(Editor’s Note: Today marks the return of weekly columns written by local master gardeners.)
A sure sign of spring is seeing sap buckets hanging from a maple tree.Making maple syrup is one of the oldest food-processing traditions in upper North America.
You also can make this delicious syrup. Maple syrup production in the United States is mainly in the Northeast and the northern Midwest. Pennsylvania ranks from fifth to seventh in production.
Beginning this enterprise requires extensive planning and may include a considerable capital investment depending on the size of the operation. Basic equipment for syrup making includes, a drill bit, spouts (spiles) and hooks, collecting buckets and covers, gathering pails, a collecting tank and one or more holding tanks. The collecting containers must be covered to keep out snow, leaves, dirt and debris.
Two main factors will limit the size of your operation: one is the number of trees available and the other is the size of your workforce.
The best species of maple for syrup production in Pennsylvania is the sugar maple, Acer saccharum.
However, red, silver, and Norway maples (Acer rubrum, A. saccharinum, and A. platanoides) may be used. Generally, the sugar content of the sap of these species is not as high, requiring more sap to produce syrup.
Maples are easy to identify because of their opposite branching habitat, leaf shape and unique fruit called samaras. The bark on young trees is light gray to brown and rather smooth.
During the active growing season, leaf shapes identify maples easily. Also, red and silver maple break bud (swelling of the buds) sooner than sugar maple, which shortens the sap-collection season.
The best trees to tap have large crowns with no defects.
Another option is to identify and mark the trees when they are in leaf so you can easily locate the maples during the winter.
One of the most important and most often overlooked factors in maple syrup production is maintaining the sugar maple tree in a healthy and productive condition. To maximize tree health and vigor, the soil should be moist but well drained.
Sugar maple is a somewhat demanding species as far as soil fertility is concerned. Thinning the sugar bush may improve the spacing among your trees. Adequately spaced trees will be healthier and produce larger crowns, which will eventually lead to higher sap production.
In the northeast, sap begins to flow in late January or early February. However, the most productive runs (times when sap flows) will be from mid-February through March (and occasionally into early April).
Warm days (temperatures above 40°F) and cold nights (temperatures below 32°F) will normally start the flow of sap. The sap will often stop flowing if night temperatures exceed 32°F, but will begin again when nights drop below freezing.
Generally, early runs produce lighter colored syrups. The further you go into the season, the darker the syrup becomes. Light syrups are preferred for value-added products such as maple sugar and maple cream.
(Leighow has been a Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Columbia County since 1995 and gardens in Numidia.)