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.
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 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 keeping the garden weed-free, moving the chickens to their late-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!
Family members of ours, depicted here sugaring the old-fashioned way, with buckets and a team of oxen. Was the syrup they made organic?
If your family is anything like ours, no matter how many gallons of maple syrup you made on your backyard boiler last Spring, it is close to being entirely consumed by the time August rolls around. Maple rationing is hard! Time is tight. The kids are hollering for pancakes. And you keep forgetting to visit your local sugarhouse. Are you with me? You are at the supermarket, standing in front of that teeny-tiny local-food section, perusing your options. You see a bottle labeled “100% Organic Maple Syrup.” We’ve all been there.
“But, wait! Isn’t all Maple Syrup Organic,” you think, “regardless of whether it’s certified?”
“Not necessarily,” says Susannah Walsh Daloz, Former Director of UVM Farmer Training Program, Candidate for Masters in Food Systems at UVM, and our favorite go-to for all questions agricultural. That’s because “organic standards,” says Daloz, “aren’t just about avoiding synthetic pesticides and herbicides, practices that may not generally be used in maple syrup production,” but also regulate how farmers manage the land.
Sure enough, a quick Google search turned up this document, Vermont Organic Famers’ “Guidelines for Certification of Organic Maple Syrup & Sap.” According to Daloz, this was the right document to find, because Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, an arm of NOFA Vermont, has the power to certify agricultural products, including maple syrup, as UDSA Organic. (There are similar setups in other states and regions around the country.) And, sure enough, there are LOADS of requirements that have nothing to do with prohibiting synthetic pesticides, herbicides, synthetic tree-marking paint, or the synthetic defoamers that can be used in boiling. In fact, in eleven pages, approximately ten pages deal with all sorts of other stuff having to do with sugar stand management.
For example, there is a group of requirements devoted to maintaining or achieving species diversity, including requirements that a sugar stand be composed of at least 20% non-sugar maple trees (red maple count), and that the genetic diversity of other “plants, animals and microorganisms” in the stand be protected.
There are requirements about how to ensure sugar stand regeneration through management of mixed-age stands (sugar stands that have sugar maples of varying ages) or conversion of even-aged stands.
The organic sugar maker must abide by certain tree-thinning and harvesting techniques when removing trees from the stand, must minimize the damage such activities may cause to surrounding trees, and is prohibited from removing debris from the stand. In fact, “material smaller than 3 inches must be left in the woods.” According to the requirements, “[d]eviation from this standard could result in loss of certification.” Wow!
And then there are rules about managing the number, placement and condition of forest roads, limiting erosion of forest soils, maintaining water quality, and ensuring that any grazing animals permitted entry into the bush don’t cause lasting damage to it.
Guidelines as to how to tap the trees (as shallow as possible), where to tap the trees (staggered both vertically and horizontally from prior taps by specific distances) how many taps can be placed in a tree (never more than 2) and whether taps must be removed season-to-season (yes, always, no matter what) are quite lengthy, as well.
And we haven’t even gotten to sap storage (no galvanized anything, ever), syrup making (lead-free soldered boiling equipment only), bottle labeling (don’t get me started) and proper washing and disinfection of all of the above (summary: no matter what, rinse, rinse, rinse).
At this point, I’m wondering if ANY maple syrup is organic by these standards unless labeled as such. And yet, I’ve spoken with several smallish sugar makers who claim that, aside from maybe laying off the synthetic defoamers, their farming techniques did not have to change at all in order to meet organic requirements, which they were happy enough to comply with in exchange for the premium they can charge for their product. Were they selling me magic beans, or what? Believable?
“I would absolutely credit those statements,” says Daloz. “Unlike other food production contexts, it was probably never part of the industrial model to use non-organic practices in the first place. The organic movement itself was organized for the purpose of forcing a shift away from practices that were likely generally not applied to traditional maple production.”
And, again, I say “wow!” That’s a whole lot of work to ensure a healthy, sustainable product. I guess that’s farming! Daloz agrees.
