When setting out to remove invasive species, bring loppers, a hand saw, burlap, twine, a handcart, and a good-natured assistant!
It was a little while 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.
A very young red maple seedling rescued from the garden and waiting to be planted in our sugar woods. Cultivating red maples in your sugar woods can help diffuse the virulence of pests, such as tent caterpillars, that would otherwise wreak havoc on your sugar stand.
In this blog, we have identified three simple steps backyard sugar makers can take to care for their sugar woods in a changing climate. We've covered the first part of step 1: eradicating invasive species (mapping invasive species on your property) and will cover the second part, removal, in its appropriate season (which is fall, thank goodness - it's been so dang HOT!) That leaves (2) cultivating an ideal suite of tree species, and (3) protecting riparian areas and other habitat to support diversity of non-tree species. Today we are going to cover step two.
Cultivating an ideal suite of tree species sounds a bit intimidating - and it certainly can be as complicated as you'd like to make it, says Nancy Patch, County Forester for the Vermont counties of Franklin and Grand Isle. But it doesn't have to be that way. Remain calm and read on.
First, some background. It may come as news to you (as it did to me) that there are different types of forests, even here in sugar country. (Psst. Do you know how big sugar country is? See the map below to find out.) Well, there are. And the kind that has sugar maples in it is called northern hardwood forest. Chances are, you are in a northern hardwood forest if you see sugar maple, yellow birch, American beech and white ash. Eastern hemlocks and white pine are also commonly found there. The northern hardwood forest has sub-types; all of these sub-types contain basically the same suite of eight tree species with a couple of additions and/or subtractions. Five or six of these sub-types contain sugar maple. And the best site conditions for sugar maple occur in what is known as the rich northern hardwood forest.
A forest community is rooted (no pun) in its soil. And the rich northern hardwood forest, as its name suggests, has nutrient-rich soil that supports a highly-productive forest dominated by sugar maple, but also including white ash, basswood, sweet birch, bitternut hickory, black cherry, yellow birch, hophornbeam, butternut, and sometimes American beech. The rich northern hardwood forest supports a wide variety of non-tree species as well, including the easily-identifiable "indicator species" of blue cohosh, maidenhair fern, wild leek and duchman's breeches.
Left to its own devices, as in any other ecosystem, the flora in the rich northern hardwood forest balance in to a supportive companionship - a co-beneficial relationship - that, in part through its support of fauna, helps it resist pests and disease. Think companion planting in your garden - same concept. In other words, when the rich northern hardwoods forest contains its ideal suite of trees, it operates at its healthiest and most resilient level. When one or more species are selectively cut, or selectively planted, it doesn't. Health is good, obviously. And resiliency is what any living system needs to cope with change - including forests and climate change.
So, this means that your job as custodian of your forest is to figure out which sub-type of northern hardwood forest you live in, figure out if you have the ideal proportion of the ideal species of trees on your forest, and, if not, selectively cut, plant and/or cultivate so that you do. Easy, right?
Not, really. No. Finding out what sub-type you have will take some research, and the true answer lies in analysis of the soil, notes Nancy. And do you know how to take a statistically significant survey of the number of each tree species you have? Because I don't. Not to mention that foresters tend to work on the 250-acre level, so goodness knows whether a five, ten, or twenty-five acre plot of land can even be analyzed this way. I didn't even want to ask.
This is when it is good to know a forester like Nancy. "Homeowners can make an impact by just focusing on variability," she says. According to Nancy, it is enough to simply walk in your woods and catalog all of the species of trees you find there - including the understory (young trees). If what you find there is reasonably diverse - say around eight species - that's great. You can care for your woods by just not cutting all or most of any species down. If what you find is not monocultural (sugar maple only) but is non-diverse (only a few species of trees) "consider planting an oak or two," suggests Nancy. Oaks are great companion plants in northern hardwood forest; they are great habitat for moths, butterflies and song birds and provide a food source for bear, turkey and deer. They are also projected to do well in a warming climate (or a "climate-change winner" as Nancy says). If you do have a sugar maple monoculture, according to Nancy, "planting hemlocks and red maples can help diminish the virulence of tent caterpillar invasions." Just take a couple of hours to look around, find out how diverse your woods are, and act accordingly. I can DO that!
