Sunday, March 22, 2015

Maple Sugaring, Part 2

Yesterday was Maple Sugaring Day! It was the day I'd been looking forward to since I first tapped our maple trees a couple of weeks ago. We had planned to boil last week, but Mother Nature had other plans... rain and snow do not make for good conditions to be outside boiling sap. Yesterday's weather was much nicer... mid-thirties, a tiny bit of light snow, and lots of bright sunshine. We started at 6:30 am, with about 7 gallons or so of sap that we had been storing in our freezer (sap spoils easily, so if you aren't going to boil right away, it needs to be kept in cold storage) and around 7 hours or so later, we had some syrup!

Getting the fire started in our makeshift evaporator. 

Our very primitive evaporator set up...
cinder blocks, metal rods, pans.

The Man of the House, keeping the fire burning.

Steamy Sap

As the sap started boiling down, we ladled the sap from the
first pan into the second pan...

...then we added more sap to the first pan.
(We set old tires around the evaporator as a "safety zone"
 because we had some little ones coming to visit and didn't
want any little hands getting too close to the hot fire.)

Watching sap boil

Eventually we were down to just one pan
of rich, amber almost-syrup

Filtering the almost-syrup into a small saucepan,
to remove debris and sediment.

Finishing the boil on the stove top

Checking the temperature... in order to be maple syrup,
 it needs to reach the temperature of exactly
7 degrees above boiling point... 219 degrees.

One last filtering to remove any remaining sediment


We did learn quite a bit from our experience, which will hopefully make for a more successful maple sugaring adventure next year. We did end up having to toss several gallons of sap that was bad, and we learned that tapping trees that are on a hill is tricky. Our syrup did have a slightly smoky taste, which I think is a result of our very primitive set up. We may try to rig up some kind of chimney for next year, to keep the smoke out of the syrup. Maple sugaring is definitely a lot of work for a little bit of syrup, but it was still really fun and satisfying. I now fully appreciate why real maple syrup is so expensive to buy!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

First Day of Spring!

Last night we celebrated the Vernal Equinox with a feast! After the long, brutal winter we have endured, we were extra excited to welcome the first day of Spring.

We decorated the house with fresh flowers and enjoyed some light, spring-y food together. Here is a little glimpse at our celebration:

Spring Equinox Menu

Spring Salad
Herb Bread

Lemon Asparagus Pasta
Roasted Carrots

Lemon-Coconut Cake

Spring Salad: baby lettuces, pea shoots, green
onion, herbs and sunflower seeds

Lemon Asparagus Pasta with
fresh herbs and pine nuts

Dessert time! Lemon-coconut cake, decorated with fresh flowers.
The vintage bunny planter on the tray belonged to my Grandmother.
It holds fond memories for me, and always makes me smile.

In the next day or two, I'll be sharing a post about our Maple Sugaring Adventure. We finally got to do our first boil today, and ended up with more syrup than expected! It was a very exciting, if very long, day. I have many pictures to sift through, but will get that post up as soon as possible. 

 Happy Spring! 

Monday, March 16, 2015


I've just added a book to my "want to read" list on Goodreads. The book is called If This Isn't Nice, What is?: Advice for the Young by Kurt Vonnegut.   This book was brought to my attention when I found the following quote:

“One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, Spring doesn’t feel like Spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for Fall and so on. Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June! What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves. Next comes the season called “Locking.” That is when Nature shuts everything down. November and December aren’t Winter. They’re Locking. Next comes Winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold! What comes next? Not Spring. Unlocking comes next. What else could April be?” 
― Kurt VonnegutIf This Isn't Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young

Wow, does this ever speak to me! We are currently very much in the season of "Unlocking" around here... bits of thawing and mud, followed by more snow and ice, then more thawing and mud. Not quite winter, not quite spring. But we're unlocking from winter's grip, moving toward spring. Unlocking! So much hope and promise in this "Season."

Drawing up the Garden Plan
I'm making the most of Unlocking here at the Homestead. I've been preparing for the arrival of our first batch of honeybees. I've been collecting maple sap, to boil into delicious maple syrup. And... I've been planning our garden. These tasks are keeping me busy and keeping my mind focused on the warm, sunny days of spring that are soon to be.

