Tag Archive | rural living

The Art of Tapping Maple Trees

Maple syrup season is in full swing here at the farm.  I tapped three days ago and have filled the 50 gallon boiler tank.  Today is the first day I’ve fired the boiler.  By tomorrow evening we should have over a gallon of fresh syrup if all goes well.  Here at Phoenix Farm we make maple syrup much as the ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Improvements were implemented over the years with the development of galvanized buckets to replace the old wood ones, better spiels and a more enclosed method of boiling the sap to keep the smoke out.  Syrup was once made in open containers over open fires.  Generally, we collect and process sap much as was done in the 1700s here in New England.  I prefer the old fashioned way.  Besides the nostalgia factor, using metal rather than plastic for long term sap contact alleviates concerns of plastic contaminant leaching.

There is an art to drilling and caring for tap holes using the old methods.  It is helpful to tap on a day when the sap is running so you know the hole is patent.  Dry holes are no good to anyone.  Sap season occurs when air temperatures are in the 40sF during the day and 20sF at night.

I use an antique manual bit and brace drill.  Choosing the correct drill bit size is essential.  Too large or small a hole can lead to tree damage.  The correct size to fit standard spiels is 7/16″.  The spiel must be straight and perfectly round to fit snugly in the drill hole.  The materials required for tapping are the drill, a hammer, a study twig about 6″ long, spiels and buckets with lids.  Some lucky people also have a spiel driver which is a solid piece of metal that fits inside the spiel and allows you to hammer it into the tree without a chance of damaging the spiel.  Someday I will afford a spiel driver!

If the trees are being tapped in mid to late March, try to drill on the more shady northern, northeast or northwest sides of the trunk.  This helps protect the sap gathering in the bucket from getting too hot in the warm afternoon sun.  Sap must be kept chilled or it can spoil.

The hole is drilled with a slight downward slant to encourage the sap to run out.  Too steep a drill angle will allow the spiel to pull out when it holds the weight of a full bucket.  The holes are drilled between two to five feet from the ground.  Trees can be tapped when they reach ten to twelve feet in diameter at chest height.  I put one bucket on smaller trees, two buckets on trees larger than fifteen to twenty inches in diameter.  We have so many trees in the maple orchard that we don’t need to triple tap any of them.  It is safe to place up to four taps on a very large tree.


Drill the hole smoothly and evenly with no wobbling of the bit.  You want the hole to be straight so the spiel will fit flush, containing the sap and sending it out through the spout into the bucket.  Sloppy, loose holes leak and leaky holes are a waste of sap and time.  Drill in about 2.5″ to reach the xylem, where the sap travels inside the trunk.  Use the sturdy 6″ twig to clean any drill dust out of the hole.  Then, use the hammer to gently tap the spiel on the wide area above the spout to drive it into the hole until it is just snug.

A spiel driven in too deep can split the trunk, greatly damaging the tree.  A spiel that is too loose is in danger of falling out when the bucket gets full.  When the sap starts to run out the spout, I clean the first of it away since it will be full of bits of drilling dust.  Finally, hang the bucket on the spiel and pop on a cover.  It takes me four to five minutes to complete each tap.



On a nice, warm afternoon in March when the sun is shining and the temperature is around 45F, the sap will practically pour from the drilled hole. Each tap hole produces between one to two gallons on a day when the sap is running well.  Temperatures below the 40sF, cloudy, cool days and chilly, windy days reduce sap production.  
After the trees are tapped, (we have twenty-five taps this year,) it takes two to four days to collect enough sap to fill the boiler pan, depending on the weather. The average ratio is forty gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup. I suspect the soil in our maple orchard encourages very robust trees because they gives us a little more syrup per gallon of sap. More like 35:1.

Once temperatures are sustained above freezing at night, the maple trees begin to bud:  their leaf and flower buds are swelling in preparation for opening.  Budding signals the end of syrup season.  The sap becomes dark and bitter.  To me, care of the tap holes at the end of the season is as important as at the beginning.  Certainly, there are plenty of people who will swear that all you need to do is pull out the spiel and let the tree alone.  The sap that bleeds out in profusion from the holes is not a problem for the plant, some claim.  I ignore this advice.

It makes sense to me that a bleeding tree is losing energy.  It also is obvious that an opening that leads 2.5″ into the trunk of a tree is an invitation for insects and microbes to invade.  At the end of the season, I use the hammer to gently tap each spiel out of the tree.  I cut ash saplings selected to fit snugly in the opening.  Using ash rather than maple saplings reduces the chance of introducing disease into the tree.