So, the other day, when I should have been typing (I had planned to be typing. I needed to be typing!), I just couldn't type. So I took the dog outside with The Sibley Guide to Trees. (What I wanted to have was Forest Trees of Vermont, but, alas, not in our local public library. It is now on my Christmas list.) And we ambled for a couple of hours. We saw mature red maple, sugar maple, yellow birch, paper birch, eastern hemlock and American beech throughout our ten acres, and some white ash and northern red oak in the understory. Near the house, there were also big white pine and little quaking aspen, staghorn sumac, striped maple and smooth alder. With eight or more species of trees, I'm solidly in the "already have diversity" camp, which is great, even though I don't boast a piece of the rich northern hardwood forest. So I can help my woods stay resilient by just staying the course. Whew. Love it when that happens.
So if you should be typing, had planned to be typing, and need to be typing, but just can't, get out there in the woods and look around for a while to see what you can see - you'll probably be glad you did!
Sugar country is bigger than you think. People make maple syrup in their backyards in twenty U.S. states and most of Canada!
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 July. 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!
It seems that a lot has been written about the connection between climate change and maple syrup making recently. Don't know what I'm talking about? Just Google it.
As we cowered in air-conditioned darkness this weekend sipping on iced drinks, I recalled a presentation on climate change and maple sugaring given by Nancy Patch, County Forester for Franklin and Grand Isle Counties a few years ago. I recalled that, from Nancy's talk, I took away some interesting information about how climate change is and will affect maple sugaring as well as some important tips about caring for our sugar woods as they cope with the transition. I interviewed Nancy recently to refresh my recollection on her talk.
May this transcript both ground and add levity to your thinking on the topic!
Kate: One of the things that I recall from your talk, and one of the things that I’ve told my readers, is that Red Maple trees are going to fare better than Sugar Maple as the climate changes. Which means that backyard sugar makers of the future will still be able to sugar, but might have to work a little harder. Now that I’ve read Increasing Forest Resiliency for an Uncertain Future, however, I’m not sure. Will you explain?
Nancy: Sure. The Sugar Maple is a “Goldilocks” tree. Sugar Maples require soils rich in calcium and magnesium with the right moisture content, enough snow cover to protect its sensitive roots from freezing in the winter, and particular temperatures in order to regenerate. This is where climate change comes in.
The Red Maple is a genetically diverse tree that can thrive in a wider range of situations and has a much wider geographical range. The Red Maple can thrive in acidic soil or on ledge, in swamps and can handle drought conditions, for example.
Neither the Sugar Maple nor the northern hardwood forest in which it grows are going to disappear in the foreseeable future, but climate change – including warming temperatures, shrinking snow cover, and the increase in the incidence and severity of ice storms – will put stress on the Sugar Maple’s ability to thrive and reproduce outside of areas with optimal soil and moisture content, causing it to be out-competed by other species, including the Red Maple.
Kate: So climate change is not going to damage existing trees as much as it is going to make it hard for them to reproduce?
Nancy: Right. Reproduce and compete.
Kate: OK, so how will climate change affect the business of sugar making?
Nancy: It has already. Sugar making is a responsive industry that has long dealt with the reality of climate change. Already, professional sugar makers tap earlier [rising temperatures mean earlier springs] and use tubing systems that keep the wound in the tree open to accommodate the uncertainty of the season.
Kate: How will climate change affect the business of sugar making in the future?
Nancy: We really don’t know. It is always important when talking about climate change to note that we really don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t completely understand how trees adapt. And adaptation does not necessarily take forever. Another thing we don’t understand about trees is how they communicate with each other. So keeping the forest’s options open is the best we can do, and this means species diversity [number and abundance of species in the woods] and structural diversity [diversity of tree age and size, and existence of openings in the canopy, standing dead and logs on the ground] in the woods.
Kate: How do we keep a forest’s options open for sugaring?
Nancy: One of the things I have been pushing people to do is to keep and cultivate Sugar Maples in places where the conditions are really optimal – places where slope [the pitch of the land] or aspect [the compass direction that a slope faces] keep temperatures down, and places with mineral-rich soil and the right moisture content. Beyond that, it comes down to protecting or creating diversification among trees and other species, and ensuring your sugar woods has trees of many different ages so that when disturbance occurs there is a replacement forest.
