Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sugar on the Cheap

Backyard Sugaring on a Hillbilly Budget

Take 40 gallons of sap out of a tree, boil it down until only 1 gallon remains and what you're looking at is $50 worth of maple syrup (2008 retail price per gal).

In this article I'm going to show you how to identify and tap maple trees with equipment that is absolutely free and easy to make.

But first I'd like to impress upon you that taping trees isn't necessarily about improving your pancakes- it's not just about syrup- we're talking about free sugar! Everyone loves sugar and is quick to pick the berries that grow around them, yet they don't think to help themselves to the delicious juice of the maple tree. It's harvested in late winter, when there is nary a berry, or anything else sweet to be had. And to continue with this fruity analogy I'd say sugaring is easier than berry picking because when you walk up to the plant all your goods are already sitting in a container!

Before the sap is boiled it is crystal clear, sweet, and has a refreshing maple flavor and aroma. It makes an awesome beverage without any refinement, cool and sparkling, fresh from the tree. Some trees are sweeter than others. I have a small tree who's sap is sweet enough to make cool-aid without any need to add sugar. It makes great lemon-aid too. Usually, I don't even bother with flavor- I'll put the sap in the fridge and drink it like juice.

To make your sap sweeter simply put it in a pot and boil it down. It's easy to go beyond the point of syrup, but that's okay; who doesn't like maple candy? It looks like a piece of brown beer bottle, but it melts in your mouth and turns into a rich, velvety maple syrup. Put this in a coffee grinder and you have granulated sugar. And oh yeah, once in the crystal form it will never spoil.

As a crude estimate I'll say you can expect a gallon or two of sap per tree, every day. Now that I've psyched you up lets tap some trees!


We are going to:
  1. create some homemade spigots
  2. find a maple tree
  3. drill a hole into the tree, and inch or two deep
  4. plug the hole with a hollow stick we've made (sap will drip out of the end of this stick)
  5. hang a plastic container on the stick to catch the sap
  6. come back to the tree whenever we feel like it to harvest the sap that has collected

Materials and tools
  • Plastic Jugs
  • a drill you can use in the woods
  • a drill bit approximately
  • branch of a sumac tree (see pics)
  • saw to cut sumac branch
  • rod to help hollow sumac branch
  • sharp knife for carving

Homemade Spigots

The most advanced part of this project involves making our own spigots. This will be easy, and they work much better that the metal kind for reasons I will describe at the end of this section.

Do you know what a sumac looks like? It grows in dense groves along highways an has a flower like this in the summer:
This kind with the red bud won't give you a rash. Find a sumac and steal a thumb-wide branch with strait sections suitable for making spigots like those pictured below (a dead branch is ok, so long as it's not rotten).

This sumac branch will have a soft center which can be pushed out. I use a hex wrench to push the pith out. You can see I've sawed the branch into strait sections that are shorter than my hex wrench. I pound the tool through and wallah, I now have a spigot.

The spigot is now (or later) carved so it will fit into the hole we drill in the tree.

These sumac spigots tend to fit into holes more readily than the metal kind, they swell up and don't leak as much, and finally they never get totally stuck in the tree like the metal guys.

So now we just need to find ourselfs a tree!

Identifying Maple in Late Winter

Maybe I should have told you earlier, but sugaring is done only in the late winter. Peak sugar production occurs in this period of lengthening days, when day temperatures are above and night temperature are below freezing. I started sugaring here in Pennsylvania today Febuary the 25th but I probably could have begun a week or more ago.

So how do you know what trees to tap when there are no leaves? Well you can use the old remember from last summer method, or you can look for these hints:

  • maple leaves on the ground
  • any rare remaining leaves are thin, whithered and yellow
  • buds grow in pairs opposite one another (few hardwoods are like this)
  • twigs are slender and branch often
  • bark has no definite pattern and lacks the deep furrows of ash (the other buds opposite tree)
  • sugar maples have variable bumpy-smooth bark
  • red maples have variable smooth to flaky bark and very red buds
  • when drilled clear tasty sap flows out
Where and How to Drill

Any red or sugar maple with a ten inch plus girth is suitable for sugaring. Big trees can handle more than one hole. The hole(s) are drilled at a convenient height on the sunny side of the trunk, avoiding areas above or below scars, big gnarls, or dead areas. Try to tap in a spot that isn't directly below any of the large lower branches.

