Not to be confused with "sugar woods," a.k.a. the "sugar bush," or "sugar stand," "sugar wood" refers to the fuel you need to power your wood-fired evaporator.
It's 90 degrees in New England, so, naturally, it's time for us to put in supplies for next Spring's backyard maple sugar making operation. If we were good little Vermonters, of course, we would have done this task the very minute the snow melted. Clearly, we're still assimilating.
This is easy enough for us to do, we've got chainsaws, a log-splitter, and the bucked-up remnants of 50 or so giant white pine trees we had removed from our property several years ago to make room for the sun (and protect the house). We've heard from many customers that their sugar-wood comes from trees that fall on their property naturally. But what if you don't have all those trees? And what if you're a first-time sugar maker and don't know anything? Well, keeping in mind we're on year four of this journey ourselves, here's what we know.
First, on quantity and composition. For our annual 25-50 tree operation, we use between one-half and one cord of wood - almost exclusively soft wood. Any wood can be used to sugar, but most sugar makers agree that softwood - which burns fast and hot and then disappears from your wood box - rather than hardwood - which burns cooler, slower and sticks around in the form of coals - should make up the bulk of one's supply.
What about width and length? You want to split your wood down until it is nice and thin - say, the width of your upper-arm, a two-by-four, or a big baseball bat. And while length depends upon the size of your wood box (for the Sapling Evaporator, we recommend no longer than 24 inches), it is true that longer cuts of wood will help you even out the heat under your pan. Also, less cuts mean less work.
How about timing? Summer really is the time to split, stack, and cover your sugar wood supply, so that, come Spring, it is nice and dry. I wasn't kidding about using "snow out" as your cue, though. We heard from customers that were putting in their sugar wood as early as April this year! And, not to fear, plenty of us wait until the fall, "better late than never" being an appropriate adage for this circumstance.
But what if you don't have the wood? Get on the phone and call around to the saw mills in your area. Ask them if they have "slab" wood (slab wood is what's left over when a round tree is squared off to make boards) or scrap wood for sale, and if they deliver. Within 5 minutes of hopping on the phone, I was able to find two sawmills within 60 miles of my home that would sell me such wood. One for $25 per truckload and one for $10. Both "you pick," so to speak, but still, not bad!
Failing that, get creative! Local businesses often have stacks of wooden pallets year-round with which they would be happy to part. Pallets are soft, dry, and come split for you. And, although you will need to hack them apart and cut the pieces to length, you can do so with simple tools like a crowbar and handsaw as long as you've got enough energy or help. (Just make sure you put those nails in the metal recycling when you're done!) It's been done. And by our customers, to boot.
That's really all there is to it! And with that, it's back to the wood pile for me!
Sugars with a view: maples planted long ago on Sparrow Farm Road in Montpelier, Vermont.
I don't know about where you are from, but here in Vermont it is not at all uncommon to be travelling down a country lane or up a long driveway in the dappled shadow cast by parallel rows of giant sugar maples. This familiar and beautiful natural-geometric feature - found alongside fields and forests alike - is no coincidence, but - rather like crop circles or rock features found elsewhere in the world - the remnants of regional practices once adhered to with fervor bordering on religiosity: the planting of sugar maples to augment the sugar supply of one's family, one's descendants and the value of the family farm.
Planting one's own sugar maples, for subsistence maple syrup production at least, is a practice that has fallen out of vogue with the disappearance of the family farm but that may be enjoying a resurgence, says Vermont Evaporator Company customer Bruce Wolf. And Bruce should know: thirty-five years ago, at a time when such a thing was relatively unheard of, he planted sugar maples on open areas of his homestead in central New Jersey so that he could make maple syrup in future decades. (Having just enjoyed his debut sugaring season on none other than the Sapling Evaporator, Bruce reports a certain increase in his popularity among family and friends. Word to the wise, there.) For about the same length of time, Bruce and his wife Debbie have owned and operated the Wolf's Den Nursery in Millstone, New Jersey. With their fingers on the pulse of hobby sugar making and professional tree retail, the Wolfs are in as good a position as any to comment on the intersection of the two.
While the Wolfs are called upon to provide homeowners with sugar maples for their aesthetic addition to a domestic landscape - in addition to the sugar maple, they sell patented varieties developed for their ability to be beautiful in different climates, urbanity and weather conditions - they are expecting their first shipment of maples developed specifically for sugaring this fall. The sap of the "Super Sweet," developed at the Cornell Maple Program, can be up to six or seven percent sugar - a figure that brings the ratio of sap to syrup from 40:1 down to 20:1 or lower. Imagine that!
The Wolf's purchase responds not only to their own desire to plant a few Super Sweets on their own property, but to their growing sense that there is a market for these specialty maple trees, at least in rural New Jersey; the sense, in other words, that today's homeowners and homesteaders are returning to a practice observed by their subsistence-farming forebearers. Planting maples for sugar is a thing again!