I peel and whittle the sapling, as necessary, until it perfectly fits the hole.  Then I cut off a piece about 1″ long and tap it into the hole.  The chunk of sapling acts as a plug.  It greatly slows the loss of sap.  As the tree heals, new wood forms inside the hole and pushes outward against the plug, popping it out of the trunk.  Filling the hole completely with foreign wood so that the plug remains in the tree will damage the plant since it creates a dead space in the trunk.  In the photo above, the plug placed last year is on its way out of the hole.  Below is a well healed old tap hole.

Improper drilling can create catastrophic results for the tree.  When a tap is driven in too hard and the trunk splits, the wood below the hole dies.  A wide section of the truck is lost, resulting in a hole in the tree near the roots and much dead wood.  When I first started tapping maples, I made the mistake of splitting the trunk a few times and damaged several trees including this fairly young one below.  There is a big hole on the left lower side.  This tree still produces plenty of sap and is healthy, but some do not recover from the damage.  They are weakened to the point where they have to be cut down.

One of the joys of maple season for me is listening to the sap drip into the metal buckets.  Quite a cadence can be heard of a warm afternoon.  So that others might enjoy this rare tree music, I’ve made a couple short videos of the dripping sap.  Notice in the close-up shots how the hydraulic force appears to create a heartbeat-like rhythm.

Advertisements

Fox!

chick1

Here are some of this year’s chick hatch, all different ages together in a nice little flock.  They are safely within the wire and net enclosed run.  That’s because we have a fox!

For most of the summer, the chicks’ house has been open so they can go out and free-range at their pleasure or come in the house to get food and water or to roost for the night.  The doorway was covered with wire and had a small opening just big enough for young birds to squeeze through.  That way the adult chickens could not get in. In the morning when I did chores, I would spread scratch grain in their run and call them.  Soon, all the chicks would come rushing for their favorite scratch treat.

About two weeks ago while the chicks were eating their scratch, I counted them.  There are supposed to be twenty-three, but one was missing.  Because the birds move around quickly when they eat, I assumed I counted wrong and didn’t think much of it.  Then I began to have premonitions about a fox.  I shrugged them off.

Four days ago when I fed the chicks, none responded to my call.  I could hear them talking in the hedges and stands of daylilies and within other cover in the yard.  Suddenly, no one wanted scratch.

Then, when I went to tend the horses, I discovered the half-eaten body of one of my young black roosters in the paddock.  I looked the body over and suspected a fox attack due to the nature of the injuries.  That evening, rather than going to their roosts when it got dusky, the baby chickens came running to me.  I’m their mother.  They stood around staring at me and yammering.  I took them to their house and made them go inside.  It was a struggle.  The young birds were afraid to go in.

That’s when I realized a predator, probably a fox, had entered their coop the night before though the small opening and stole the rooster as he slept.  I counted my babies that evening and got nineteen!  Oh no!  I locked all their doors and reinforced the wire fence around the run.

The next morning one more little black hen was waiting outside the coop to join her siblings.  She had hidden in the hedge for the night.  So now I have twenty chicks.  The loss of a black rooster is not such a disaster.  He would have been sold for $2 otherwise.  Sadly, I don’t know what other babies were stolen.  Probably some lovely little pullets, knowing my luck.  I’m glad to say my most prized ones are still with us and not fattening some nasty fox.

Also that morning I discovered the three most recent rabbit graves, one about two weeks old and two dating back to spring, had been newly dug up overnight.  It was obviously the work of either a fox or small dog by the size of the holes.  So, I’m pretty sure it’s a fox.  There was nothing edible in the graves.  That didn’t stop the creature from digging them up again the next night.  Now they are weighted with rocks.chick2

All the chickens must now spend most of the day penned up.  I have no idea when this fox may try another sortie against my birds.  They are allowed to free-range for about two hours in the evening while I and the German shepherds are outside.  So far no fox has shown its face.  The older birds are indignant about the restrictions, but the younger one actually seem relieved.  They happily go to roost in their safe, locked-up house at night.  During the day they act content to be within the protective wire of the run.

Watch out, Mr. or Mrs. Fox.  Your days are numbered.  If I see the animal in the yard, I will get rid of it for good.

 

Morning on the Farm

h3

It’s a beautiful July morning, sunny with a bit of a breeze.  The dew is still on the grass.  Time to do the farm chores.  When I step out the door, snapdragons and a heliotrope greet me.  The blue flowers have a wonderful, sweet fragrance.

h10

Otto and Holly tag along.  They love to follow me everywhere.

h12

The fig tree has four good-sized fruit with many more small ones on the way.  Time to give this tree some fertilizer to help ripen the crop before frost.

h7

My new yard centerpiece, impatiens on a log.  They actually sit on the septic tank clean-out cover, marking it so nothing heavy (like a tractor or horse) goes across it.

h6

Day lilies and bee balm brighten the garden beneath the crabapple tree.

h5

Vista and Maddie, hard at work mowing the orchard.  Cheap laborers who love their job.