Kate: What can backyard sugar makers do to make sure that future generations can continue to enjoy the hobby they love?
Nancy: The first thing I would tell a backyard sugar maker to do is to remove invasive species annually by cutting, pulling or burning them (when snow is on the ground and it is safe to do so). The big three in sugaring country are buckthorn, honeysuckle and barberry. This will go a long way in protecting the forest habitat, which increases forest resiliency, which means healthy sugar woods. Big producers may have too much land to completely eradicate invasive species, but someone with a ten-acre plot, for example, can handle it, and even work with their neighbors to increase the impact of their work.
The second thing I would tell them to do is to look at the diversity of trees in the 250 acre area that includes and surrounds their property, and try to figure out how close it is to containing an ideal suite of tree species for their type of woods. A county forester or extension service may be helpful there. If there’s diversity already, do what you can on your own land to maintain it. If diversity does not exist, you can plant trees or expand on what you have already by, for example, giving a mature oak some space to thrive and reproduce by thinning around it.
Finally, I would tell them to protect or create the potential for diversity for other species, including wildlife, by leaving standing dead trees [called “snags”], leaving dead logs on the ground, and, where bodies of water exist, ensuring that riparian buffers [forested area providing shade] are in place.
Happy tapping everyone!
Maple Cured Bacon: Acquire pork belly (pictured above: 8 lbs.). Cure in fridge for two weeks with 6 tablespoons sea salt, 1/3 cup maple syrup, and 1 1/2 teaspoons curing salt, flipping meat after a week. Rinse, pat dry, and smoke at 150 degrees or lower on your Sapling Smoker for 2 hours. Store in fridge or freezer for at least a day before slicing thin. Cook. Eat. Enjoy!
This is only the beginning. Think of it as a primer for starting to think about thinking about grilling and smoking on the Sapling Party Grill and Sapling Smoker with the maple you made on your Sapling Evaporator. Ready to experience the magic of three machines in one? Here's what the inventor of that three-fer has to say about it:
You've had your Sapling for a few years now. Tell me how you like to use your machine when you are not sugaring.
To start, you should know that the Sapling Party Grill is just the Sapling Evaporator with the pan removed and replaced with three custom grill grates. To make the Sapling Smoker, you simply install the Sapling Smoking Package on the Sapling Grill.
Having said that, both the Grill and Smoker are really effective for preparing large food spreads; we use the Sapling Grill to cook the meats for parties at our home. We use the Sapling Smoker for special meals or to preserve meats. The surface area is extensive. And it's easy to control the temperature for low temperature smoking.
There's significant prep and cleanup time involved, so this is weekend or holiday cooking for us. But we love it.
Give me an idea of the grill space. How big does it feel? How much food can you fit on it?
Let's see, we've fit 14 pounds of pork bellies on our Sapling Grill; 15 pounds of chicken. A 15 pound turkey. 40 hot dogs. At 20 by 30 inches, it's BIG.
To grill, do you use wood or charcoal? How far in advance of cooking do you have to start the fire to grill? And to smoke?
You can grill with wood or with charcoal. If you are using soft wood, wood gets hot quicker and is good for searing. You can be ready to go in 10 minutes or so. Charcoal is going to take you at least 20 minutes to get to grilling temperature. And to smoke, you need a half hour minimum to get your charcoal bed set and your chips smoking.
Can you cold smoke on the Sapling?
We've had temperatures under 150 degrees, but cold smoking is well under 100 degrees. You know, we've never tried, but I suppose you could!
What kinds of temperatures are you looking to achieve on the Sapling Smoker for different kinds of food?
It depends on whether you are cooking or curing. If you are curing bacon, for example, you are looking for 120-130 degrees. If you are cooking chicken to eat, you are looking for more like 250. All those temps are totally doable on the Sapling.
Can you make pizza on the Sapling Grill?
If you have installed the Sapling Smoking Package, yes! We're still perfecting our method, but, by using a large, rectangular pizza stone, and firing the grill up to 400 degrees or so (as measured by a magnetic stove thermometer on the smoker lid), we've made some amazing, amazing pizza. The wood-fired taste is just outrageously good. And we've figured out how to use the maple syrup we made on our Sapling as an ingredient, too.
