Monday, April 8, 2013

A story to tell for the rest of their lives


I seem to get myself into these weird predicaments. Remember my train station moment? This was worse. This was not just in my head, this was for real. Real, real. 

It all began with a little wanted ad on Freecycle. Innocent. Harmless. I asked any of the local gardeners if they had any berry bushes that would need thinning out come spring. I received lots of responses. One woman, whom we will call by her last name, Grace replied to tell me she had a blackberry bush she would let me dig up. I could come by the next day and dig it up anytime I wanted. It was to the right of her driveway and was a “big prickery mess of a plant.”

Adi and I were so excited. I felt horrible all day and really wanted to get some fresh air. We grabbed the shovel and gloves, then piled in the truck and followed her instructions on how to get to her home on roads without street signs. 

We quickly found her home, located the “big prickery mess of a plant” and proceeded to dig. I was thankful that we brought the truck because this thing was a monster and would have never fit in the back of the minivan. 

As we loaded up, I noticed a high schooler walking home from school and joked at how funny it would be if that was Grace’s child. Can you imagine walking home and seeing someone drive off with your mom’s blackberry? 

I had already picked out the spot where we would transplant the big prickery blackberry. The girls and I got to work. The last shovel full of soil dropped over the roots and instantly I became worried we dug up the wrong bush. I am not super familiar with plant idenfication, but I had a deep feeling I had done something wrong. 

Gil began googling. Apparently people don’t take pictures of dormant blackberry bushes often, especially pictures of blackberry bushes that look like the newest addition to our berry orchard. 

I began emailing. I wrote my freecycle friend and expressed my worry and apology for the mistake I thought I had made. I offered to pay for whatever bush I destroyed and internally vowed to never dig in random people’s yards again. 

330 minutes of waiting for dear, sweet confirmation that the prickery mess I selected was the right one.

Since most of our life seems to relate to Seinfeld, my husband consoled me with this: 



5 1/2 hours later, Grace emailed back confirming my greatest fears. She simply asked for a chunk of the lovely butterfly bush back and graciously said that it was extremely hardy and would survive the upheaval unscathed. I was to still take the blackberry bush and she would clearly identify which bush was mine. 

My pride forced me to return the next day during working hours in hopes that I wouldn’t have to meet Grace face to face. I did the deed. I prayed over the big prickery butterfly bush, that it’s roots would quickly take back to the soil which I had rudely ripped it from 24 hours earlier. I located the berry bush, faught with the roots to release from the earth and smiled at her tag. To encourage the butterfly bush to re-root well, I left a tray of butterfly cookies and a so-sorry note on the porch, then took off. 

Grace now has a story to tell everyone. So do I. Thanks for your grace, Grace. 

Thanks to this up close and personal encounter with butterfly and blackberry bushes, I will never, never, NEVER confuse the two again. In case you are like me, here are some pictures  to help you when digging blackberry bushes from random yards. 


my 6 year old photographer captured this as
evidence of our replanting of the prickery butterfly bush.
A well labeled, well pruned blackberry. 




Saturday, March 16, 2013

Maple Sugaring


Post disclaimer: Please excuse the overly detailed blogpost. I am writing it for two reasons; first, so that I can remember all the fun facts I have learned over the last few weeks and secondly, so that someone else might learn a few things. 

Being new to the New England culture and a homeowner with massive maple trees in our yard, I somehow decided that I wanted to try my hand at making maple syrup. 

So, with a Christmas gift from Gil’s aunt, I purchased 4 taps and a few books on the process. Here is a quick summary of what I learned: 

-the process of getting sap from maple trees and turning it into maple syrup or sugar is called sugaring. 
-the Native Americans were doing this and taught the early immigrants about maple sugaring. 
-for every 1 gallon of sap a tree yields, there is another 1000 gallons of sap running through it’s fibers. 
-the term for the maple sap moving throughout the fibers of the tree is called “running” 
-the sugaring season last for 4-6 weeks a year, beginning when temperatures rises to about 40 degrees during the day and drops below freezing at night. The sap stops running when the variation in temps lessens. 
-there are 4 types of maple trees, sugar maples yield the sweetest syrup. 
-maple sap is a clear liquid that has a slightly sweet taste
-40 gallons of sap is required to make 1 gallon of syrup, which can be sold for about $65.00/gal. 
-depending on the size of the tree, it can be tapped up to 3 times without harming the tree. 

Ready for a few pictures? Glad you asked! 

Two of our sugar maples. They look dead and frozen. But magical, sweet things are happening in there! 

My little sugaring helper, helping tap the trees.


Gathering sap in the snow. 


Early in the season, sap running somewhat slowly at this point. Later in the season, this tree easily produced a gallon a day from one tap. 


This particular maple is about 245 years old based on it's diameter and could support a total of 3 taps. Here you can see a milk jug hug from the tap to collect the sap. 
The sugaring process has a bit of a moonshining feel, lots of glass jars filled with clear liquid....


...and random steamy things happening outdoors. 

Let me pause here for a moment and share that the boiling down process needs to happen outdoors, as most of the water is boiled out of the sap and evaporates. This puts enough water in the air to remove wallpaper from the kitchen walls, cause cabinet doors to warp and other things that insane amounts of steam will do indoors. Since this is my experimental year (and part of the sugaring culture is to make maple syrup spending as little cash as possible) I used what I had- our grill. Next year, I'd like to upgrade to our fire pit with a metal grate and a large, flat pan. 


All blogposts need pictures of a cute kid, right? 

We boil and boil and boil outside until the sap begins to darken, the steam smelled very sweet and it is a small enough amount to fit into a pot on the kitchen stove. On a small scale (as compared to those with "sugar shacks" in their backyard), the sugaring process is finished indoors so a close eye can be kept on the temperature. 


So, the cool science behind sugaring is that the sap becomes syrup when it boils to 7 (or 71/2) degrees above the boiling point of water. For our altitude, water boils at 212, so I had to get the sap to 219; then waaa-laaaa- we have delicious maple syrup!

And here it is folks! This is a little sampling of what I made! The center jar is my favorite batch, it is what I consider Grade A, fancy (based on www.ctmaple.org). You can see some variations in color. I think this is due to lack of filtering and/or not boiling to the exact temperature. When I am ready to use or give these away, I can simply open up the sealed jars, filter again and reboil until I get the desired look. 

With my four taps, I estimate that I ended with 110 ounces of syrup (a gallon is 128 ounces). I burned one batch and gave away 3 gallons of sap to a friend for experimental purposes. I also lost a good deal of sap on the days when it was running the fastest, as my milk jugs couldn't hold enough before I could collect it. 

Next year, I would like to have 12-16 taps and hopefully end with 3 or 4 times as much syrup! 

This has been a really fun hobby to play around with. It has been exciting to yield something from our land and with minimal effort, enjoy it for the next year to come!