City folk want to know: who ARE these people who make their own maple syrup in their backyards? Well, for one thing, we're people who live . . . here!
There's something we've been wondering lately from both personal and professional perspectives: Who ARE we backyard sugar makers? Where do we come from? What kind of syrups do we make? Why do we engage in this admittedly extreme hobby?
So we asked! And about 50 of you responded. And now we know a little more than we used to. We thought you might like to know too! So here goes.
First of all, we syrup makers are diverse in age, ranging from our mid-20s to mid-70s! Like hunting, fishing, gardening, and keeping poultry and bees, this traditional activity seems to be a lifetime sport. Does this help us focus our advertising? Absolutely not - you people are killing me. But can we imagine sugaring into our seventies? You bet! On balance, we'll take it as a fair trade.
Another area of diversity: what kind of syrups we make. Predictably, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed make maple syrup. As do we. But a surprising number of people (4) responded that they make black walnut syrup! If you know nothing at all about that, you are in good company, and, having had no idea it was so popular, we promise to blog about it by and by. A few people responded that they make apple cider syrup, and other responses included birch, spruce tip, dandelion, and hickory. That's quite a variety!
While the size of our operations vary, most of us produce between one and five gallons of syrup per year, and an overwhelming majority of us do it without the benefit of a sugar shack or outbuilding. Our equipment is quite varied, ranging from pedestrian crock pots to sophisticated drop-flue or raised-flue pans and also including indoor and outdoor wood stoves, cooking pots, hotel pans, various propane burners, bricks and cider blocks, campfires, homemade barrel evaporators, and, of course, a few of our products. Just Google images for any iteration of "backyard maple syrup making" and you'll see what I mean. We're a handy, frugal, resourceful lot, we are.
And we sugar for a wide variety of reasons, as well. For many of us, sugaring is just plain fun. For others, sugaring is an activity enjoyed with family, and, for some, a way to remember friends and family members that have passed on, connect with younger generations, or a way to celebrate a birthday. A lot of us find maple sugaring a good way to get ourselves and our children outside in late winter, an antidote to mud season, or an activity that forces us to relax. Some of us enjoy the solitude of the woods, and the intimacy-with-place that sugaring engenders. Several of us use sugaring as a teaching tool, many of us give away our wares as gifts, and, of course, we all love the taste of our various syrups! One respondent called the activity "addictive," and another quipped, wisely, that "[y]ou have to experience it to know."
And then there's geography. While nearly half of the respondents were from Vermont, also represented were sugar makers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Ontario, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin. But even this extensive list is incomplete. Sugar country is larger than you thought, isn't it!?
The leaves are turning colors here in the north country! It's officially fall! Time to get out there and tag the maples you will tap in the spring while they are still easily identifiable!
It's walk-in-the-woods time here in sugar country! The leaves have started to turn, the air is crisp, the world is letting out the annual sigh of relief. Almost rest time. A great time for you to make good on your goal of identifying some maples (or some more maples) for your backyard maple sugar making operation!
There are about a zillion resources for tree identification, especially online. There’s probably “an app for that,” too. But I'm partial to books. So, last weekend, I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.
We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower than with sugar maples, so it takes a bit more work, but the syrup tastes just the same. And reds are what we have. So we use them.
Red maples are also called “swamp maples.” They live in swamps, bottomlands and uplands in moist soils. They are hearty trees, grow to 50-70 feet tall, and presumably get their name either from the scarlet color they turn in the fall, the color of the winged seeds they produce in the springtime, or both.
Red maples will tolerate a wider range of conditions than the sugar maple, including variations in the climate, so even for us amateur makers, it’s worth knowing your reds, even if you have plenty of sugars. Science suggests they will fare well despite our warming climate. So, as it happens, there’s a little good news to take with the bad.
The leaves of a red maple are from 2 to 6 inches wide. They look to me like they are 3 lobed rather than 5 lobed (lobes are the sections of the leaf), although technical definitions seem to allow for both. And they have a saw-toothed, jagged edge to them with not a smooth curve anywhere. For me, that's the key.
The leaf of the red maple has three lobes with jagged, saw-tooth edges. Red maples are also commonly tapped to make maple syrup.
Our sugarbush is very dense, so most of the leaves are far enough up in the air that I have to squint a bit to see them. But, I was able to find a few leaves around the base of my reds as proof that I had squinted effectively.
And then there are the sugars. Sugar maples, so named because of the high concentration of sugar in their sap, grow even bigger than red maples, 60-80 feet, and naturally occur in rich, moist soils in uplands and valleys. In addition, however, sugar maples have been planted along roadways and at the edges of pasture lands for hundreds of years, and can still be found thus anywhere that farming is or ever was.
Sugar maples are the best trees for maple syrup making!
The leaf of a sugar maple is 3-5 inches wide and has 5 lobes, with a smooth, curved edge where the leaf of the red maple is jagged. (In the Fall, sugar maples are likely to look multicolored, showing green as well as hints of yellow, orange and/or red as their chlorophyll recedes.)
The few sugar maples we have are out in the open, and so have developed a crown that extends far enough toward the ground so that I don’t have to squint or forage for ground-leaves to make my identification. The sugar maple is so iconic. It's the Canadian flag! It's as easy as that.
The leaf of the sugar maple has five lobes and smooth, swooped edges.
No reds or sugars? No problem! There are several other trees in the maple family that will do.