Wood Fired Veggie Pizza with Maple and Goat Cheese: Make your favorite pizza dough and roll thin. Top with crushed tomato, fresh mozzarella, sliced baby bella mushrooms, baby arugula, and toasted walnuts. Sprinkle with goat cheese and drizzle lightly with maple syrup. Remove baffle from Sapling Smoker and ensure damper is open. Place pizza stone on grates and start fire. Cook covered at 400 degrees or hotter for 10 minutes or until done.
Cool! How do you store your Sapling Party Grill / Sapling Smoker when you are not using it?
Outside, under the Sapling Grill Cover.
How do you get the longest life out of your Sapling Party Grill / Sapling Smoker?
Clean out ashes and brush off dirt every once in a while, and then coat in vegetable oil, inside and out. Keep dry. Sand any blemishes with 100 grit sandpaper and touch up with Sapling Touch Up Paint or the equivalent. You can also use stove blacking.
How does grilling on the Sapling compare to your experience with other grills?
You have to be a bit more patient. You have to take your time and pay attention to what you are doing, then wait until the grill cools before you put it away. But the outcomes are better. The wood flavor is amazing. The food is just so good.
Do you recommend the Sapling Party Grill and the Sapling Smoker, then?
Of course! Yah. Anyone interested in having a multifunctional grill that can do a really nice job sugaring as well should consider the Sapling.
I'll toast to that! Care for a maple sun tea?
Peaches canned in homemade maple syrup: a north-south, east-west delicacy.
My peach tree nearly toppled over with the weight of its fruit this weekend. Which was a big surprise, as I recall my disbelief at the point of its purchase three years ago that one could even grow peaches in Vermont.
Peaches have a special place in my heart. I spent part of my childhood in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. My brothers and I had a babysitter named Linda. She had a homestead way out in Harper's Ferry, where she raised a gaggle of kind, wild boys. Linda kept to the house unless someone needed her but us kids had free reign of the farm. And the peaches. The kind you can barely eat for juiciness. The kind that gets all over your face no matter how tidy you're trying to be. We had peaches many ways at Linda's. But one of the best, on a hot day, was frozen and blended with a little water. Linda called it the peach freeze. It was the taste of summer.
And then there were Grandma Jeanette’s canned peaches. Served for dessert whenever we were in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Perfect halves, flawlessly skinned, in heavy syrup, preserved in half-gallon mason jars. Grandpa Stan fetched them from the cellar slowly and carefully while we anticipated. Brought the prairie summer to any time of the year, over the years, first for my husband, then for us both, and then for our children.
So I picked my peaches this weekend – every last one of them – eating some while still warm from the sun. They weren’t quite the West Virginia peaches or South Dakota peaches of my youth. Nor are they Pennsylvania or Georgia peaches, I’d imagine. But they are fresh. And, this weekend, I canned them in my own homemade maple syrup. Bringing a little Vermont to the peach. Expressing solidarity with peach country. Sending a bit of sweetness south and west, into the past, and into the future.
Here's to hoping someone remembers my peaches fondly someday and passes on the love.
One America Homemade Maple Syrup Peaches
Wash your peaches and freeze for at least one hour on a jelly-roll pan or other sheet pan with a lip. Run under cold water and slip off the skins. Half and pit the peaches, placing them directly into clean jars. Boil a mixture of four-parts water to one-part homemade maple syrup. Pour boiling mixture over peaches to 1/2" of top. Affix lids. Can in a hot water bath for 20 minutes, cool, and store.
Have you ever wondered how maple got big? How it went from a subsistence crop to a farmer's sideline, to a product that could mount a flavor challenge to pumpkin spice? Well the answer may surprise you: it was the Maple King who made it happen.
Who was the Maple King? George C. Cary. And how can you learn more about him? By reading "Maple King: The Making of a Maple Syrup Empire" by Matthew M. Thomas, a fascinating and well-written book about a personality that looms as large in the (relatively small) world of maple as Rockefeller does in oil, Carnegie in steel, and the Great Gatsby did in your high school English class.
"The Maple King," is the story of Cary's life as well as the story of the commodification of maple syrup. It is as academic as a history text, but entertaining enough to make a reader wonder when the movie rights will be sold. There are antic-prone travelling salesmen, epic train journeys, New York City eateries, women on the side, a stock market crash, bankruptcy and sudden death between this book's covers. And plenty of the action takes place in the roaring twenties. What's not to love!? We've already purchased our popcorn.
