Friday, March 27, 2009

At the First Caw of the Crow

We've seen our first robins and red-winged blackbirds, but in Vermont, there's no more faithful sign of spring than the smoke rising from the chimneys of the sugarhouses where our celebrated maple syrup is made.

This weekend is Open House weekend for all our sugarhouses. I visited the Isham Family Farm with Max's Kindergarten class this afternoon, where we toured the sugarbush (aka the maple tree grove), ran through meadows, learned about the sugaring process, and tasted the sap, syrup, and donuts covered with maple glaze.

A trip to a sugarhouse is a rite of passage for our kids every spring -- especially if donuts or "sugar on snow" (warm syrup drizzled cold snow and finished with a sour pickle) are involved. They've heard over and over the legend of Woksis, the Iroquois chief who put a gash in a tree with his tomahawk, and from the gash, sap dripped into a vessel beneath the tree. Woksis' wife used what she thought was water in the vessel to cook their evening meal, but the water evaporated and turned into a thick, sweet syrup that the Indians enjoyed as a sweetener. Thus, the story of how maple syrup was discovered.

Today, the process uses more equipment, but the basic process is the same. Collect the maple sap, boil it down, and bottle it. At the first caw of the crow -- usually in early February -- the Ishams install 800 taps in their sugarbush, all connected to a series of tubes that are eventually pumped into the sugarhouse. When the weather warms to above freezing during the day (but still colder at night),the sap starts to run. Once the Ishams collect a few hundred gallons in the sugarhouse, they load it into an evaporator fueled by a wood fire and boil it for the better part of a day until the syrup reaches a 66-67 percent sugar content at a temperature of 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above boiling. After it cools, the syrup is filtered, graded (Light Amber, Medium Amber, Dark Amber, and Grade B), and canned. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Sugaring operations smaller than the Ishams' still hang steel buckets from trees and collect the sap manually using horse teams. I thought I might tap a few trees this spring but didn't get around to it, and given that the flow of sap is dependent on certain weather conditions, I've probably missed the window. Besides, we really have only one or two maple trees that are large enough to tap, so the sap I'd collect would probably make about a cup of syrup. Maybe next year...

I didn't taste my first real maple syrup until I met Husband, who has roots in Vermont (I was a Mrs. Butterworth's child), and I can't imagine ever using anything but the real thing ever again (despite it's high price this year). Even our new IHOP has made arrangements with "corporate" to serve real syrup at the restaurant here. (Honestly, they'd probably be run out of town if they served a substitute.) Our trees, sap, and syrup are a treasured part of our state culture -- and economy -- and if you try some on vanilla ice cream, you'll know why.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Morning Review

Awoke to a yard covered with snow this morning. "Why does it have to do that?" asked Daughter. It's light and fluffy and won't stay, but still. I was raking pine cones yesterday and the kids set up a baseball diamond in the yard. Now everything's buried, and that sucks.

On pine cones: I have thousands of them in my yard this spring. We must have had good conditions for pine trees last year following by a windy winter. Wonder what makes for better-than-average pine cone production? Whatever it was, it also made for some serious spring raking.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife office is reminding everyone that it's time to bring in bird feeders because the bears are waking up hungry, and they love those seeds. I haven't seen any bears in our yard, but I do have neighbors with a few bent and twisted feeder poles.

I didn't feed the birds much this year because my dogs also love those seeds -- the ones the birds thrown on the ground. The dogs subsequently develop some supremely offensive gas. I'm going to clear a bird-feeding spot outside the dog's zapper fence next winter because I like to host cardinals in particular in the winter.

My seeds in the greenhouse froze the other night, so as my friend Rosemarie says, "I guess that experiment's over." I brought the seeds inside.

I wanted to blog about the White House planting the First Garden, but even People Magazine picked up that story, so I'll pass. But I do have a couple notes on the subject...

The Obamas have to buy their own groceries, so of course they should have a garden. I appreciate that they're making it big enough that they can donate extras to a local food shelf.

On "60 Minutes" last weekend, Alice Waters, queen of sustainability and chic Berkeley dining, said that she has been working on getting a garden at the White House for, like, the past 10 years. I wonder how much influence she had in the project. No doubt that she couldn't get her message heard during the past 8 years...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring Workshops in Williston

I went to a gardening workshop at the Old Brick Church in Williston village last night. It was hosted by a gardening group that wants to teach gardening neophytes how to plant seeds -- in the spirit of spreading the green.

I was familiar with most of the material covered, but I did learn a few things:

**Eggplant is difficult to grow in Vermont. It likes warmer weather than we can provide. It's also prone to pests, so if you're going to give it a go, potting it is the recommended approach. The soil in a pot will stay warmer too. I think eggplant might like living in my greenhouse for an extended period. On the other hand, nobody in my family really likes eggplant, so why bother? If I carry my seeds through to the end, I'm going to needs some creative recipes.

