Maine Maple Sunday

This week at Everlongardener, we will be enjoying the sweetest harvest of all! Pure Maine maple syrup! Every 4th Sunday in March is Maine Maple Sunday. Sugar shacks across the state traditionally open their doors to the public for the event showcasing a unique part of Maine’s agriculture. Participants offer samples of the liquid gold poured over ice cream, tours, demonstrations and plenty of maple products for sale.

The process of making maple syrup starts with drilling a hole in a sugar maple tree and pounding a tap into the hole. Sometimes sap comes running out immediately. A sap bucket or other suitable container is attached to the tap to collect the clear sap. Other maple trees have sap but the sugar content is the highest from the sugar maple. Canada produces 71% of the worlds maple syrup.  States such as Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and beyond, all contribute with Vermont leading the way for the U.S. states according to the USDA. A total of 3.78 million gallons were produced in the 2016 season. For more information on sugar houses in your area, go maine.gov.

Maple products and tools of the trade.

On Sunday, we decided to make a quick trip to our nearby sap shack. We arrived early to get as close to the experience as possible.

Heading to the sap shack!

Temps were below freezing that morning so it took a while for the sap to start running through the line and into to evaporator. Hundreds of gallons of sap wait in a holding tank up above. Sap flows down to the shack from the tank through a large pipe.

Waiting for the sap to run freely.

Once the sap warmed above freezing, the nozzle was attached to the evaporator. An evaporator is what the professionals use to cook down the maple sap. This evaporator can process 160-180 gallons of sap per hour.

Hooking up the nozzle to the evaporator.

Next, the firebox needed to be lit. This particular evaporator runs on wood. The year that this shack produced nearly 600 gallons of syrup, they burned 40 cords of wood. The owner calls the pine that he uses “gopher wood”. You put some in the fire box then you “go for” more!

The fire box is ready.

After lighting the fire, the sap starts to slowly heat up.

Sap is already in the evaporator.

If you look close, you can see that the sap is actually slightly frozen on top. The fire beneath the sap begins to heat the liquid. Meanwhile, we asked all kinds of questions about the process.  All of the workers were so talkative and helped us get a better understanding of the large-scale production. A little different than our homemade stuff last year!

Steam is starting to rise from the vat.

Then the waiting game started. Slowly the sap started to steam in the evaporator. Plenty of time for conversation, stories and learning.

Now it really starts cooking!

When the sap hits just the right temperature, it’s time to pour off the finished maple syrup. It can be a delicate process, especially for home processors. Evaporators generally have temperature gauges on the side.

The sap is really starting to cook!

When locals drive by, they know that the sap is cooking. You can see the smoke and steam billowing out of the shack from the main road.

An array of maple products for sale.

Back up on the porch, we got to try the luscious syrup on ice cream. There are different grades of syrup. Some people like the lighter syrup while we prefer the darker stuff. Sunday they served the darker syrup and it was out of this world! We got to learn about maple cream and how it’s made. It’s a different product made by cooking finished syrup on the kitchen stove to a particular temp then plunging the pot in cold water. The cook must then stir like crazy and hope that the syrup turns to maple cream. It tastes like liquefied maple fudge in a spreadable form. Of course I had to buy some!

Vanilla ice cream topped with rich maple syrup.
Who can resist this?
Can’t beat this!
Maple cream!

We had just made some sugar cookies at home. They were the first thing that we paired with our new maple cream. I highly recommend this combination! Maple syrup can be used for so much more than pancakes and waffles. Syrup can be used for a healthy alternative to sugar by using 2/3 cup to 1 cup of sugar. Maple syrup is full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Try it in desserts, baking, glazes, rubs and barbecue sauces. There are tons of recipes at Pure Canada Maple or you can come up with your own. We always treasure our syrup and use it with care. Once you learn the process and find out the cost involved, you can understand why pure maple syrup demands such a high price. Don’t let a drop go to waste!

A stately row of tapped maple trees.

I really wanted to share our sap shack experience from the other day. I hope that next year you can go visit a shack on Maine Maple Sunday if syrup is made in your area. It’s a great family activity for early spring. It truly is a sweet harvest!