Thomas starts by describing just how different the maple business was in the nineteenth century from what it is today. For those of you who have read either The Maple Sugar Book, or Maple Sugarin' in Vermont, the narrative covers familiar terrain by describing maple sugaring---and by that, we mean the boiling of maple sap down to actual sugar---as an ancillary springtime activity on the farm or rural homesteads of northeastern United States and southeastern Canada during that period. What you wouldn't have known was that people like Patrick J. Towle of Towle's Log Cabin Syrup Company (purveyors of what we sugar makers pejoratively call "the fake stuff" since 1887) were actually responsible for creating a national market for table syrup as such. In fact, without the marketing efforts of Log Cabin and the like, it would have been harder for maple producers to transition from selling sugar to selling syrup when, after the Civil War, the price of cane sugar dropped to below the price of maple sugar for the first (and all) time, and for that and other reasons became more popular than maple.
Cary's reign as Maple King spanned that whole transition, and then some. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, for one of the most interesting parts of Cary's story occurs before he's a maple man at all, and is theatrical in its serendipity (cue the dramatic music, here).
Cary started life as a member of the merchant class in a small town in northern Maine. He was educated at public school, attended college, and began his working life as a rural school teacher and local farm-machinery salesman. Just a year after Cary took up work as a travelling grocery salesman, however, he started selling maple sugar accidentally. Hard pressed to make a grocery sale in Craftsbury, Vermont, Cary agreed to take a large amount of maple sugar as payment for an order instead of cash. His bosses were none too pleased, and told Cary to turn the sugar into money. Cary, who would show himself to be capable of that alchemy until the end, did just that. While on the road once again, Cary convinced a tobacco salesman to use maple sugar in his plug tobacco instead of cane sugar, at a savings to the tobacco company. The switch stuck, and pretty soon, Cary was out on his own, buying up almost all of the maple sugar made in Vermont and selling it to big tobacco. He was, as such, the first to consolidate the small maple crops of thousands of farmers, create a standard maple product, and sell it in bulk, the precursor of how maple syrup is traded today.
The rest, as they say, is history, including the transition from sugar to syrup, the boom and bust of Cary's businesses, and with it St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the creation of the Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec, the maple cartel that grew from the need to compete with the Maple King and that still sets global prices today, and the legacy---still going strong---of finding new and different ways to sell maple products.
"Maple King" is a good, fast read that will teach you your maple history while holding your interest with more than just places and dates. While Thomas doesn't stray far from his original source materials, he gives the reader enough extra to truly enjoy imagining the life and times of maple's own magnate.
Maple Sugarin' In Vermont: A Sweet History by Betty Ann Lockhart is a perfect fair-weather read for the Vermont history buff, but has hidden gems for all.
With a tone that toggles between history text and folktale, Maple Sugarin' In Vermont: A Sweet History by Betty Ann Lockhart traces the story of Vermont Maple from the early recorded history of colonization to the middle of the 20th Century.
Although there are some unfortunate moments---such as the author's reopening of the closed case as to who discovered maple---and despite the all-but-inevitable dryness of some of the weedy historical material, the book nevertheless left this reader hoping that Ms. Lockhart was well into her work on a sequel. Please, Ms. Lockhart, for your next book, take us into the contemporary era of Vermont maple, with attention to the back-to-the-land and organic food movements, the incredible recent industry consolidation, run-ins with labeling authorities, and (yes, selfishly) the backyard sugarmaking revolution currently underway among young people here!
Maple Sugarin' is organized chronologically as much as it is thematically and opens with the Abenaki and early settlers. Ms. Lockhart's treatment of the early recorded history of maple sugaring in Vermont is disappointing only in its suggestion that scholars are still at odds as to whether settlers from lands with no sugaring tradition could possibly have taught peoples having logged (tens?) of thousands of years in sugar country how to produce sugar from the maple tree. (For, surely that argument was satisfactorily dispatched by the prior scholarship of Helen Nearing in The Maple Sugar Book.) Nevertheless, these first chapters contain some gems; the story Lockhart tells of early sugar making is well illustrated both by words and by photographs of authentic and reproduction tools and equipment used by the first Vermont sugar makers. The rudimentary nature of early methods will impress any modern sugar maker with just how easy we have it!