**The general consensus among the workshop leaders is that my seeds are unlikely to germinate in my half warm/half cold greenhouse. So today, I'm leaning toward an investment in heating mats.

**Don't till a garden -- it breaks down the soil structure. This discussion rears its head every spring when my husband wants to till the spring weeds under, and I want to pull them. My argument is that if you till a weed under, it has the potential of sprouting again. His argument is that I have a lot of weeds to pull. So this year, no deep tilling. I have a small electric hand tiller that I'll use to work up the top couple of inches, but that's it.

**Peppers like to be warm while sprouting then a little cooler for awhile before going into the ground. Curious.

**Self-watering pots are the pot of choice for patio gardening. They don't dry out like a traditional clay pot, so the plant isn't subject to the stress of being wet then dry over and over.

One of the impressive things about the workshop is that the organizers brought peat pots and cowpots, soil, and seeds for everyone to take a few planted seeds home with them. I didn't take anything because I already have seeds in progress. But I thought that was a generous offer.

Next month's workshop will tackle potatoes, broccoli, and kale. I plan to attend because my broccoli always bolts quickly and I'd like to find out why, and I'd like to try some potatoes for the first time this year.

Happy day before the first official day of spring!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Old Roses

I'm reading this book, penned by Robin Chotzinoff, who also writes a People With Dirty Hands blog:

It was a gift from my friend Michelle 12 years ago. I read it then and am revisiting it because (a) it's nearly spring, and (b) it's a captivating book of stories about curious gardeners and their pursuits.

The first chapter follows the trials and tribulations of rose rustlers -- people who track down antique or old roses and steal cuttings. The story takes place in Texas, where you can apparently find some great old roses in cemeteries and pueblos. The appeal of the old rose is their strong and unique scents and their ability to grow anywhere in almost any condition. When the rose rustlers in the story find an old rose, they take a cutting, put it in dirt, and the roses seem to take root. Just like that.

This idea intrigues me. I've never started a rose cutting, but it seems like an interesting challenge. I'm not sure Vermont is the place for old roses though, as winter often takes it's toll on roses. I have a few in-ground bushes that are sheltered (and mulched) in the winter, but I can never be certain they'll survive year to year. I also grow roses in two pots every summer -- as annuals.

But I'm going to keep my eye out for any rambling, scenty, thorny bushes that look like they've been around a century or so, and see what I can do with it.

The chapter ends with these words to live by:

"Old roses, by example, are full of instructions on how to live right. They stand for certain things I like to consider true. Such as:

1. There is more than one way to be beautiful.
2. Survival is a noble goal.
3. Good climates are in the eye of the beholder, not the tourism board.
4. If you are attacked by disease, abandonment, or a bad chain of events, do not necessarily despair. There is always the chance you were bred to be tough.
5. Everyone should not smell the same. "

Monday, March 16, 2009

First Seeds of the Season

It's mid-March. Temps in the upper 40s, sun shining the past few days. Makes the maple sap run and the seed companies busy. There's still a pretty serious chill in the air and snow in shady spots, so it's not quite warm enough for a full-blown spring fever. But I think it may be warm enough in my greenhouse to start some seeds.

I recently picked up a list of when to plant specific seeds at the
Gardners' Supply retail store in Williston. Following their advice, I planted 4 eggplant and 20 bell and hot pepper seeds this past weekend.

I also planted some lettuce and spinach in a hydroponic growing system. And some cat grass just for fun. Challenge is that I'm not sure the greenhouse will stay warm enough for the seeds to germinate. During a sunny day, the greenhouse is warmer than my regular house, but at night, outside temps are in the 20s and 30s, so I'm not sure how much of the day heat will hold at night or when cloud cover is heavy.

I have electricity in the greenhouse, so I could use heat mats, but they're a bit on the spendy side. I also have fluorescent grow lights, but Husband isn't interested in "heating the outside" all night. (I tend toward agreeing with him, which I why I haven't turned the lights on.) I will need to turn them on for a few hours each day once the seeds sprout, but I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

In the past, I started seeds in the house and moved them into the greenhouse when they germinated. This year, I'm trying to use the greenhouse as it's intended. So I'm chalking this year's seeding up to an experiment. If I'm too early, then I'll obviously be purchasing my vegetable plants this year.


Over in the hen house, we've let our three hens free range in the yard the past few days. Husband let them out because one is being pecked, so he thinks they're bored after a long winter in the coop. Letting them roam is a bit risky for them; we have quite a few predators that hang around our neighborhood -- fox, fisher cats, owls, hawks, bobcats. But the hens do seem happy wandering around, and they're good bug and weed control.

As far as the hens earning their keep, their egg laying has been rather prolific after a dry spell this winter; we get 2-3 a day, giving us more eggs than we can use. One of the hens is laying strangely oblong eggs right now -- they're even too tall to fit in an egg carton. I don't know what makes that happen -- or how long it will continue, as the eggs seem to change shape and color over time.

So with a few seeds and a long egg, I inaugurate the Zone 4 Dirt Chronicles.