Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Too early to tap trees?

            Three wise-looking, majestic maple trees grace our front yard. Last February, my husband came home unexpectedly with tap kits; that evening he affixed them to the trees and, complete neophytes, we waited for the magic to happen.

            Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. We had no idea what climactic conditions were necessary for obtaining good maple sugar, how often to harvest it, or even what to do when we did. That spring, I happened to visit an acquaintance’s maple sugaring operation, which spanned thousands of acres in Vermont’s Green Mountains and consisted of several million sugar taps. He had them connected to a rubber piping system, all leading down to a sugar shack of his own construction which held several thousand-gallon tanks churning and boiling.

            I may have been just a tad bit intimidated. This looked difficult, to say the least.

            By the time I took the buckets off my own trees that year, I had a few inches’ vaguely sticky mass of yuck at the bottom in which a few flies and bees had been fossilized. Sugaring fail.

This year I did my research. Turns out, there is no exact science to maple sugaring; good harvesters seem to divine it in almost a shaman-ish sort of way. I mentioned in an earlier post that my lilac was budding up; the same phenomenon in your maple is a good sign that the sap is rising.

Before tapping, the tree needs to be above freezing—that is, you need four days or so of 40 degree weather. A sugarer I spoke with actually waits for small buds to form on the branches to prove the tree is, again, alive.  As I understand it, during winter, the tree’s cells store its food source in a starch form; when the tree gets its springtime cues it liquidates that food into sugar form as a growth jumpstart. Once temperatures are higher (consistently above 45 degrees) the tree converts that food source back into starch for slower consumption. The takeaway from this? Get it while the getting is good. Once you recognize the necessary signs and weather conditions for your trees, you should tap immediately and then enjoy 4-6 weeks of production in a normal year.

This, however, doesn’t seem to be a normal year.  After hearing a story on North Country Public Radio (my lifeline: see the article on Early Adirondack Sugarers ) on early tapping going on in the Adirondacks due to elevated yearly temperatures, I decided to just bite the bullet and tap my trees.

It is surprisingly easy. I had a hammer, an electric drill gun, a 7/16 drill bit, and the standard maple sugar kit from the hardware store. I chose a spot at my level (apparently vertical level doesn’t matter, but you should drill at least six inches away from a previous drill site) and drilled at about a 60 degree angle upward into the tree (to catch downward sap flow) as far as I could, moving the drill in a circular motion to enlarge the hole enough to fit the tap. I withdrew the drill and waited a minute; sure enough, a clear, thick sap came flowing out of the hole. I stuck the tap in as far as I could, then used a hammer to knock it in as far as it could go. I used some spare PlayDoh (all I had was orange) to putty around the tap so that sap couldn’t escape (I’m sure other more durable materials would work for this). I then attached the bucket and waited for that sweet, satisfying drip… drip… drip… on the bucket floor. Mission accomplished.

Apparently, one must treat the raw syrup as a dairy product: don’t leave it out too long. Collecting every other day seems to be optimal. Store it in the fridge until boiling. Expect a volume ratio of 40 (raw sap) to 1 (maple syrup).  Additionally, one is supposed to boil the syrup outside and for many, many hours over a wood fire because it is so messy.
            I am wondering (a) how I will have time to stand outside boiling syrup for multiple hours and then (b) why I actually care as we don’t ever eat maple syrup.

            The answer to (b) is easy: it’s the principle of the thing, damn it.

            Stay tuned for the answer to (a).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Eating Your Lawn: Part I

When we were children my brother would complain tearfully to our parents that I was making him eat the lawn. He was telling the truth. Seriously, there are lots of lovely things to eat out of the lawn. Following are a few particular favorites.

Yarrow: On the lawn, it looks like a small green feather. If allowed to grow to maturity, it grows to a foot or more in length and sports an umbrella-like white or yellow blossom made up of smaller flowers. It has an ancient reputation for its medicinal power, specifically, as brewed in tea to prevent and cure illness.

Dandelion: Though usually viewed as a weed and pest to lawn-groomers, a dandelion in all its parts is delicious! Pick the young greens for vitamin-packed salads. Saute buds or mature flowers in olive oil for colorful and nutritious side dishes and garnishes. Yum. `

Chamomile: To my husband's chagrin, this herb stubbornly grows through the stones on the driveway. It is distinguished by its yellow, daisy-like flowers, and distinctive smell. When brewed in tea, it has a wonderful calming effect.

Clover: Delectable in a salad and delicious in a tea. And very, very good for us. 

This comes to mind as I spent the afternoon taking down the herbs I had hung to dry in the fall and crushing them into small glass containers for cooking use. As any northern gardener has discovered, beggars-- for a longer growing season, that is-- can't be choosers, and I will harvest and preserve whatever I can find. Lucky recipients of a pre-loved home, such as mine, might look for herbs that the previous lover has planted; for example, I am lucky to have inherited well-established sage and lavendar bushes. I love to use ground sage on any red meat as a rub before cooking. Lavendar works wonderfully in sachets to scent freshly laundered sheets, and to keep mice and moths out of sweaters.

Ancient coffee grinder qua herb smasher-- thanks garage sale!
And as proof that the oldest tools really are the best, the most effective ways I have found for grinding and crushing herbs is with an old-fashioned stone mortar and pestle, and a crusher originally meant for coffee beans that a friend picked up for me in a garage sale. Unlike in a food processor or blender, there is no residue or waste.

P.S. It occurs to me that the illustrated apparatus might be exceedingly easy to make; you'd need:
a widemouth mason jar
a widemouth ring and lid
a short metal skewer stick
a spring, like the one you'd get out of a legit ballpoint pen
a blade out of an old food processor
a wine cork
some craft wire

Directions:  Use the skewer to punch a hole in the middle of the mason jar lid. Superglue the mason jar lid and ring together; let set 24 hours. Slide the spring onto the skewer.  Top the skewer with the wine cork to protect your hands and keep the spring on. Thread the end of the skewer through the mason jar lid. Once through, Fit the end of the skewer into the hole in the middle of the food processor blade. Secure with super glue and also with tightly wrapped craft wire. Allow to dry 24 hours. Smash away at herbs!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

By the way, the current issue of Organic Gardening has a great article showing that sustainability is possible on any lawn: Enjoy!

Spring Fever

  About this time of year I tend to get a serious case of spring fever. In previous years, unable to contain myself, I have started seedlings in late February only to have them (a) die, because we keep our house at 55 degrees; (b) die, because they got so spindly; or (c) survive in a stunted, pathetic sort of way, requiring a lot of attention and producing practically nothing. This year, I am determined to be more self-disciplined. To scratch the itch, however, while still keeping my resolve, I have ordered my seeds online from Gurney's and Miller's. I have always wanted to try seed ordered from an actual seed company versus seed bought, say, at the local drugstore and compare the results. Additionally, you can instruct them not to send you your seeds or seedlings until the appropriate time-- I thus physically can't get ahead of myself this year as I won't have the seeds yet. Genius.

Gurney's is currently having an online sale until March 4th with 15% off everything and free shipping with really reasonably priced seeds and plants; go to

To further mollify my garden longings, I can solidify my garden plan. I am a big proponent of companion planting as it makes sense and works well. I've been loving Carrots love Tomatoes & Roses love Garlic by Louise Riotte, who also writes for Organic Gardening magazine. It's such a fantastic reference that I'm actually reading it cover to cover.

In the meantime, I'm taking comfort in the fact that up here in Zone 4 spring can't be far away-- the lilac, nature's springtime soothsayer, has buds already!