Winter into early spring is a time when a farmer girl like me gets impatient. I have caught up on my reading and bookmarked several new project ideas for the coming year. The greenhouse is readied to grow the seeds we have purchased. An organized planting schedule has been made. Hundreds of little pots and trays are waiting to be put to work. Water barrels are in place and starter soil is all lined up. Fertilizer is at the ready!
There are no baby chickies to tend to this year. I have decided my flock is fine as it is so besides the daily care for the existing animals, I putter around.
Because we have dogs, we don’t hibernate as many do. We are outside every day hiking, exploring, picking up tree branches and dried grass debris, so we really know what is happening on the farm. The dogs and I really like rooting around the property. We continue to discover things the previous owner’s dogs buried that get unearthed by rain and time. To date, we have found 5 pairs of giant men’s rubber shoes, but never a pair at a time. We have also dug up a t-shirt and shorts, lots of garden tools, two chicken waterers and various parts of machinery and hardware along with odd things like CDs, coffee tins and lots of little ceramic tiles. I’m sure there will be lots of hidden treasures still to discover.
Of late, the winters have been full of freezes and uncharacteristic thaws in January and February. Those warm ups give us a little taste of the coming warmth which is great but there are still MONTHS until things start growing. The cold and snow always returns but come my birthday in late February, I have something fun to look forward to.
While the ground is still brown and dormant, we get the great reprieve of winter boredom which is the tapping of maple trees for sap to make syrup. You can actually tap any kind of Maple tree. It doesn’t need to only be a Sugar Maple tree. There are various kinds of Maples and other trees like Birch and Walnut can also make for an amazing syrup.
I have scouted out the Maples that look promising and marked them with a ribbon around their trunks. When it is time and that means, when the night temperatures are below freezing, but the days are over 32 degrees, it is time to put in the taps! We started tapping trees 4 years ago at our cabin up North. We ordered these lovely little metal buckets online and they were so cute and completely impractical. They only held maybe a gallon of sap so you would have to empty them constantly or the sap would flow onto the ground. Since we were only spending weekends there, that was a challenge. We quickly learned we needed longer tubing and five gallon buckets. The 5 gallon buckets could get emptied into 10 gallon food grade buckets and carried to the boiling area. The first year we set up a grate on cement blocks and burned wood that we had cut. Amateurs!!!! One needs a LOT of wood as this burning must keep going for a two to three DAYS and required constant feeding of new logs. It was dirty, smoky and frustrating. We had collected about 40 gallons of sap that first year. The ratio is about 40 or 50 -1 depending on sugar content so that 40 gallons of sap needs to boil and boil and evaporate until you get a nice amber color and it is a bit thicker. When you reach this point, then you can take that final gallon or so inside your house and do the final boil. I had heard of Sugar Shacks and as we researched what the Big Guns do, we realized this small operation is nothing more than an expensive endeavor that reaps sweet rewards and garners looks of awe from friends.
We do not have 1000 trees to tap and can stand in amazement and watch some of those operations. There is one up in Pymatuning state park and another over near Andover Ohio. The folks who actually make a living from maple syrup tapping have all the equipment and it is indeed impressive.
We have graduated to a propane griddle that we can place a gigantic pot on the burner on the back deck and fill it as needed which is honestly only once or twice a day. I love the smell of the sap as it cooks. When the wind blows, you can smell it all around the house. We go through 3 or 4 full canisters of propane a season so you can add up that cost. It takes all that time and money but I have nothing but time during late winter so I enjoy the whole process. I can think of lots of things I could be doing to waste that same $$ and time, but this is a very fulfilling and entertaining activity and I recommend it for everyone.
Even if you don’t personally own land that has a maple or two, ask around. I bet in exchange for some lip smacking syrup, your neighbors would allow you to tap their trees!
So now, that is done, my seeds are potted and some are starting to pop their heads out of the soil. I am treasuring this time when everything is quite manageable and I have control over everything. I give the plants what they need in light and water. Only an occasional weed starts growing in those pots too but there is very little WORK to do. As of now, I can ready my herb garden and check on emerging buds on all the fruit trees and bushes. I don’t have grass to cut, nor vines to prune. I honestly don’t have much to do but watch these seeds grow. I do like the peace before it all breaks loose but who am I kidding, BRING IT ON. I rested all winter. Now, it is time to get to WORK!