Getting Ready for Maple Syrup Season

Groundhog Day was last week. I have no idea what the groundhog’s verdict was this year, but it doesn’t seem relevant around here when the snow can stick around into April or even May. But, come to think about it, perhaps Groundhog Day does hint at one sign of spring:

It’s about six weeks until maple syrup season begins around here!

In fact, we just had a meeting this past weekend to make our neighborhood group of “sappers” into a full-fledged cooperative effort. This year, tapping day will be on March 11 or 18, depending on the weather between now and then. I wonder what the Groundhog would say about that.

Maybe you live in a place where you can start making maple sooner. Regardless, if you’re thinking about it, I thought you might be interested in this series of articles that I put together to help get you started:

If you’re looking for more information, the Tap My Trees website provides some more details for beginners. The Extension programs at Cornell University and the University of Vermont also have tons of information, especially for larger production systems.

Happy sapping! I’d love to hear about your maple syrup season!

Planning Next Year’s Veggie Garden: 5 Questions for You to Consider

It’s never too early to start planning next summer’s garden! Although it will still be several months before the snow melts and ground is ready to plant, I already have a stack of seed catalogs begging for my attention.

I’m working on a talk about vegetable garden planning that I’ll give at the library next week. As part of that, I identified five questions that I hope will help you hone in on what you need to do to have a successful vegetable garden this year.

1. What worked well (or didn’t work at all) last year?

It’s always helpful to start next year’s garden planning by thinking about last year’s garden. It’s usually easy to remember the highlights from last year, and notes recording the seeds sown, crops grown, and other details are usually easy to dig up. (A note about notes: writing things down is tremendously valuable; start doing it now if you don’t already do so!)  I usually think through each of the different plants and think about what worked and what didn’t work so well. For example:

  • Did I grow the right amount of that plant?
  • Do I want to grow the same amount (or more or less) next year?
  • Were the plants productive and healthy?
  • If not, what problems need to be addressed next year?

For example, last summer I grew about 20 tomato plants that I purchased as transplants from two local greenhouses. It was the right amount of plants overall, except that I want more cherry tomato plants because they produce well in our short season. Production was poor last year, especially given the good growing conditions that we had. Both greenhouses had issues with their plants last year (aphids at one place; nutrient deficiencies at another); I’ll still purchase plants from these greenhouses next year but will be more observant. The poor growth also indicated that I need to put more time into improving my soils, which I started last year by planting some cover crops. That’s tomatoes, and I go through the same thinking for every plant in my garden.

Seed catalogs!
Seed catalogs!

2. Is there anything new you want to try this year?

Winter is a great time to get ideas for new things to try out. Many gardeners love the time that they spend flipping through their seed catalogs, particularly on cold and snowy days when the activity provides an opportunity to mentally get away from dreary weather. Consider whether you want to try new varieties for any of the principal crops that you grow (like purple carrots or a faster-growing pea) as well as altogether new plants to try (short-season melons, anyone?). Also consider whether you want to try any new methods for season extension, pest control, or soil improvement. This is the time of year to brainstorm and research.

3. What do you really eat?

Vegetable gardening is about growing food, and this question relates to the one above in asking whether you are growing an amount of vegetables that is in line with your consumption. There may be some things that you plant that you don’t like or can’t keep up with. Zucchini is a classic example, as one or a few zucchini plants will often produce more than a household could ever use. I’ve heard people joke of locking their car doors in summer so that someone won’t be able to send them home with an extra zucchini. When I worked at a farm market in high school, we gave out zucchini brownie recipes to entice people to buy them. (Note: If you’ve ever looking to sell zucchini, that strategy totally works!) So, unless you’re eating zucchini noodles every night in the summer, you can probably get by with just one or two plants.

Too many zucchini! (via Oregon State Dept. of Horticulture)
Too many zucchini! (via Oregon State Dept. of Horticulture)

Instead, plan to plant more of what you really eat. This past year was the first time I planted onions from starter plants. I planted about 100 plants across one and a half beds (an area about 3 feet by 12 feet). They grew well, and I had fresh onions until November or December. Next year I want to grow at least as many—perhaps even more—and want to include some red onions in the mix as well.

4. Are there any issues you need to address before you can plant?

As you are figuring out what plants you want to grow next summer (and ogling those sexy seed catalogs!), you’ll also want to consider what work you may need to do before you can plant. If you haven’t tested your soils recently, it would be wise to do that in early spring well ahead of planting time. Doing so would provide important information for determining whether soils need nutrient or organic matter additions ahead of the growing season. Improvements may be needed to the physical garden structures, such as erecting a fence to keep deer out, building or repairing raised garden beds, or setting up an irrigation system. Any methods that are used to extend the growing season, such as high tunnels or cold frames, may create additional work that needs to happen before you can plant.

5. How much time and effort do you realistically have?

Winter garden planning involves a lot of daydreams and big ideas (which is why it is so fun!), but it can be all too easy to create unrealistic expectations of what you can realistically accomplish. Just as you thought about what worked well (or not) with your plant production last year, consider how well you were you able to find time to tend your garden. Are there times of the year that your garden creates stress because you can’t find time to stay on top of it? And if so, which set of tasks (e.g., planting, weeding, harvesting, or putting food up) is the most overwhelming? Depending on your situation, you may be able to identify a problem that you can fix to make things less chaotic, such as figuring out a better watering system so that you don’t have to spend all your time dragging hoses around. Or, if you find that you’re not able to keep up during many parts of the season, it may be a sign that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and may need to downsize.

Hopefully these questions will get you off to a good start. Happy garden planning!