Where to find the "Super Sweet" and other sugar maples? Your local nursery should have a lead on sugars and the "Super Sweet" (and if they don't, call the Wolfs) or on any of the other varieties that might suit your situation: the "Bonfire" and "Fall Fiesta" that produce beautiful foliage in warmer climates, the "Adirondack" and "Crescendo" that are drought resistant, the "Green Mountain," a hybrid of the black and sugar maples, that is appropriate for hot, dry, root-bound applications (think urban and suburban street side plantings). Then there's the "Wild Spire," the "Legacy," and the list goes on and on. Whatever species you choose, if you are able to get your hands on some 1" to 1 1/2" caliper trees (caliper = diameter of tree 12" off the ground) and care for them well, you just may be sugaring with them in fifteen years or so.
Bruce and Debbie counsel their customers to plant sugar maples out in the open in full sun: the productivity of a maple as a source of sugar being related to how extensive its root system is - a system which mirrors the crown. (This explains the roadside plantings, says Bruce, as a bigger crown means more sap.) Other tips: dig a hole six to eicht inches wider than the roots, fill the hole with water, loosen the ball, plant so that the trunk is slightly more exposed than it was in the pot, and make sure the soil is either naturally well draining or amended to be so (like me, the sugar maple hates having wet feet). Plant in spring or fall, and water well upon planting and at any point in its first growing season that it is hot and dry for a week or more. Protect the trunk from deer with a mesh sleeve early on, use a 10/10/10 or organic fertilizer after a year if you wish, and prune dead branches annually.
So if, like Bruce and Debbie, you are feeling good about being into your subsistence maple sugar making for the long haul - that old fashioned ideal that just may be making a comeback in sugar country - you may want to pay homage to the farmers of yesteryear by planting a row or two for your family, your property, and the next guy or gal. I know I'm thinking on it.
Like great dads everywhere, ours are there when we need them, even if it means many hours of hard work designing and producing a brand new product for a brand new company.
Now that Vermont Evaporator Company is all of (almost) three years old, we're looking back with a smile at the fun we've had with our dads along the way.
So, thanks for the help, dads! And, in addition to that Vermont Evaporator Company tee-shirt you've just unwrapped, here's what people say about the invention you helped us bring to life (all exclamation points are legit!):
"Thanks! After 4 years using a concrete block and restaurant pan setup for our 20 taps, we're ready to try something a lot more efficient." - Nancy (Hancock, MI)
"Top quality product . . . Have been boiling for 5 years on a homemade barrel stove and second-hand-pan, producing about 5 gallons a year. Today is our first boil of 2018 with our new Sapling Evaporator. What a HUGE difference! So stoked for our new tool!" - Jenee (Cooperstown, NY)
"We look forward to our new Sapling!!" -Stephen (York, ME)
"After running a large operation for years, the Sapling is a joy to run. It's perfect for the backyard maple syrup producer." -Tony (Ohio)
"Thank you so much, can't wait to get it going!" -Julie (Brookfield, NH)
"Thanks for the great products!!" -George (Clinton Corners, NY)
"I can't wait to use this!" -Rachel (Zionsville, IN)
"My family and I are so excited for your little Sapling and can't wait to use it in all seasons." -Taber (Laconia, NY)
"I really like the concept, looking forward to giving it a try." -Nathan (Amherst, NH)
"Looking forward to sugaring with the Sapling!" -John (Hawley, MA)
"Just doing my first boiling today and all seems to be going well. Thanks for a great product!" - Jack (Strafford, NH)
"Great to see this made-in-Vermont product - looking forward to trying our first sugaring this winter!" - Matthew (New Haven, VT)
"So excited!!!!!!" -Sarah (Portland, ME)
"Can't wait to use our new Sapling." Tamara (Montpelier, VT)
"Looks like a great fit for our sprouting sugar operation." -Erik (Stowe, VT)
"I look forward to picking up this fun new tool . . ." -Justin (Ripton, VT)
"We've never done this before ever. [The Sapling] was just what we needed. This is our first batch. . . . man it tastes great. And not a hint of smoke in it . . . Thanks again . . . . Great family run business idea you have here." - Mike (NH)
And last but not least:
"[T]his is a perfect Father's Day Gift!" -John (Taftsfille, VT)
- Kate & Justin
Vermont Evaporator Company founders Kate & Justin McCabe on the first day of their 2017 sugaring season.
The peskiest weeds in your sugar woods will be Buckthorn, Honeysuckle, and Barberry, all three found and pictured here in our sugar woods . . . for now!
It's June. Exhale. Your syrup is bottled and shelved, your pans are cleaned and stored, and your maples are leafing out nicely. You may be working on next year's sugar wood supply, tagging a few more trees for tapping, or drawing up plans for your first sugar house. You are planting, watering and weeding the kitchen garden. But are you weeding your sugar woods?
Weeding the woods? Yes! As we've discussed before, three steps a landowner can take to care for their sugar woods - especially in this changing climate - include: (1) eradicating invasive species, (2) cultivating an ideal suite of tree species, and (3) protecting riparian areas and other habitat to support diversity of non-tree species. So let's start at the very beginning.