We have more winter weather to get through around here but the snow banks have started to shrink. We are anxiously awaiting our neighbors spring lambs to be born. More seedlings are popping up and finding their home under the grow light. The sun is feeling warmer every day. Soon, I’ll have pictures with more green, living things featured in them! Thanks for coming on our maple syrup adventure! Don’t forget to subscribe for all of my weekly gardening topics and think spring!

Hilary|Everlongardener

No-dig Gardening

Before we get into what no-dig gardening means, let’s investigate the following scenario.  This coming spring, you hire someone to rototill your vegetable garden.  The soil is rich and brown.  A perfect blank canvas for this years garden!  But, in a matter of weeks, the inevitable happens.  Tiny weeds come growing in like a carpet.  What can be done? More tilling?  Hours of weeding?  These are some of the reasons why I’ve begun to investigate no-dig gardening!

I had heard about gardening without work years ago.  I even have Ruth Stouts book Gardening Without Work.  Her method involved mulching with old hay.  She had some fantastic ideas.  It’s worth looking up some of her old interviews.  After helping the local Seed Saving group mulch a garden in this way, I didn’t like the hay method because it seemed to harbored snakes. Not my thing!

A friend gave me Lee Reichs book Weedless Gardening.  His strategy calls for more mulching.  Definitely some great ideas for taking a lot of the backbreaking work out of growing vegetables.  I have even used grass clipping for moisture control.  But, I hear what you are saying, aching backs and worn out knees just go hand-in-hand with gardening.  Don’t worry, there is still much to do.  Just no digging!

Ready for next springs planting!

This spring, I was introduced to the term no-dig gardening.  I really didn’t understand because how do you have a garden if you can’t dig in the compost?  Or how do you harvest potatoes and parsnips?  I always thought that any ground good for planting had to be cultivated as far down as possible.  I had never subscribed to idea of double digging, too much work.  Then I began thinking about my own beds.  Raised beds that I occasionally top dressed with manure or compost.  Two of my beds were built on top of rocky ground.  With a cardboard layer spread out to squelch any grass beneath, layers of loam and compost made my two above ground beds.  So essentially, besides mixing in compost, I was doing a lot of the things recommended in a no-dig garden.

Salad greens.

As I became more interested in no-dig gardening, I decided to start reading a book by no-dig expert Charles Dowding, How To Create A New Vegetable Garden.  The book meticulously chronicles how to start beds without digging in at all.  Using layers of materials to achieve fertile planting ground for all sorts of flowers, herbs and vegetables.  Trial gardens demonstrate side by side comparisons of tilled gardens next to no-dig beds.  Amazingly there is little difference in productivity.  Vivid photos and commentary on how he transformed the abandoned gardens at his Somerset, England property called Homeacres.  Mr. Dowding came upon the idea many decades ago after tilling up a garden and then he was faced with a question:  Would he till it again next year?  What would happen if it was just mulched?  This was the start of the no-dig garden.  He has used this way of gardening at many properties.

One of the negatives of tilling is that the disturbed soil is a perfect place for weed seeds to germinate.  Tilling can also mix in weed roots and get them mixed deeper into your garden.   I tend to fight this no-dig gardening idea because nothing looks better than freshly cultivated soil.  But, I’m trying to rethink some of the traditional methods.  We are forced to think that if we want any productivity we must break our backs to get it.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty to do in the garden.  Yearly top dressing of aged manure, starting new beds, harvesting and watering.  The idea is that you don’t have to dig everything to get your garden to produce.  Have I lost you yet?

Raised Bed Gardens

If you already have raised bed gardens, no-dig is easy to incorporate.  Simply top-dress your garden beds every season with well aged manure or compost.  Most raised beds don’t need much cultivation anyway.  Any small amount of weeds can be removed while you are working.

Take the work out of gardening!

When plants are ready to be removed, a twist and pull action is recommended.  Most crops do not not need a shovel for harvest but a garden fork may be used for vegetables like parsnips.

Traditional Garden Beds

To create a new garden bed, blocking out grass and weeds is a top priority.  Boards, tarps or cardboard can be put down in advance to kill off vegetation.  When you are ready to start, add layers of cardboard and compost right on top of the ground.  If the garden has paths, use cardboard.  A thick layer of wood chips would be a great addition.

Perennial border.

