The Cheap and Easy Way I Tap My Maple Trees for Sugaring (video)

Hi everyone! I’m trying something a bit different today. We’ve been fortunate to have sunny and gorgeous weather around here the past few days, which means that it’s time to tap maple trees for sugaring.

This is the fifth year that we’ll be making maple syrup as part of a community effort that involves three properties, nine core households, and a fair number of visitors. We tap 32 sugar maples that surround our house.

While we use traditional metal spiles (taps) and buckets in the neighbors’ woods, we have a cheap-and-easy set up at our house using a lot of free and borrowed materials: plastic spiles and short segments of tubing lead to 4-gallon buckets placed on the ground. It doesn’t get much easier than this:

We’ll be tapping the remaining trees this weekend and collecting sap for the next month or so. This is always one of my favorite times of year because it gives us something to do and a reason to be outside during that last bit of winter that can so easily lead to cabin fever. Stay tuned for updates!


Posts on how to make maple syrup:

Our woods on a sunny day in mid-March: perfect for tapping.

Where can I buy gardening seeds?

Someone recently asked me where they should go to get garden seeds. Fortunately, there is no shortage of places where you can buy high-quality garden seed—in fact, it is more likely that you will have trouble deciding among the many options that are out there!

If you’re bitten by the gardening bug, you may end up with a mailbox full of beautiful catalogs and have a hard time figuring out which company is the best for you. The good news is that there isn’t a single answer– it’s more important that you pick something that you will plant, so that you can start gardening and learn what works for you.

When it comes to gardening in colder climates, the major factor is to focus on varieties of plants that can successfully grow within the amount of growing season that you have. When you can, look for seed companies that are specific to your region because they will be tuned into the conditions closer to where you live.

When you are comparing different varieties of the same plant, favor species that have a smaller number of days to maturity. Even a difference of 5-10 days can have a tremendous influence on the success of your garden.

Buying Seeds from the Store

For many people, the simplest thing will be to buy seeds from a local store, whether it’s a big box store or a local garden or “feed and seed” store. This is a great option, it and is certainly more convenient that wading through piles of catalogs. Seeds sold at stores are often going to be from larger companies, which means that the selection may not be tailored to a specific climate. If you are purchasing seeds packets from a display at a store:

  • Pay special attention to the number of days to maturity to ensure that the plant variety can be grown in a shorter climate.
  • Look for words in the description that suggest that the seeds are better for cold climates, such as: short-season, early-maturing, or northern gardens.
  • Avoid the cheap seeds. Some stores carry cheap “generic” seeds that are $1 or less per packet. Seeds do not need to cost an arm and a leg, but do avoid any that seem suspiciously cheap because the quality is likely to be poor.
  • Double check that the seeds have been packaged for the current year. This is typically stamped on the back of the package, and ensures that you’re are getting the best quality.

Can I reuse old seed?

Yes. If you have seeds leftover from last year and they were stored in a dry place, you may be able to use them this coming season. Seeds can be stored for years and years if they are kept in the right conditions—generally in a dry and dark location that is kept at a consistent (and preferably cool) temperature. Exposure to moisture, heat, and light cause seeds to germinate prematurely or loose their viability. Personally, I’ve even had reasonable success with vegetable seeds that have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions when I accidentally left them in the damp, unheated garage over winter.

Over time, however, the quality of the seed does degrade, and the germination success (the percentage of seeds that successfully transform themselves into teensy seedlings) does decrease over time. If you aren’t sure about the quality of your seed, it is pretty easy to do a germination test and find out before you plant them.

Where I Buy Seeds for My Gardens

Some people go bananas about seed catalogs, sifting through a dozen or more catalogs to see what’s new and exciting. I am not one of those people. I only have a few seed catalogs that I look at each year, generally focusing on companies from the Midwest. Here are the primary places that I go to for purchasing seeds and plants:

  • Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA): This company specializes in heirloom and heritage seed varieties that were passed on by generations of gardeners and farmers before the industrialization of agriculture reduced the variety of crops that are commonly grown. Vegetables, herbs, and some flowers. Also seed potatoes.
  • Jung Seed (Randolph, WI): This family-owned company is very close to where I grew up and has an immense variety of plants for all types of gardeners. Vegetables and flower seed, seed potatoes and garlic, live plants (flowers, fruits, trees, etc.)
  • Prairie Nursery (Westfield, WI): Another company from near where I grew up, specializing in perennial native plants for the Midwest.
  • Dixondale Farms (Carrizo Springs, TX): A few years ago, I switched from buying seed sets to buying seed starts—baby onions that are ready to plant into the ground in early spring. My onions have never been better, and this company has onions suitable for regions across the entire US.
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A few of my favorite catalogs!

Other Companies

As I said earlier, the options for seeds are pretty much endless. I’ve highlighted a few companies here that are recommended by other northern gardeners, but I don’t have personal experience with these companies. Ask gardeners near you or seek out a local gardening group to get suggestions for what works best for where you live.