According to our sources, the three most pernicious and widespread invasive species in sugar country are Buckthorn, Honeysuckle, and Barberry. All three of these "ornamental" bushes harm the ecosystem by out-competing native plants and otherwise offering substandard living quarters and food to forest birds and animals. All three spread quickly. Not good. But certainly not hopeless.
The first step to controlling these pests is identifying them on your land. It's also the fun part! That's what we will cover in this post. Here's what you will need:
Make a rough sketch of your plot of land for marking the location of invasive infestations. A manila folder can double as storage for reference materials and can easily be squirreled away in your filing cabinet for future use.
Armed with these materials, simply walk your land and note where these species are found. Pay particular attention to the side of roads and driveways, streams, structures, or anywhere else there is a significant break in the forest canopy. Once you find one example of a species, they are easy to spot again. Plan a walk for the Spring and the Fall: while Honeysuckle is easiest to identify by its white, yellow and pink flowers in May and June, Buckthorn and Barberry are easiest to identify by their berries in Fall.
Earlier today, we took our own first survey walk, and found multiple examples of all three of these invasive plants on the one acre of our property that has some field, road and stream frontage! The Honeysuckle was rampant, shoulder high, flowering in white, yellow and pink, and easy to spot. The Barberry - knee high with distinctive leaves, thorns (don't touch!), and tell-tale buds where flowers must have been (berries will be) - was also pretty easy. But while we're fairly confident that we were able to identify the Buckthorn by its u-veined leaves, we will go back in the Fall to double check for those red-to-blue berries.
The pencil tip is pointing to the Barberry buds where, by fall, red berries will appear. You can also see the single "spine" or thorn at the base of each leaf cluster. Don't touch without gloves! They're nasty.
The abundance of all three invasive species on our property was bad news, to be sure. However, we were delighted to discover that there was no invasive infestation on the floor of our nine acres of forest! We think the thick canopy of trees with a healthy proportion of pine keeps the flora species to a minimum of native plants like ferns and trillium.
A healthy forest floor with native ferns, wildflowers and, in the foreground, some very young maple.
All in all, we enjoyed our walk in the woods, and hope you do too! Next time, we'll write up the hard work of removing the weeds from our sugar woods. Until then, enjoy the sun!
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing is an extensively researched, interesting, and surprisingly funny history of maple sugar making.
In true grass-is-always-greener fashion, summer is sometimes a time for dreaming about when it isn’t so hot out. (Guilty.) In addition to putting the garden in, moving the chickens to their summer quarters (away from the garden) and slowly ticking off the rest of the homestead to-dos, we've also started reading up in preparation for our next sugaring season.
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing, with its treatment of the history and practice of maple sugaring, is our pick for this summer’s maple beach read. It’s extensively researched, interesting, surprisingly funny, and, in and of itself, a fascinating slice of history.
Like so many to follow in the intervening decades, the Nearings left the urban life for an old Vermont homestead and, (like so many to follow in the intervening decades!) with the benefit of an inheritance, connections and some off-the-land income, struck out to make a living on the farm. For them, the journey back to the land started in 1932, at the apex of the Great Depression, spanned the tumult of the last-half of the twentieth century, and continues by way of "The Good Life Center," a nonprofit Helen created on the coast of Maine before her death in 1995.
The book is separated into three sections; the longest and of most practical use to the hobby sugar maker being the second, a 135-page chronicle of exactly how the Nearings and their peers made maple products around 1950. With chapters for identifying and cultivating prime sugar bushes, choosing the proper equipment, understanding how, why and when sap runs, tapping, storing and processing sap, and making syrup and sugar, this section - despite some obvious anachronisms (a certain tolerance for monoculture and wooden buckets, for example) - is full of practical information and is excellent company for today's backyard maple syrup maker.
While a reader should feel free to skim or skip chapter 9, regarding marketing maple products in the 1950s (What? No Instagram farms?) and the book's third section, an extended opinion piece about maple's place in making country life superior to city life (tending to be preachy, out-of-date and narrow), one should not miss the authoritative history of maple syrup that is contained in section one. Along with detail about how native North Americans obtained and processed sap and stored and served maple sugar, the Nearings throw in precious historical tidbits about how American mothers pacified restless children by feeding them maple sweets (they did it too!) how European settlers experienced maple (it was almost universally love-at-first-taste), took to its cultivation (quickly) and sometimes claimed to have discovered it first (a claim the Nearings skillfully debunk). Finally, don't forget to take a look at the maple recipes contained at the end of the book, including for maple sugar french toast, maple fudge and a method for making maple icing.
While the book was not popular at the outset, it is now. The 50th Anniversary addition of this gem is widely available and a must-not-miss for any hobby sugar maker with an appetite for learning. So pull up a beach chair or picnic blanket, grab a cold beverage, dig your heels into the sand or grass, and grab a copy from your local library, bookstore, or internet. Happy reading!
Interested in other summer homesteading reading? Check out this post by our friends at The Happy Hive!
For a summer reading list for homesteaders, check out a list by The Happy Hive!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.