“It will be interesting to see,” adds Daloz, “as the maple industry shifts and consolidates, as new pests appear, and as the climate changes, whether non-organic practices become more prevalent in the industry. If they do, organic certification will be even more of a differentiator than it is today” she concludes.
So where does that leave me? Back in the supermarket, with a list as long as my arm. And I haven’t even picked out the maple syrup yet. Such is life. Wish me luck!
The flower of the elderberry, which blooms in midsummer, can be used to make syrup too. While there are cultivars, wild elderberry like this one grows in most of Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada. Making elderflower syrup is a tradition that hails from Scandinavia and Central Europe.
There's been something we've been meaning to discuss for some time now. And that is the fact that maple is only one of nature's bountiful, forageable syrups. Yes, it's true! Here we are, trying to sell you maple syrup making equipment, and we've neglected to tell you that there's so, so much more you can do with your subsistence syrup production. Let's fix that!
Take, for example, the Black Walnut and related Butternut trees: their sap is flowing at about the same time and in about the same places as the maple. That is to say, during late winter and early spring in the Northeastern, Midwestern and Mid Atlantic U.S. and much of Canada. Researchers at Cornell University hypothesize that the sugar content in a black walnut tree is similar to that of a maple - meaning that it would take, on average, 40 gallons of walnut sap to make a gallon of walnut syrup. Like maple, walnut syrup can easily be made at home, and reportedly has a lovely, light, nutty-maple taste. Curious? Us too! While a quick online search reveals that most of what's on the market is replete with corn syrup, we did find some 100% pure black walnut syrup made by some folks in Ohio on ebay. Tempting! And spendy. But you can make your own! Take a year off of maple? Make two syrups at once on your trusty Sapling Evaporator? Or try a maple-walnut syrup and invent something new! (Hint, hint: there's a business opportunity there. The only hybrid available online appears to be maple infused with toasted walnuts. Not the same!)
Then there's the Birch, a tree native to the Northern U.S., Canada and Alaska, and traditionally used to make syrup in Russia, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Conveniently, birch sap starts running in spring proper, as maples are winding down, so you can conceivably reuse your maple tools and equipment on the birch. Not so conveniently, the sugar content of the birch tree is so low, it reportedly takes anywhere from 100 to 200 gallons of birch sap to make a gallon of syrup. Yikes. Birch syrup is not a pancake syrup, but is used to flavor meats and drinks. Reminiscent of amortentia - oh ye of Harry Potter fandom - It has a chameleon taste variously described as balsamic, molasses, caramel, soy and spice. Birch syrup is expensive, but widely available on the market. Our own Alaska is the biggest producer of birch syrup. Considering the work involved, maybe take a taste before committing your time and energy? Or for the not-so-feint-of-heart, fire up your Sapling Evaporator again and just jump in!
Speaking of Alaska, up there they also make Spruce Tip Syrup, not from the pitch of a pine tree, but by harvesting the tree's new shoots in late spring, soaking them in sugar water, and evaporating to consistency. Like birch, spruce tip syrup has savory applications, including dressing poultry dishes, and makes for a great spritzer or cocktail. Oh for some spruce tip syrup for tonight's gin and tonic! Alas, not even the internet is that fast, although spruce tip syrup is available there, and from the good folks at Birch Boy Syrup in . . . you guessed it . . . Alaska. Spruce is another syrup easily made at home, and, admittedly, in small quantities, can be made indoors on your stove in the stockpot. (Then, install your Sapling Smoking Package and smoke yourself a chicken glazed in spruce syrup! See what we did there?) Not Alaskan? Not to worry. The spruce is native to most of the Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada. So next spring, maybe spruce things up a bit! With spruce!