Mindfulness Pays Off

I spend a lot of time in my car, mostly commuting to and from work on the weekdays. I used to hate my commute and feel guilty about all the miles I was driving. Eventually,  however, I accepted that my commute isn’t going to change anytime soon and tried to find ways to make the best of it.

I re-framed the commute as my time to listen to my favorite podcasts, which helped a lot. I increased how much I commute by bike in the summer, which I love and want to do even more of next year.

I also just started paying more attention to the scenery around me. Instead of zoning out and staring at the road, I try to look around and see what’s going on. Often there isn’t a lot to see other than trees, fields, and the occasional crow. Mostly, I look at clouds. Sometimes, especially the past few week or so, they are so pretty.

Besides actually sorting of enjoy me commute now, I’m periodically rewarded for paying more attention. This morning was one of those times.

It was 4 am and I was driving to the airport. There was a clear sky and waning moon, but I didn’t notice that for the first 5 miles because my mind was mostly preoccupied by listening to a podcast and drinking coffee (and driving, of course). I eventually realized that I was being mindless and took a moment to settle in to the drive.

I looked up at the stars and saw the handle of the Big Dipper. I followed the handle to the scoop. Then I realized that I was heading north and would be able to see the North Star. As I shifted my gaze and located the star relative to the Big Dipper, a shooting star flew right between the two. It was a fun coincidence, and an extra bonus because it was the biggest (longest) shooting star I’ve ever seen.

This is why I like being more mindful, more aware of my surroundings. When I actually do it, I see lots of fun, little things that I would normally miss.

A Last-Minute Camping Microadventure

I slept outside last night. I was all alone. I didn’t die,  and I only really freaked myself out once.

Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted to sleep outside a few nights. I haven’t gone camping or backpacking much during the last several years, and I’ve been missing it a bit. I camped one night earlier this summer for my birthday, but that’s been it so far. The days have been getting much shorter and the nights much cooler the past few weeks, and so my window of opportunity (because I’m a big wimp) has been correspondingly shrinking.

Last night seemed like it might be one of my best chances since the weather was forecasted to say warm all night. The probability of rain would increase through the night, but any real chance of rain wasn’t expected until at least 5 am.


So a half hour before dark, I ran around the house grabbing up a few things: clothes, sleeping bag, headlamp, and water bottle. Continue reading “A Last-Minute Camping Microadventure”

What’s a camp?

My two most recent posts have alluded to a big change in our household: we bought a camp.

Until I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, (aka the U.P. and aka the Yoop), I’d never heard of a camp. Eventually, I learned what one was, and eventually after that, Sexy and I talked about potentially having one ourselves one day. We had no idea it would happen so soon.

What’s a camp?

Basically, it’s a rustic cabin located somewhere in the woods, potentially far into the woods. I think most people would call them a cabin. Growing up in a semi-touristy part of south central Wisconsin, they were often called cottages and located somewhere near the water.


But the idea is the same: a rustic getaway. They are generally smaller and have fewer amenities that your average house, although some are certainly very, very nice—a lot nicer than our actual home, I’m sure. But the ones that I’ve been to are small, unpolished, and pretty well worn. Most have running water, although it may be gravity-fed from a cistern. Some, but not all, have electricity, which is often powered by solar panels or a generator that is run when needed. All—at least all of them that I’ve ever been to—have an outhouse. Continue reading “What’s a camp?”

Going Barefoot

I’ve been making a point to go barefoot this summer.

When I was young, I was always barefoot. It was that or shoes. I don’t remember ever having sandals or flip flops as a kid. Perhaps I had a pair of jelly shoes for summer (it was the early ’90s after all), but otherwise I only had real shoes. I never had a pair of slippers for inside use, and I hated the feeling of walking around in just socks, so that wasn’t an option. It was a binary decision: shoes or bare feet.

I remember gingerly walking across our gravel driveway because I didn’t want to bother putting on shoes. I don’t remember having dirty feet, although I’m sure they always were.

The summer before I started high school, I started running. I had always been a non-athlete in grade school, but I found myself having too much energy to sit still. The energy would build and build, until I’d finally go outside and run laps around our yard, barefoot  Continue reading “Going Barefoot”

Nature Scenes and Hospital Recovery

We found ourselves in the hospital earlier this week for Sexy’s broken ankle. It was not a lot of fun—not fun at all—but it did give me the opportunity to see the results of some nature-based research in action.

In the hospital room we used before and after the surgery, the wall that separated us from the hallway was actually a large glass door. And, in front of that to provide privacy, was a large curtain that covered the entire thing. The curtain was pale green and made of a slightly satiny fabric. I never would have noticed it, except that I immediately noticed that it had a large nature scene printed on it, covering an area at least 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide right in front of the hospital bed.

I feel like I spent hours staring at this curtain; yet, I never would have turned on the TV!
I feel like I spent hours staring at this curtain; even after all that time, it was still preferable to TV.

I thought this was clever on the part of the hospital, as views of nature—even in the form of photographs—have been shown to reduce patient stress and facilitate healing. Dr. Roger Ulrich was one of the first researchers to study this effect, and his studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s showed that photographs of nature reduced stress compared to those of urban environments. A foundational study in 1984 found that hospital patients with windows that looked out to natural settings had better recoveries than those without windows. Continue reading “Nature Scenes and Hospital Recovery”

15 Minutes in the Morning: Garden Edition

Do you ever think that we try to do too much? For example, I have a hard time going out for a run that’s shorter than 30 minutes because it seems too short. As if somehow running 27 minutes doesn’t count but anything over 30 does. Of course this makes no sense, and running (or doing whatever) for even  five minutes is just that—doing something for five minutes, not zero.

I only had 15 minutes in the garden this morning. But that was still enough to Continue reading “15 Minutes in the Morning: Garden Edition”