Creating new flowers beds can be done in the same way.  Permanent flower gardens love yearly applications of compost.

Top dress beds with compost or manure yearly.

In The Greenhouse

You may want to consider using no-dig if you have a greenhouse.     There are enough new nutrients in the organic matter near the top of the soil where the crops need it most.  Such fertile gardens are a nice home for worms and beneficial insects.

Summer in the greenhouse!

Along with the book that I mentioned earlier, related reading includes Veg Journal and Salad Leaves For All Seasons.  Look up ‘no-dig’ on YouTube and you will find some excellent info to think about.

Some reading on the no-dig garden subject.

When I was in the Master Gardener course, the instructors where always talking about tilling being a necessary evil in the garden.  Chopping up worms and destroying soil structure.  Now I’m beginning to see how gardening can be done in a more natural way.  It just makes sense!

A bountiful harvest.

This may be a foreign way to garden for you.  I know at first I had trouble wrapping my mind around it.  There are many of you out there that I know struggle with getting your garden going and have a hard time producing vegetables.  Just consider what less work in the garden could mean for you and your subsequent harvest.  We all have different ways of gardening but we never stop learning!  I’m sure this is not the last you will hear about no-dig gardening.  Thanks for checking out Everlongardener this week!  Remember that you can subscribe for free in sidebar!

Hilary|Everlongardener

 

Enjoying and Preserving Dandelion Greens

Some people are into dandelion greens, some are not.  I’m thinking that probably if you don’t care for them you haven’t had them fixed properly.  If you can imagine foraging for food in the old days, dandelions would be among the first things to harvest.  After a long winter of eating what you were able to put up, you would need those vitamins in your system.  I know my rabbit goes nuts over them.  Every time I go near her hutch she gets so excited, waiting for her pile of greens!

The other day I visited my friend Cindy for a little education on the common dandelion.  We took to the backyard with a sturdy knife and a bucket.  Foraging is easy because dandelions are usually so prevalent.  But, there is some work involved.

A lawn full of dandelions!

A Bit About Dandelions 

The common dandelion or Taraxacum officinale, is not the friend of someone who wants a lawn that looks like a golf course.  Many millions of dollars are spent yearly to kill the humble dandelion, the bane of some people’s existence.  It’s a shame because they are among the first foods for bees.  They are a perennial green best eaten in spring.  With their high vitamin content, K, A, C, it’s a huge list,  we probably all should be eating them!

Harvest, Care and Preperation

Only dig from areas free of pesticides and other harmful substances.  Choose plants before flowers emerge if you can.  With a firm handled knife, get around the back of the green, drive the knife into the ground firmly and cut in a sweeping, circular motion.  This maneuver cuts the root and you can then pull the green.  The rest of the root is left behind to grow again.  Use your knife to clean as you go.  Scrape any dirt away that you can.

Plunge knife into the ground behind dandelion.
Plunge knife into the ground behind dandelion.
Clean as you go.
Clean as you go.

When you have harvested the desired amount, the cleaning process begins.  Soak in water, changing the water 4-5 times until clean.

Soaking the greens.
Soaking the greens.

The cooking method is quite simple.  Place greens in a pot of water and bring to a boil.  Pour off water and put fresh water in the pot.  I added some partially cooked, chopped bacon, minced garlic, salt, pepper and chopped onions.  After simmering for roughly a half hour, drain water and serve. Some like them with vinegar.  I have to say they were fantastic!  The fat in the pot takes the bitterness out.  You can use salt pork, bacon or my mother told me to use olive oil.

A lovely dish of dandelion greens with bacon, onions and garlic.
A lovely dish of dandelion greens with bacon, onions and garlic.

Preserving

Wondering how to get your dandelion fix in the dead of winter?  Well, my visit with my friend was also a lesson in preservation.  A method passed down from her mother.  A crock would be ideal.  In this case, the ceramic liner from a slow cooker was used.   Using cleaned greens, layer them in the crock with kosher salt.  Place a plate over them for a weight.  They will shrink down a lot.  Repeat the process to fill container.  Keep in the refrigerator.

Salting the greens.
Salting the greens.

When you are ready to eat your greens, give them a good soaking to remove the salt and cook as desired.  It’s a pretty amazing process.

