Maple Sugaring, Part 1: Tapping the Trees

I don't want to jinx it, but I think our time in the Polar Vortex might be coming to a close. As far as the eye can see on the weather forecast (okay, so about 10 days), the daytime temperatures will be above freezing. 

Woo hoo!

This is exciting not just because it's warm enough to be outside without freezing your face off — it's also maple sugaring season! That means it's above freezing during the day (probably around 40 degrees) and below freezing at night (probably back in the 20s). We're finally having a stretch of weather like that, and this year we got the tools we needed to give it a try. Here's what you need and how to do it:

First, you need a maple tree. We have two: a great big one in the front yard, and a much smaller one in the back. You can tap any old maple you like, but a sugar maple is best (obviously — the name doesn't come outta nowhere!) 

I'm fairly confident that the tree we have in the front is, in fact, a sugar maple. I dug a few leaves out of the box we filled with maple leaves back in the fall to insulate the fig tree for the winter in order to start to identify the tree:

That's a pretty classic sugar maple shape, as you have surely seen on the Canadian flag. I consulted the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association website for some help to identify the tree, and it looks like our leaves and bark fit the description of a sugar maple better than anything else. For good measure (ha!), I also researched how to estimate the age of our tree by its circumference instead of by cutting it down and counting its rings (which would be a smidge counterproductive). Turns out that not only is our tree big enough to support three taps, but it is also likely about 100 years old. This confirms my suspicion that it was planted when our house was built back in 1914, specifically to shade the southwest corner of the house in the summer — something it does very effectively, keeping Tiegan's bedroom the coolest of all. 

(Our other maple in the back yard looks to be a Norway maple called "Crimson King." This is a non-native species, but it looks like others have had decent luck tapping them as well, so we're giving it a try. It's only big enough to support one tap, though. Circumference matters for this, and you can check out the sizes required and some other helpful FAQs about maple tapping here at the University of Vermont's website.)

So what do you need? 

You need a drill with a 7/16 bit, marked to stop at about 2 1/2 inches deep (we used electrical tape). You also need a hammer, a spile, a hook, a bucket, and a lid. We picked these things up at the local Agway where we get our chicken feed, but that's in New Hampshire where it is natural for them to stock that kind of thing. If you're not sure where to shop, you can also order a starter kit from Tap My Trees, which is more expensive but very convenient.

Step 1: Drill the hole:

It helps to angle it upwards a bit, and to run the drill as you pull it back out to bring out the loose wood chips for a good, clean hole:

I'm not sure if you can tell in this picture, but that hole was on the sunny, south-facing side of the tree, and it started running immediately, even though it was below freezing when we put these in late on Thursday afternoon.

Step 2: Insert the spile:

Before you tap it in, make sure the hook is attached to the back of the spile and that the end of it is facing away from the tree, so that it's easy to attach and detach you bucket later. Then tap it in. In the photo above, Kirk is hitting the bottom lip of the spout, but he quickly discovered it is better to hammer at the round part in the middle so you don't bend it. Hammer gently until it's in as far as the hook will let it go.

Step 3: Hang your bucket on the hook:

The bucket, as you can see, has a hole in it specifically to put the hook through. Also, behold the dripping of the sap — instant gratification here. 

(By the way, I took about six versions of this photo just to get that mid-air drip, so I do hope you are enjoying it.) 

If you click to get a good look at this photo, you can see better how the hook attaches to the spile and holds the bucket. 

Step 4: Put a lid on it:

The lid has a thin metal rod that threads through a shaft in the lid, through the holes in the spile, and back into the lid to hold it in place. The lid is important for keeping dirt out of the sap, so it's an important finishing touch.

Now, you could also use hoses and a carboy, or plastic bags or buckets, but I really like the aesthetics of the traditional metal buckets:

So there you have it! In not much time at all, we had four taps up and running (again, ha!): three on our big tree and one on the small on in the back. The kids are excited to check on them each afternoon, and it's great for them to be getting some fresh air outside after being cooped up for such a long, cold winter. 

Spring is coming, a drip of sap and a drop of melted snow at a time.


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