Considered by some to be a subspecies of the sugar maple, the black maple produces sap that is similar in volume and sugar concentration to the sugar maple. Sap yields from silver maples are lower in volume and sugar concentration than the sugar maple, but are still commonly tapped for backyard syrup making. Norway maples and boxelders produce significantly less-concentrated sap than the sugar maple but nevertheless can be (and are!) tapped to make syrup.
So if you’re thinking about sugaring next spring, don’t underestimate the value of taking a short stroll through your woods to map out your sugar stand, now. Before you know it, those leaves will be falling!
When setting out to remove invasive species, bring loppers, a hand saw, burlap, twine, a handcart, and a good-natured assistant!
It was more than a year ago when, inspired by a talk by one of Vermont's county foresters, we started this series of blog posts about how ordinary landowners can care for their sugar woods in a changing climate.
Since then, we have covered mapping invasive species and cultivating an ideal suite of tree species. That leaves removing invasive species and protecting riparian buffers and other critter habitat. We'll cover the former today, and the latter very soon.
You may recall that among the peskiest invasive species in sugar country are buckthorn, honeysuckle, and barberry, all three of which we found in our own woods over the summer. According to the Nature Conservancy, the best time to remove at least two of the three is fall, so we stayed our hand until now.
Thankfully, this delay gave us time to connect with Emily Seifert, a naturalist who spent several years as a Stewardship Manager for the Nature Conservancy, managing nature preserves by, among other things, monitoring and removing invasive species from the land. Emily knows a lot about the woody plants that have invaded the forests of sugar country, how to identify them, and how to safely remove them, so one cool morning, we set out on the homestead with our invasive map to have a look.
We are proud to report that Emily confirmed that we had correctly identified our invasives in all instances! Huzzah! We have not lead you astray! While you are likely to find, like we did, that honeysuckle and barberry are easy to identify, buckthorn is harder, and we are more than a little impressed with ourselves that we got it right. As we've discussed, mature plants will have fairly recognizable blue berries in late summer and early fall, but at other times of the year, and for immature plants, you have to really concentrate on leaf shape, color, and position. Emily recognized even our immature buckthorn immediately as such, of course, but passed along these hints for beginners: the underside of buckthorn bark is bright orange and even the immature plants may sport a thorn or two.
From left to right: the bright-orange insides of buckthorn bark, a buckthorn thorn where two twigs meet on a mature tree (to the left of the lower index finger), and the brown, hollow insides of an invasive honeysuckle stem.
Emily also taught us how to check to make sure that the honeysuckle on our property was invasive, as opposed to the native variety out there. It was. How did Emily know? The inside of the stem of an invasive honeysuckle is hollow and brown.
Having passed identification with flying colors, it was now time for removal and disposal. Emily agreed that it was best to remove invasive plants from the ground in their entirety - roots and all - as long as the infestation covers a modest surface area. (Root removal of infestations that cover a large surface area can leave bare ground ripe for other invasives to take root. Such removal on steep slopes can lead to soil erosion.) Emily said that for mature plants, however, cutting and covering with black plastic or a double layer of burlap was a respectable, next-best method. When pulling, Emily noted, it is important to get the entire root system as these plants propagate from the roots. Complete covering of all above-ground parts of the plant is necessary for the same reason, she said. Other notes? Pat yourself on the back for punctuality! Early detection and removal is key to controlling invasives!
We ended up using both methods. While we were able to pull up all of our honeysuckle, most of our barberry, and our immature buckthorns by the root, the roots of one barberry bush and our mature buckthorn tree weren't budging. So we lopped or sawed them off as close to the ground as possible, and covered with a double layer of burlap, tied on with twine or staked down with sticks. Our intent is to pull our map out and monitor those areas each spring and fall to ensure that our removal was complete and our covers stay in place.
From left to right: a "Charlie Brown" white pine has been replanted where an invasive shrub honeysuckle was pulled out by the roots, and a mature buckthorn is cut down and covered to discourage re-sprouting.
Emily reassured us that bagging our invasives and bringing them to the dump was not necessary, as we had feared it would be, and was, in fact, a last-resort method. And, while it doesn't seem to be in any of the literature on safe disposal of invasives, she agreed that destroying these woody weeds in a bonfire - our plan - was probably fine. Emily did caution us against taking the invasives off-site - in Vermont it is actually illegal to do so unless you really know what you are doing - and noted that composting invasives can result in more infestations if not done according to certain best practices.
So - taking care not to spread berries around as we went - another one of Emily's tips - we loaded our invasives into a garden cart, wheeled them to the fire circle, and had ourselves a campfire. Our efforts resulted not only in potentially healthier sugar woods, but also a sugar woods that is easier to navigate - honeysuckle and barberry can get so thick they make the woods hard to traverse - and less prone to tick infestation. According to Emily, studies show that dense barberry infestations give cover to carriers of ticks and thus can result in higher tick populations. Not only that, but, in the long run, our sugar maples now have a better chance of reproducing now that they aren't competing with a thick carpet of invasives.
So, with a little more hope, and a little more connection to the land than we had before, we look forward to learning more soon and passing it right along to you in our fourth and final installment on caring for your sugar woods: protecting riparian buffers and other critter habitat.
Invasive honeysuckle, barberry and buckthorn, getting ready to go up in flames at the family fire circle.
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 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!
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.