Cooking Ideas

There are so many uses for dandelions once you start looking.  They can be added to green smoothies, make spring tonics, mixed in when making kale chips or put into salads.  Roots can be roasted and made into a substitute for coffee.  The blossoms can be made into wine if you are ambitious!

My grandmothers cookbook, The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery from 1949 had many suggestions.  “If the leaves are to be used in salad, they should be well drained and crisped in the refrigerator.  A tart French dressing is all that is required.”  I’m not sure how bitter they would be but I’ll have to try it.

Thank you for coming along with me this week.  I hope you try your hand at harvesting dandelion greens!  You might be surprised how much you like them. Feel free to subscribe to the Everlongardener blog in the sidebar  for weekly gardening inspiration!

Hilary|Everlongardener

A Throwback To Times Gone By

Since we haven’t had any snow that has stuck around for the past two months, I’ve been spending a little time in the woods.  Normally it really is my time in the woods. Snowshoeing through places I never get to in the summer, spanning some  fifty acres.

There is so much to see out there if you just try to find the beauty!

Sunset through the maples.
Sunset through the maples.

If I have a few minutes I will check out the property borders. One of the corners has a granite marker.  Not far from this point is a babbling brook that can be heard from the house. Thick with moss and fascinating ice formations.  I jump from stump to rock as if I’m a child.

Fencing from the 1960's.
Fencing from the 1960’s.

When I get a chance to walk on the road, the bones of the landscape stand out so much to me.  When all of the trees are decked out with their leaves, it’s hard to really notice all the rock walls and old fencing.  Low lying shrubs cover up the abandoned farming equipment scattered over the edges of the fields.

An old potato harvester.
An old potato harvester.

The other day I stood at a three way intersection near my driveway and for the first time noticed how maybe at one time a rock wall stretched across the now paved road.  How long had a road been there?  How long ago did someone keep cows in the field?  The answers I do not know.

image

When driving down the highway, old cellar holes can be seen sticking up through the leaf covered ground.  Last week I was passing a rushing stream that I’ve passed hundreds of times but this time I saw a large rock formation that I believe to be an old mill with a water wheel.  How did I not see this before?

image

History is all around us.  We just have to look.  Bits of the past still hanging on for us to see.  I use these moments to think of the people of the past.  People whose very lives depended on their crops.  When seed saving would have been a necessity not a choice.  We wonder how we are going to get through a winter emotionally but many used to fight to get through the winter alive.  But for the moment, I sit in my snug, warm house and appreciate a time gone by.  How things are easier in some ways and harder in others.

Fern like moss on a maple.
Fern like moss on a maple.

Thanks for joining me on this journey back in time. Hope I didn’t depart from the gardening path to much!  Have you discovered anything this winter? Leave a comment or join us by subscribing by email in sidebar!  Follow me on Instagram for daily Garden and scenery photos!  If you like this post, check out more ramblings & reflections in Apple Trees In Bloom: A Window To The Past.

Hilary|Everlongardener

Processing Maple Syrup

We had a few good sap days and a few not so good sap days.  Starting out with what we thought was not much sap we surprisingly ended up with over a pint of luscious maple syrup.

We ended up using propane for the job and the sap boiled down pretty quickly.  We may have used wood if we had been a little more organized.  Since we are not going all out on tapping every maple in sight it just made sense to use the propane cooker.

Cooking down the sap.
Cooking down the sap.
Finishing off in the kitchen!
Finishing off in the kitchen!

For the final part of the boiling we moved operations to the kitchen stove.  It had been since 2010 that my father-in-law and I made a few gallons together so we wanted to be extra careful about the temperature.  It’s amazing how quickly you forget!  Too much heat and we would have rock solid candy stuck in the bottom of our canner!  Not really the desired effect.  I was Googleing all the info to make sure we were getting it right.  Nothing like spontaneous homesteading!

Straining it out.
Straining it out.

With the help of the candy thermometer, we got it just about right.  After straining it, we admired that warm amber color.  After tasting it, we wanted pancakes!  The finished product can’t be beat in my mind.  Is anyone else tapping their maples?
Thanks for joining me here at Everlongardener for the maple syrup update.  Leave a comment and we will compare notes!  Feel free to subscribe by email in sidebar!