and yeast breads, spice mixes, barbecue sauces, jams and jellies; knitted and sewn items, homes for birds and bees, and art, jewelry and more made from pressed flowers. Visit www.thefuun.org.

    May 12: Hosta sale hosted by the Middle Tennessee Hosta. Proceeds from the sale support the club’s activities. More information about the MTHS is at www.mths-hosta.com.

    May 19: Urban Gardening Festival, hosted by Master Gardeners of Davidson County, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. (rain or shine) at the Master Gardeners’ Demonstration Garden at Ellington Agricultural Center (5201 Marchant Drive in Nashville). The free event includes information about a variety of gardening methods and techniques, local artisans, exhibiters, growers and more. For information, visit www.mgofdc.org/ugf.

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Stevia sweetens a garden

Have you grown stevia? The University of Tennessee Gardens has named this plant, touted as a natural, no-calorie sweetener, as it Plant of the Month for September, and provided information on how to grow and use it.

UT Gardens kitchen garden manager Holly S. Jones submitted the article about Stevia rebaudiana, which is a tropical perennial native to the mountainous regions of Brazil and Paraguay. It has been used in South America and many regions for a long time, but was approved by the FDA as a “Generally Recognized as Safe” substance in the U.S. in 2008. It was only then that food manufacturers could begin adding it to their products, Jones says. Since then, it has become more common.

And yes, you can grow it in your own garden. Stevia grows best in full sun in rich, well-drained soil, and matures to about 2 – 3 feet tall and wide. It is generally free of pests and diseases. While it’s perennial in its native land, it doesn’t survive temperatures below about 15 degrees, so stevia is best treated as an annual in gardens north of Zone 8. Jones notes that it can be easily propagated by overwintering semi-ripe cuttings in a sunny window indoors, but it’s also readily available as transplants in garden centers each spring.

There are a couple of sweet reasons to try stevia. The plant contains compounds that taste sweet but have almost no calories, Jones says. They also do not affect insulin levels the same way that simple sugars do. You can preserve stevia by drying it or by making a liquid extract. Jones advises that the glycosides that give stevia its sweetness are potent, so you will need to experiment with how much to add for your taste.

I have planted stevia in my kitchen garden for the past four or five years, hoping to reap the benefits of its sweetness. I’ll admit, I’ve tried using it in several forms – dried, fresh, steeped along with tea leaves – and have been disappointed, usually by an unpleasant (to me) aftertaste. My garden also has marginally enough sun for plants that prefer full sun. The stevia that’s growing there is only now, in September, about to bloom.

Holly Jones may have provided the reason for my disappointment with stevia’s taste: I probably waited too long to harvest. “Like many herbs, the flavors intensify later in the season as temperatures increase,” she writes. “Leaves harvested in mid-June will have a less bitter aftertaste. A plant that was set out in late April should have a nice crop of leaves by early summer.” Perhaps that’s the best time to harvest and preserve your stevia supply. Keep that in mind for next spring.

The UT Gardens, designated as the official botanical garden for the State of Tennessee, are located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville, and are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. (At the UT Gardens in Knoxville, stevia is planted in the kitchen gardens’ perennial beds.) The Gardens are open all year, free to the public, and worth a visit. You can find more information here.

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