After deftly weaving a tale of the advent of the 1791 sugaring season in with the story of Vermont becoming the fourteenth state of the Union (both occurred on March 4th of that year), Lockhart turns in Chapters 3 through 7 to Vermont sugarmaking as it existed in the early days of the Union through the Civil War. With entire chapters devoted to Thomas Jefferson's first exposure to Vermont maple (and subsequent failure to bring maple to Monticello) and the role consumption of maple sugar played in the Vermont abolition movement, Lockhart nevertheless pays scrupulous attention as well to advances in equipment and methods during this time, bringing us from wooden buckets and spiles and kettle systems to the advent of the evaporator, the sugar house, and all-things metal (even metal tubing---an experiment that would fail and keep on failing until its eventual demise in the 20th Century).
The balance of the book chronicles the rise of the Vermont maple industry through the middle of the 20th Century. According to Lockhart, the turn of the 20th Century is about when syrup starts surpassing sugar as the maple crop of choice. Ironically, it is also when Vermont producers start getting organized through the Vermont Maple "Sugar" Makers Association, and otherwise, to advocate for the protection and promotion of their crop. Lockhart goes on to detail the contributions of such notables as George C. Cary ("The Maple King") and the Proctor family. A reader's reward for making it through the dry-but-important subsequent exploration of the legal and regulatory environment of the era are the absolute gems at the end. Chapter 13 contains entertaining tales of and by actual Vermont sugarmakers, and Chapter 15 a primer on odd tools of the trade that will pique the interest of any peruser of antiques. The book ends, as any book on maple probably should, with recipes---these ones a bit basic but purporting to be authentic to old Vermont.
Any maple history enthusiast will find value in reading this thorough and, at times, supremely entertaining book. Widely available online and orderable at your local bookstore, if you or someone you know loves all things maple, give Betty Ann Lockhart's Maple Sugarin' In Vermont; A Sweet History a read one of these days!
The Sapling Evaporator is engineered for maximum backyard efficiency!
Last year, a prospective customer named Tom emailed me with the following question: “I love your maple syrup evaporators. But, without being a jerk, why should I spend $895 on a Sapling when some guy is selling a homemade barrel evaporator for $300 on Craig’s List? What’s the difference?”
I corresponded with Tom for a few days. And I can assure you that he is most definitely not a jerk. Not only that, but his question is a very, very good one! So, without being a jerk, here’s what I told him:
First, the Sapling is engineered for maximum backyard efficiency. Although the Sapling is simply designed, it is engineered especially for sugaring, and has some of the advanced features of more expensive evaporators. Most importantly, the Sapling’s stainless pan is baffled, which allows it to operate as a continuous-flow evaporator. Continuous-flow evaporation merits a blogpost in itself, but suffice it to say that this configuration allows syrup to be drawn off and sap to be added without emptying the pan. The continuous flow is more efficient than boiling off sap in batches, or pouring the boil from pan-to-pan.
I've talked to a LOT of people who have used the kids of homemade barrel evaporators Tom is talking about. Typically, those evaporators use a cast-iron, barrel-stove kit and hotel pans, both widely available items, to convert the barrel to an evaporator. The barrel-stove door does not have as much space for air intake as the Sapling’s specially engineered door does (making it harder to keep temperatures optimal for sugaring), the legs are shorter (requiring more bending on your part), the exit pipe comes out of the top of the unit rather than the back of the unit (leaving less surface area for boiling, which means slower evaporation) and, MOST importantly, the pan(s) are not baffled, meaning that you have to batch your boil, or pour from pan-to-pan, instead of doing a continuous-flow boil. From the (literally hundreds of) conversations I've had, I'd say that the Sapling, which boils at anywhere from 4 to 8 gallons of sap off per hour, depending on conditions, is easily twice as efficient as a comparably-sized batch operation.
Second, we stand by our Saplings, which are built to last. Our Saplings are coated with a high-temperature powder coating that is both durable and clean for the environment. And, all fasteners and hardware on the exterior of the Sapling are either powder coated or made of stainless steel. Homemade barrel evaporators probably don't have stainless fasteners, typically have cast iron pieces that rust, and are not at all likely to be powder coated.