h13

Kai and Cary are out enjoying a little morning sun before their major nap of the day.

h4

The black raspberries are ripening!  Time to make some jelly.

h8

Black-eyed Susans make a lovely wildflower accent beside the iris bed.

h9

The recent rain has spurred the garden to exuberant growth, both vegetables and weeds.

hi

Finally made it to the barn!  The first and third chick hatch eat together peacefully.  The second hatch is too busy catching bugs and hasn’t responded to the breakfast call yet.

h2

Little guys and big sisters share the water dish.

h11

Someone else would like to have breakfast with the chickens.  Two chipmunks live in our barn.  They were being pretty decent little guys until one decided to chew the nozzle off a gas can.  Not sure what the attraction was, hydrocarbons?  Maybe it’s time to bring home a Barn Friend cat from the Humane Society to send the chipmunks packing?

With all the distractions, it’s a wonder I ever get the barn chores finished!

 

 

Planting Time

a2.jpg

Here are some of the seeds I’ll be planting today.  Just seeing all that lovely produce inspires me to get out there and weed and till!

Currently the garden is little more than a 50 foot square spot of dirt choked with weeds and overgrown with Jerusalem artichokes in one corner.  The area will quickly transform, with my exertions, into a fenced spot of fresh earth marked with rows of newly sown seed.a1The spring has been cool and dry, again.  Chance of frost still exists, but I’m willing to get started now.  Tomorrow’s forecast is rainy, perfect for jump-starting plants.  Next week I will put the tender tomato and pepper seedlings in the ground.

By the first week of June we should be safe from frost.  Yesterday was 86F, with lots of sun.  Today is cloudy and mid-fifties.  The weather is so changeable in Maine in spring that it doesn’t do to take something like last frost dates for granted.

Skating on the Farm Pond

a1.jpgSince I was a kid, the farm pond has made for good skating when conditions are just right.  This is the first year in several when decent ice has formed.  The last few winters snow ruined the ice as fast as the pond froze.a2  We’ve had an open, warm winter so far.  Just recently the temperatures dropped enough to make safe ice.  My skating buddies Holly and Otto joined me on an afternoon when the temperature was just above freezing, the sky deep blue and the sun beaming down.  The weather is so mild it’s like no winter at all!

a5The horses, Vista and Maddie, hang around to see what will happen.  Perhaps some hay or grain or an apple will fall from my pocket while I’m skating.  Horses live in a dreamworld of eternal hope.

a3The ice is white, full of air bubbles.  The surface is fairly smooth, except where cattails protrude making skating obstacles.  Some winters when we have sudden very cold, still weather the whole pond freezes with black ice.  The surface seems made of glass.

a6

Black ice and hoar frost on the edge of the pond

Aquatic animals can be viewed as they go about their slow lives beneath the ice.  I’ve watched the resident painted turtles’ sluggish movements and seen water boatmen and other insects eke out a chilly existence.  In very cold years the pond freezes right to the mud.  The water creatures must burrow into the muck to survive.a7.jpgThe pond is about 1/6 acre with a seasonal inlet that flows when the water table is sufficiently high.  The constant slow movement keeps one small area of open water available for the horses to drink.  If the temperatures drop too low or the snow gets too deep, this inlet also freezes.  Then the horses must walk farther for water to a spring below the pond.

The pond holds myriad memories of years gone by:  my brothers and me learning to skate–falling and hitting my head on the ice so hard I literally saw stars, my husband and me when we were young and childless playing on the ice in the moonlight, my daughter as a little girl bundled with padding and a helmet as she learned to skate.  Now my granddaughter Lia takes her turn finding out about the joys of pond ice.  She will soon tie on the skates and start another generation of ice lovers.a8.jpg

New Hen

hen

Meet Prudy, the newest addition to the farm animals.  She is the first hen I’ve ever named.  Not sure why I did, there’s just something special about this chicken.

I spotted her in the chicken pen my veterinarian keeps in his yard beside the clinic.  The vet has six Welsummer hens he bought as chicks last year.  Suddenly, last week I noticed this silver Ameraucana hen in with them.

I’ve been struggling for several years to breed silver Ameraucanas.  I can’t seem to get the numbers up enough to keep the color strong.  Last year I had a gorgeous silver rooster, three silver hens and two black hens.  Black can be mated with silver to help improve the color.  Unfortunately, black seems to sometimes completely over-ride the silver.  From those six birds, this spring I got a lovely silver cockerel for next year, several black hens and two nice black cockerels.  No silver hens.

The black roosters are unnecessary since there is a good silver, so they are being sold.  Breeding the black hens may produce only black chicks next year.  The end of the silver line.  I have one silver hen left from this year’s breeding stock.  Looks like when I sell the year-old stock this fall, the silver hen will be retained for next spring.  Having an older bird with younger ones doesn’t always work well. They tend to be bossy and aggressive with junior hens.  I try to avoid it.  But I have little choice if I want to try to get more silvers.

