Backyard Project: Maple Syrup

In my view, maple syrup is March’s saving grace. It is this sweet natural pleasure that helps my family survive the wasteland between winter and spring. Tromp around in the snow and mud. Tap the trees. Collect the sap. Boil it down to syrup. Enjoy!

Making maple syrup is a great cabin fever reliever on a backyard scale, and it’s easy. But there are tricks to know. Do it wrong and you receive little syrup or inferior syrup, and you can damage the family maple tree. Do it right and the syrup bounty will be yours year after year.

Knowing when to have your taps and buckets ready to go is step number one. The sap run typically begins when daytime temperatures reach between 35°F and 45°F, but nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. In our area (yep, Maple City) this occurs anywhere from late February thru early April. Mid-March to late March is most common. Occasionally, Mother Nature gives us a split run: A mild week in February sets the sap running and then cold weather shuts it down until mid-March when the sap runs again.

Step two – choosing which trees to tap – is part science, part art. The selection will influence the amount and quality of syrup you end up with. Of the approximately 90 maple species that grow in the United States, the sugar maple, Acer saccharum, is favored for syrup production. We are fortunate to have them growing in abundance in Northern Michigan. Sugar maple sap has high sugar content, which means less boiling to yield sweet syrup. For best tapping, look for sugar maples that have an open spreading crown with large, strong branches. These are often found as lone trees in the open, in a row along a fence or road, or in a wood lot managed for syrup production.

The tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter at chest height before you consider tapping it. This translates to a tree that is roughly 40 years old. At this diameter, the tree can support a single tap. Each tap will typically produce 10 gallons of sap for a final yield of one quart of syrup. As tree diameter increases, additional taps can be added at the rate of one additional tap for every additional 6 to 8 inches of trunk diameter. No more than 3 taps should be placed in any single tree.

In placing tap holes, note that the south and west sides of the tree tend to produce more sap because they receive the bulk of the warming sunlight. Try to locate your tap holes below large branches or over spots where large roots are noticeable. These are corridors of generous sap flow. Avoid placing taps directly in line with previous tap holes. Rather offset them by about 4″ to either side. If you use the traditional metal taps, holes should be 7/16″ in diameter and drilled about 3″ deep.

To set your tap, firmly hammer it into the hole with one or two sharp blows. Don’t push it in too hard or too deep. This will split the surrounding bark, and the hole will leak. It is best to set the taps just as the active sap run is starting, but the weather, fickle as it is, may produce a few on again-off again days. This is all right. If you notice poor flow from a few taps, reset them in a different location on the tree. Don’t worry about the holes – the tree is entering a rapid growth phase and should heal itself nicely.

Early sap will run clear. As the run progresses, you may notice the sap starting to yellow. This is a sign that daytime temperatures are approaching 50°F and the tree is preparing to bud – time to pull your taps. Yellow sap tastes inferior and the run will end soon, anyway. The sap run typically lasts only about 10 days, so enjoy it while you can. Spring will be here in no time!

The Stella Tip: Sap to SyrupTo keep everything “sweet” on the home front, do most of your sap boiling outdoors (otherwise you’ll gets LOTS of sticky condensation on walls and windows inside). Save just the final finishing for the kitchen stove.

Maple syrup reaches its boiling point at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water, or 219 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll notice the surface bubbles getting smaller as this point approaches. If you are not careful about putting the fire out in time, your sap mixture will quickly rise up and boil over. A touch of butter added to the surface will quell the “uprising.”

Stella Otto is the nationally recognized author of The Backyard Orchardist and The Backyard Berry Book. She writes from Maple City. E-mail: [email protected]

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