  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Maine): An employee-owned company recommended by many gardeners I know for vegetables, although I haven’t tried this company yet.
  • Territorial Seed Company (Oregon): A family-owned company with a variety of vegetable seeds and perennial flowers and plants that has also been recommended to me by a few people.
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Missouri): Notable for rare and heirloom vegetable seeds, and fun pictures in the catalog.
  • Denali Seed (Alaska) : Noted by several bloggers for seeds in Alaska and other cool/cold-climate locations.
  • Prairie Garden Seeds (Saskatchewan): A great variety of vegetables and grains for cold climate regions in Canada and beyond.
  • Garden’s North: Noted by several websites for selling seeds worldwide.

This is only a small amount of what’s available. The Cold Climate Gardening website has a more extensive list of companies providing seeds, plants, and materials for gardening in cold climates.

Don’t Overthink Things

Don’t get bogged down with the many options that are available. Pick one or a few companies (or just go to the store), select a few plants to grow, and start gardening! You’ll do great!

What about you? Where do you get your garden seeds?

Accessible Raised Garden Beds

A few years ago, I enlisted some friends to design and build two raised garden beds* for a local nursing home. The goal was to design a raised bed that would be easily accessible for elderly people who were working while standing or seated. I haven’t given this a lot of thought since then, but wanted to revisit it now that I’m in the Master Gardener class.

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Continue reading “Accessible Raised Garden Beds”

Make Maple Syrup (Part 3): The Boil

Now that you’ve tapped your trees and collected sap, it’s time to make syrup!

The General Process

Boiling sap down to syrup sounds pretty easy—and it is—but there are a few things to be ready for in advance. First, it takes a lot of sap to make syrup. An average yield is about 40 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup, although the actual amount will vary depending on the sugar content of your sap (as well as whether you tapped any red maple trees—either accidentally or on purpose!). This means that an awful lot of water needs to be boiled off and the boiling process will take a long time. It also means that you’ll want to boil outside so that you don’t steam up your kitchen to the point that it resembles a sauna.

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Making syrup at the neighborhood sugar shack.

Continue reading “Make Maple Syrup (Part 3): The Boil”

Make Maple Syrup (Part 2): Tap Trees

As the days creep toward days above freezing, it’s time to tap trees and start collecting maple sap. In the previous post, you lined up the supplies that you’ll need: spiles, a cordless drill, a bit, containers, and a few other things.

Find the Trees

Of course, you’ll start by finding trees to tap. While you could probably make some type of syrup from just about any tree, the delicious syrup that you’ll actually want on your pancakes comes from sugar maple trees. Sugar maples have more sugar in their sap, which means that you’ll have to boil less sap to make syrup from a sugar maple than, say, a red maple.

Fortunately for me, this part of the world has tons of sugar maple trees.

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Tapping day at our neighborhood sugarbush.

Look for healthy trees that measure at least 10” in diameter (that’s about 32” around if you have a cloth tape measure) about 3–4 feet above the ground. Trees with large crowns, such as yard trees, and a south-facing exposure are even better. Continue reading “Make Maple Syrup (Part 2): Tap Trees”

Make Maple Syrup (Part 1): Get Ready!

Making maple syrup is the perfect activity to say “goodbye” to winter and welcome the muddy, messy of year that let’s us know that spring is here. This four-part series will cover what you need to know to get started making maple syrup.

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Yes, this series will include cookies!

How it Works

Maple syrup is concentrated from tree sap, which contains sugars that the tree uses to grow and develop. In the fall, while we’re busy taking photographs and enjoying glorious fall colors, the trees are hard at work moving carbohydrates (think: sugars!) and nutrients from the leaves down into their root systems to store them over the winter. Continue reading “Make Maple Syrup (Part 1): Get Ready!”

Two Rules to Dress for Cold-Weather Running

When it gets cold, I forget how to get dressed.

As fall transitions to winter and the temperatures start to drop below freezing, I respond by piling on more and more layers (and eating more and more cookies, although that’s not the point here…). This sounds warm and cozy, but it’s problematic when I go for a run. Just the other day, which was beautiful and sunny, I looked at the snow on the ground (just 2 or 3 inches), the temperature below freezing, and the slight wind and decided to pile on the layers so that I could stay warm during an easy run. Well, I’d severely overdressed. Not much more than a half mile in, I was unzipping my light jacket, and ditching my gloves. At the first mile mark, I had to ditch my hat and tie the jacket around my waist.

This situation reminded me of two great rules for dressing for cold weather running that (when I follow them) work like a charm: Continue reading “Two Rules to Dress for Cold-Weather Running”

Stressed out? Nature can fix that!

When somebody asks you, “How are you doing?” which of these answers are you most likely to give?
a) fine
b) good
c) busy

d) crazy busy! 

If your answer included some form of busy, you are not alone. Here in the US, we pride ourselves on our productivity. It’s good to be busy. We’ve developed a culture— if not even perhaps a cult—centered on the premise that being busy is a sign of importance, status, and success. In today’s world, it’s all to easy to strive to be busy, to over-commit, and to overextend ourselves thinking that it’s just what needs to get done. Continue reading “Stressed out? Nature can fix that!”