The hole is drilled horizontally into the tree and soon after penetrating the bark layer you will likely find wet wood, the sap readily dripping out. The hole needn't be very deep, 1.5 or 2 inches, or perhaps deeper if your spigot requires a deeper hole.

Attaching Spigot and Container

The spigot is pounded into the hole. I then make sure the spigot's hole wasn't mashed closed during the pounding, and cut it clear if necessary. Sap will soon be dripping from the spigot. A small hole is cut in the container and the container hung on the spigot. A notch can be cut into the spigot to help hold the container, if necessary.
If the container proves to heavy for the spigot it can be held in place by cordage suspended from a nail. I only find this necessary with very large containers- like 5 gal buckets.
Moths and gnats are attracted to the sap and drown in it so a container with a small hole is desirable.

More on Sugaring

Sugar is awesome, we all love it. Currently you can get it dirt cheap out of corn and third world cane plantations but the former tastes like the industrial product that it is and the later comes from a plantation in the tropics- with all that that implies. Taping trees is unique in that it is the only commercially viable, non-agricultural source of sucrose.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Intro to Outdoor Hydroponics

Last spring I took two patio tomato plants from the nursery, uprooted them, shook the dirt off, and stuffed them into a tray of volcanic rock that was periodically flooded with a nutrient solution. As soon as I had them uprooted they started to wilt and get droopy. But within hours they recovered, turned to a darker shade of green and started growing, big time. The results were insane. These little bushes turned into tomato factories and yielded probably 10 times that of the 'regular' plants.
And oh yeah, they tasted awesome
It's mid Feb now and I'm preparing for a more elaborate outdoor hydro garden come summer.

I love hydroponics. Here's why-

+No digging.
+No weeding.
+Root zone can be inspected for health and is protected from pathogens.
+Nutrient deficiencies and bad pH levels can be addressed instantly and accurately.
+Increased Yields- we all have a finite area in which we can garden. Hydroponics makes the most efficient use of this space. This is really what it's all about- more produce, faster.
+It's fun building the systems and playing god.
+Fertilizers are used more efficiently and are kept out of the environment where they cause all sorts of very real problems like algae blooms that ruin your local fishing and swimming holes.

Hydroponics does have some weak points that I intend to eventually smite.

+The more productive hydroponics systems require electricity to circulate air and/or water. The otherwise awesome NFT technique, for example, requires a near-constant flow of solution. If the nutrient stops flowing, like during a power outage, the roots can dry up and cause total crop failure in a matter of hours. Ouch. We have micro-burst electrical storms and power outages throughout the summer, so I need a system where the plants don't start dying the moment the plug is pulled!
+Hydroponics nutrients are typically a mail-order item and generally come from non-renewable sources. I guess some people actually make organic hydro' solution out of things like seaweed and bat crap, but I'm interested in a local, home brewed solution. Maybe I can use some kind of compost soup. This will be the hardest hydroponic obstacle to tackle. And I'm not going to get into it this summer.
+Some people might argue that the cost of hydroponics systems is a major drawback. Maybe. But I intend to illustrate that a hydroponics system is quite affordable, when you make it yourself.
+The last problem I can think of is that an Outdoor hydro' system needs provisions for keeping rain water out of the nutrient solution. No biggy.

Thats all for today. I'm planing on posting more about the construction and running of a supper-yield under-the-eves hydroponic garden.

PS90 Mag Conversion

My competitors actually sell $8 kits! But it's free when you do it yourself! It only takes a minute.
Here are three pictures that illustrate the DIY process. Make sure you unload the mag first. And don't make a 50 rounder if they are not legal in your state.

The spring doesn't need to be attached to the floor plate for mag to function normally. This 1 minute mod doesn't include an attachment point for the spring. Having the floor plate attached to the spring is handy because you are less likely to lose that small part during a mag disassembly in field conditions. If you are worried about losing the floor plate during magazine field strips, this is where the super glue comes in. Just glue the top and bottom parts of the plug together.