We are a going concern, and are in this business for the long haul. Our reputation is important to us, and we support our customers whether they are happy with our products or not. (So far, so good!) That homemade barrel evaporator guy may not be as responsive to your requests for customer service as we will be. Take Tom, for example. He asked a question, and got an essay!
Third, the Sapling is multifunctional and can be accessorized. The Sapling is not just an evaporator! Each unit comes standard with grates that convert the Sapling into a wood-fired grill. And now, with the purchase of the Sapling Smoking Package, the Sapling can be a smoker too! Soon, a Sapling-shaped heavy-duty cloth cover (like a grill cover) will be available for purchase, and we hope to launch a warming pan that will fit neatly on the back of the Sapling in time for next sugaring season. The Sapling is unique among all evaporators for its multifunctionality; the current and future availability of Sapling accessories sets it apart from homemade units of all kinds.
Fourth, the Sapling was built with safety and the environment in mind. This is my last-but-not-least point. Saplings start as new, unlined, unpainted steel. They are assembled, media-blasted, powder-coated and outfitted with a stainless evaporation pan bearing lead-free welds and a lead-free pour-off valve. Our operations are so environmentally responsible they require no permitting.
As far as we are aware, homemade barrel evaporators are made with barrels that have been used, lined, and/or painted. Such barrels are widely available at little or no cost. When we were in our R&D phase, we started with used, painted barrels too. We learned quickly that this would be a mistake in production.
To start, in order to put high-quality, high-temperature paint on used barrels, you have to clean off the old paint, which is not suitable for high-temperatures. Otherwise, the old paint will peel off right under the new paint on the first burn. This is extremely difficult, dirty, and time-intensive work that we suspect lower-cost barrel evaporator makers do not engage in. Unfortunately, many people who have made their own evaporators have reported to us that they burned the old paint off before applying the new paint. We do not know whether homemade barrel makers engage in this environmentally suspect practice, but we most-certainly do not.
Even as we were bemoaning the work involved in rehabbing an old barrel, someone was mistaken (or less than honest) about what had been in one of the used barrels we purchased and we had a health and environmental issue on our hands the moment we opened it up. We handled it responsibly, and everything turned out fine, but it put us off used barrels for good. Now, we doubt whether anyone would work on and sell to you a barrel that smelled as bad as this one did, but nevertheless, we feel REALLY good about being able to tell people that we use new, unused, unlined, unpainted barrels to make our Saplings. You do not know where that used barrel has been! And we are not messing around with safety!
Last time I talked to Tom, he was still thinking about whether to become a customer, but I appreciated his inspirational question so much that I offered him a free Sapling Cover if he came our way. So take this as a not-so-subtle hint, readers. Send me your thoughts!
And thanks, Tom!
Like shiny things? This season's Sapling Evaporator, in stock now, is a classic, flat black with stainless evaporator pan and accents. Making maple syrup in your backyard has never been this easy OR attractive!
You are seriously thinking about buying a Sapling Evaporator, but you have a few questions. Chances are, the answers are below!
What's the lead-time on a Sapling Evaporator?
None! Our stock is holding out well, and we're busy manufacturing more at a good clip. We work every day during the season, so orders are generally shipped or made available for pickup the next business day after an order is placed.
How does the Sapling Evaporator ship?
The Sapling ships in a big box via UPS.
How long does it take to ship a Sapling to zipcode _ _ _ _ _?
UPS estimates place all of sugar country within one to three days of us. except for the farthest reaches of Maine, New England destinations are one day away, as are eastern and central New York. Western New York and the New York City area, as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland are two-day destinations. It takes three days to get a Sapling to Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
How much does it cost to ship a Sapling to zipcode _ _ _ _ _?
We ship Saplings anywhere in the U.S. for $150, flat.
May I come pick up my Sapling instead?
Sure thing! You can pick up your Sapling, by appointment, for free!
When may I pick up my Sapling?
Our facility is generally open for pickups-by-appointment from 9-5 during the week. If that doesn't work for you, we'll find a weekend time that does. Shortly after you place your order, we will be in touch with you to schedule a pickup. Rushing is not the Vermont way. As such, we're happy to hold your Sapling for you while you plan your trip to Montpelier, an excellent day-trip destination (activity and restaurant recommendations available upon request)!