And now were into summer syrups! Like spruce tips, Elderflower and Dandelion blooms are soaked, sweetened and evaporated into syrups. Elderberry bushes can be purchased and cultivated much like blueberries, but, before you spend money, look around, wild elderberries are widespread in most of Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada, and are traditionally harvested to make elderflower syrup at home in Europe as well. Dandelions are traditionally used to make homemade dandelion syrup in Scandinavia and are native to . . . well . . . planet Earth. Both syrups are reportedly sweet and floral and can be used in drinks, dietary tinctures, or as a substitute for maple syrup on waffles or pancakes. Elderflower syrup is widely available online, if you'd like to try a taste first, but read your labels to make sure you're getting the pure stuff - artificial flavorings abound! With dandelions, you are on your own as dandelion syrup does not seem to be commercially available. Not convinced? Give dandelion green apple syrup a try instead! Like spruce, neither syrup requires anything outside of kitchen equipment for small batches. (But imagine you and your closest friends sipping on sweet somethings while grilling on the . . . you guessed it . . . Sapling Party Grill. I think you get the picture!)
As summer turns to fall, think Apple Cider and Hickory syrups! We've made apple cider syrup on our Sapling Evaporator and our Seedling Urban Evaporator to great effect these last few years. And we will be partnering with Mrs. Frugalwoods & Co. to produce some more this September. Apple cider syrup is a hybrid sweet and sour syrup that is great on pancakes and waffles, in drinks, in salad dressings and as a flavoring for meats. It is available at many maple sugar houses, and online from companies like Carr's Ciderhouse in Massachusetts. With a ratio of about six gallons of cider to one gallon of syrup, however, it is easily and quickly made at home from any pressed apples on your otherwise-dormant maple sugaring equipment (mess factor alert: best to keep it out of the kitchen). Like syrups made from sap, apple cider syrup needs no recipe (although we will record our experience this fall and pass it along) but hickory syrup - a versatile syrup made from the bark of the tree and boasting a smokey, woody flavor - does. Here's how to make hickory syrup at home. Or you can buy some from the Lehman family's Virginia operation. Depending on quantity, it looks like you could use your kitchen or your outdoor maple syrup making equipment for hickory, a tree that is native throughout the eastern U.S.
And that's a full year of syrups for you! From maple and black walnut in late winter, through birch and spruce tip in spring, elderflower and dandelion in summer and apple and hickory in fall, we hope we've piqued your interest in broadening your syrup-making horizons!*
*In Asia, the Canary Islands and Coastal South America, syrup is made from the sap of the Palm tree. If you are on a sacred mission to taste all syrups, have no fear. Palm syrup is available online!
Vermont Evaporator Company CEO Kate Whelley McCabe with her brothers, Patrick and Collin Whelley (and Penelope the dog) waiting for the sap to run in late winter of 2016. Remember the cold?
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, while at least two of the people pictured above are "young" (that would be a backfiring big-sister joke, right there) 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 soon. A few people responded that they make apple cider syrup, and other responses included birch, spruce tip, dandelion, and hickory. We'll be covering apple cider syrup soon (it's so easy!) but, still, we've got a lot to learn and pass on to you about the world of syrup-making. 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 us 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, for we already have customers in Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Quebec as well.
Which brings me to this request: if you haven't already, please tell us about yourself by taking the 2018 Sugaring Survey! It will take 3 minutes. And, in exchange, we'll give you 5% off of any purchase made through the end of July (with coupon code . . . you guessed it . . . "JULY") and report back with even more interested tidbits about who we backyard sugar makers are!
The Maple Sugaring 101 Tree Identification Tool Kit: A Book and A Pair of Sunglasses
It's walk-in-the-woods time here in sugar country. For those many of us without air conditioning, the shade of the trees is a welcome respite from the heat of the sun, as long as you move faster than the bugs do. It's as good a time as any to make good on your goal of identifying some maples (or some more maples) for your subsistence maple sugar making operation! So grab a water bottle, and get out there!
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, somewhere in between pulling weeds, finally staining the deck, and reconfiguring the chicken fence (again) to cut down on escapees (and, again, failing) I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.
We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower, 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: Red Maples are Also 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 as easy as that.
The Leaf of the Sugar Maple
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. Much like the weeds and chickens, this task won't wait forever. The air will cool, and those leaves WILL fall eventually!
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.
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.