I typically find something to love in all the seasons, but it was a long, cruel Winter here in New England, and embracing this season of Unlocking is bringing me out of those winter doldrums and putting a smile on my face. Thanks for the perspective, Mr. Vonnegut!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Maple Sugaring, Part 1

Yesterday was a very exciting day, here on the Homestead! With a forecast of a few above-freezing days coming up, we were finally able to tap our maple trees for the start of Maple Sugaring! This is the first time we've attempted this, so we're definitely winging it, but here's how we got started:

Drilling holes for the tubing
into the lids of the buckets
I ordered some spiles and tubing from a maple sugaring supply company. We opted for plastic spiles with tubing, instead of the old fashioned metal spiles that drip directly into a bucket because we heard that tubing kept everything cleaner and easier. I'm sure there are differing opinions of this subject, but for now, this is what we're going with. Next, I ordered some food-safe five gallon buckets with lids from ebay, for the sap to drip into.

Once everything was delivered, I prepared my equipment. I fit the plastic tubing onto the spiles, and I used a drill with a half-inch bit to drill holes in the lids of the buckets, for the tube to fit in.

The hardest part so far has been waiting for the weather to warm up enough to get started! In order for sap to flow, weather conditions need to be just right. You need to have warm (above freezing) days and cold (below freezing) nights. According to the forecast, this is what we have coming up for much of the next week or so (with the exception of one or two colder days) Yesterday it was in the low 40s... perfect day to tap!

Drilling the hole for the spile
I got out my trusty cordless drill again, and I headed out to the yard with my equipment. I drilled a little more than an inch into the tree, at a slight upward angle (this allows the sap to flow out better) I drilled my holes about three feet up, since that was a good height for the tubing to reach down to the top of my buckets. As soon as I started drilling, I could already see some sap dripping out, which was pretty exciting! A couple of our trees are really big, so we were able to do two taps in each of those. Smaller trees just get one tap.

Next, I inserted the spile into the drilled hole, and tapped it in very gently with a hammer. I put the other end of the hose into the hold in the lid of the bucket. It was neat to hear the sap drip-drip-dripping into the bucket!

Tapping in the spile
One thing about collecting sap... sap is perishable, so it's important to keep it nice and cold until you're ready to boil it. One good thing about all the snow we have out there, it makes it easier to keep the sap fresh. I piled snow around the buckets, to keep everything well-chilled. It's also best to avoid waiting too long to boil. Most sources say you shouldn't keep your sap much longer than a week at the most.

So now, we just wait for the sap to flow! It takes quite a lot of sap to make syrup... roughly 40 gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup! Later in the season, when the sugar content of the sap is lower, it takes even more sap. We'll be setting up a makeshift evaporator in the yard when it's time to boil. Can't wait!

As of this morning, about 17 hours from when the taps went in, we have between a half inch to 3/4 of an inch of sap in each bucket... not a bad start! Since I have never done this before I have no idea how much to expect, so I'm pretty happy to see any sap at all! 

While waiting for the buckets to fill, I'm also starting to plan our garden! I'll share some of that, next post! Meanwhile... stay warm... Spring is on the way!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Starting Beekeeping...

I mentioned in my last post that I've been studying up and preparing for our first beehive! I've always been interested in beekeeping, for both honey and to help improve our gardens, but with all the news about declining bee populations, I've become pretty much obsessed with the idea of keeping bees. Did you know that we have only HALF the number of honeybees in the world that we did in 1950? And, did you know that bees are essential to pollinating the crops that we eat? In short, no bees, no food. It's a scary thought. But we're hoping that we can do our very small part to help by keeping some happy bees of our own.

Last week I bought my beekeeping starter kit at a local beekeeping supply store, Crystal Bee Supply.  I also ordered my bees! They will be arriving on April 12, and I couldn't be more excited! I've spent some time this week assembling and painting my hive...

My Beekeeping Starter Kit, ready to be assembled.

Assembled bee boxes, in the process of being painted.

Basic beehive, assembled and painted!
We still have to assemble the inner frames,
then we just wait for the bees to arrive!

We're planning to keep our hive out on the flat roof we have over our kitchen. This will be a perfect location as is close to our vegetable and herb garden, out of the way, yet also easily accessible. I have to admit, I'm very anxious to get everything assembled and set up out there, not only because that will mean we'll be one step closer to being real honest-to-goodness beekeepers, but also because I'm tired of having piles of bee stuff in my bedroom. ;)

Meanwhile, I'm continuing my Bee Education... still reading, still talking to experienced beekeepers and still learning! I'm really so excited about this new hobby!