What is the best way to place my order?
Online! And thanks for asking. We're a small operation, so placing your order on our website helps us stay organized and avoid mistakes.
How many taps will the Sapling handle?
We recommend the Sapling for operations ranging from 5-50 taps for customers who anticipate saving sap up for occasional boils (e.g., weekends or days off from work). Customers who are able to boil whenever the sap flows should be able to handle up to 100 taps. The Sapling is not recommended for operations bigger than 100 taps.
How many gallons per hour can I evaporate on the Sapling?
We have measured everything from 4 to 8 gallons of evaporation per hour on our Sapling. The speed of your boil will depend on many things, including: the temperature outside, whether it is precipitating, the heat of your fire, your level of attention and skill and whether you are using the Sapling Warming Pan or other warming situation of your own invention.
Does the Sapling come assembled?
Almost completely! All new Sapling owners must install the stack and ball valve. That involves six self-tapping screws, pipe tape (provided) and opposable thumbs (BYO). Saplings that are shipped will also need to have their legs attached with the bolts, nuts and lock washers provided. Directions come with and are also here.
What tools should I have on hand for assembly?
A power-drill with Philips-head attachment installed should do it. A note for the apocalypse: it is possible to assemble a Sapling with nothing but a Philips-head screwdriver, but it's not fun. Self-tapping screws don't require drilling---although some folks prefer to pre-drill---but do pair well with power tools.
Is the Sapling portable?
Yes! The Sapling is light enough for one or two people to move it around easily (see below) and even comes with threaded holes on each foot for the intrepid customer who wishes to install casters for locomotion around easy terrain. (Hint: get the ones with breaks - you need to be able to level your unit).
How heavy is the Sapling?
All assembled, the Sapling is about 90 lbs. The heaviest part (the barrel with legs and door installed) is about 50 lbs.
What are the dimensions of the Sapling?
People usually ask because they are wondering if it will fit in their car. The answer is yes! We once fit a Sapling Evaporator in a Toyota Corolla! (We had to take it apart.) The partially-assembled Sapling will fit in any SUV or truck bed.
The Sapling ships in a box that is 38 x 25 x 27 (L x W x H). With legs at pickup, it's about 33 x 23 x 29 (L x W x H).
If you need more detail than this because you are installing your Sapling in an outbuilding, please be in touch!
What kind of outfitting does the Sapling require?
Besides sap, the only thing you absolutely need to bring to your Sapling is an inch or two of sand or ash to be placed on the bottom of your barrel (to protect the metal from the hottest part of your fire).
Should I firebrick my Sapling?
This is a matter of personal choice. The benefits are heat retention and added protection for your barrel. The downside is a smaller firebox. There is such a thing as half-brick, which basically splits the difference. If you are curious about how to lay your brick in your barrel, you can watch us do it here.
Can I install my Sapling in a sugar house?
Provided you consult your local fire warden and do it safely, yes! While the Sapling was designed for outdoor use, we have many customers who have installed their Saplings inside a shack or other outbuilding.
What kind of wood should I burn in the Sapling?
Opinions vary about what kind of wood is best, but the truth is that most people just burn what is available at little or no cost. We like a mixture of hard and soft, ourselves. Your wood should be split a time or two more than you would split it for use in your wood stove so that it about the width of your arm. Best to keep the lengths to two feet or below.
How much wood do I need?
It's a hard question to answer without knowing what kind of wood you are burning, but, by way of a ballpark, we suggest 1/2 cord of wood per every 5 gallons of syrup produced.
I don't have that much; where can I find inexpensive wood?
Check with a local hardware store or lumber mill. Very often, outfits that sell lumber will have or know where you can get inexpensive wood called "slag" wood - the bark edges of trees cut for lumber. You can also use old pallets, clean construction extras, or dry fallen wood. For a complete discussion on sugar wood, go here.
Can I get to finished syrup on the Sapling or will I need to finish on a separate pan?
While the experienced and the brave make it to finished syrup on the Sapling, most of us amateur sugar makers pour-off when we are very close (for us, it's usually about 2:1), and reduce the rest of the way on propane nearby or inside on the kitchen stove.
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.