Then, I realized, aha!  What about the silver hen at the vet’s?  A lot of people sell their laying hens when they begin to molt in the fall.  I decided to ask the vet if he’d sell his hen to me.  The vet, Dr. Danner, is a great guy.  Very empathetic and easy to get along with.  He said the hen was given to him.  A client had two hens and one developed a sour crop.  Dr. Danner was unable to cure the swollen, infected crop and the hen died, leaving one lone hen.  He said he didn’t even know what breed she was.  The clients gave her to him to put in with his birds so she wouldn’t be lonely.

He quickly agreed that she should come to our farm and maybe have a chance at making some babies next spring.  He knows a free-range life is idyllic.  He said he thought the hen is two years old, but still lays–brownish eggs. Next year she will be quite an old bird, yet she may produce enough eggs to have offspring.  I hope so.

I plucked her from her warm roost at the vet’s after dark on Monday, popped her in a cat carrier and brought her to the farm.  The first day she was separated from the other chickens in a pen where they could see each other.  When the hens went out to free-range in the afternoon, I let her have the run of the hen house.  She was very curious and explored all over.  She is friendly and hung around me talking in soft little clucks. She can be scooped up and carried with no fuss.  An unusual chicken, indeed.

This morning Prudy was anxious to be released from her small enclosure.  I let her out with the other birds to eat scratch.  Perhaps because she is a year older than the other hens, Prudy is barely phased by the glares and disgruntled squawks of the younger birds.  She mostly ignores them.  If one gets close and wants to fight, she turns her back and moves away.  She likes the rooster and he took to her in no time.

This afternoon after I let the hens out to free-range, I kept her and the rooster together in the hen house for a couple hours.   They got along, no problem.  So I released them both to free-range.  Prudy spent the time exploring by herself.  I lost track of her after awhile and couldn’t spot her.  It made me worry I’d let her out too soon and she would forget how to find her way back to the roost.  No need to fret.  At dusk she ambled out from under the hedge, went straight to the barn and in with the rest of the flock.  I have never seen a new chicken assimilate as easily as Prudy.  Nothing seems to ruffle her feathers.

She is not a fine example of a silver Ameraucana.  Her feather color is a little off, her eyes are rather pale, her comb is too large, as are her wattles.  And she lays brown eggs.  Ameraucanas are supposed to have blue-tinted eggs.  Luckily, the young rooster was hatched from a very blue egg.  The blue gene is strongly dominant.  If Prudy manages to make any little girl chicks, they should have the blue gene from their father.  In her favor, she does have muffs and tufts of feathering on her head, as a good Ameraucana should.  Her skin is white, another required trait.  And best of all, she’s silver!

So, if I’m very lucky, there will be two silver hens for breeding next spring and they might even give me some silver pullets. Perhaps her calm demeanor will rub off on the other silver hen and she won’t pick on the younger hens. Hope does spring eternal in the chicken breeder’s heart.

End of August Farm News

a1

This last day of August seems a good time for an update on farm news.  My butterfly bush is in full bloom.  An anniversary gift from my husband, the bush is at the edge of its northern range here at the farm.  Every winter it dies down to the ground.  In the spring it sends up new branches and begins to blossom in August.  The scent is delicious!

a2The fig tree is thriving and has settled on five figs chosen to grow to maturity.  There were eight little figs but the tree let three shrivel and drop.  The figs are about 1.5″ across at the widest.  I doubt they will ripen before the first frost.  The tree will be moved inside as fall arrives.  I hope the fruit continues to ripen and not drop from the shock of being moved.

I spent part of the day stacking firewood.  Our wood pile is about two-thirds full.  We need at least six cords to be warm through the nine months of heating.a3a4  To get ahead of the endless tree felling, we decided to buy nine cords of seasoned tree length firewood.  It was delivered a couple weeks ago and forms a large pile up near the road.  As soon as we finish splitting and piling the wood we cut in our woods, we will start on the new pile.  There is a half-cord of ash left to split down in the woods.

Today I harvested the last of my fresh lettuce and had a big salad for lunch.  The head lettuce I planted this spring did very well and did not bolt too badly once very hot weather arrived.  Today I also canned the last of the wax beans for this year.  I put up a total of twenty-one pints of beans.  These will be a yummy reminder of summer during the cold months.a5

Today was very warm and mostly sunny so I took the opportunity to wash both the dogs.  They were badly in need of a bath, especially Holly who only likes to wade in the pond and stream while Otto jumps in for total immersion.  The dogs look and smell great!  And, so, a busy day and month come to an end.a6