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TAPPING MAPLE TREES: A beginner's guide to making your own maple syrup.

Maple tapping time is just around the corner. Have you ever considered taking up this fun hobby but wonder how it all really works? I'm so excited to share with you everything we've learned about sugar making. I know you'll find it to be a great outdoor family activity, and I think you'll see that it is much simpler than you may have previously thought. Best of all, your reward will be one of nature's sweetest treats: pure maple syrup.

What kind of trees can I tap?

The best maple syrup comes from sugar maple or hard maple trees, because their sap has the highest sugar content. You can also tap soft maples, birch, or box elder, but the end product will taste a bit different and the boiling process takes a little bit longer.

The tree must be healthy with a full canopy of leaves in the summer--thanks to the magic of photosynthesis, the more leaves a tree has, the sweeter its sap. One tap hole will produce up to 12 gallons of sap in a season (which boils down to approximately 1 quart syrup), and larger trees can accommodate more than one tap. Most sugar-makers follow this taps-per-tree rule:




Does tapping hurt the tree?

If the tree is healthy when tapped and proper tapping procedures are followed, the tap hole will start healing within a few weeks of the spile's removal, and the tree will be perfectly fine. Maple tree farms have tapped the same trees for more than 100 years. Each tap hole, however, must be placed in a different spot on the tree from the previous year. One thing to note: the bottom 4- to 6-foot "tapping zone" will result in trees that are less valuable if harvested for lumber.

When is tapping season?

The sap run typically begins in March and lasts through mid-April, or until the trees bud out. The start date will vary depending on where you live, but the run is always triggered by the same conditions: below-freezing temperatures at night followed by daytime temperatures in the 40-degree-Fahrenheit range. So, if you live in a zone with this seasonal freeze-thaw cycle, you can become a sugar-maker.

What tools do I need?

You need just a few basic supplies to start tapping trees--and with proper care, these tools will last for many seasons. For drilling the hole, you'll need a cordless drill or a hand brace fitted with a wood-boring bit. The taps or spiles typically come in two sizes--5/16-inch and 7/16-inch--so make sure your bit matches the size of your spile. You'll also need a small hammer to tap the spile into the hole.

You'll need a spile for every tap hole and a way to collect the sap. Options for collection abound, and you can find pre-assembled taps and tubes, buckets that hang right on the spile, or sacks that are designed to fit into a channel-type holder that also hangs on the spile. What we've been using the past few winters is an enclosed system with spiles and tubing threaded into covered buckets. This helps stop bacteria from travelling through the tap into the tree's xylem vessels, which can cause the tap hole to "plug up" or shut down. You can also get connectors with couplers to run all through the woods into one large bucket.

Any and all of these systems work just fine and really are a matter of personal preference. We used all three this past season just to try them out, and my favorite was the tubing--it is more of a "closed" system, which keeps debris and bugs out of the sap. I realize this sounds gross, but don't worry--anything that gets into the sap will be filtered and boiled out.

You'll also need a few extra food-grade buckets for collecting your sap each day. We found that it was much easier to go to each tree with our larger buckets on the back of the ATV. Not only did it save time, but we were able to get the containers back in place quickly so we didn't have sap dripping on the ground.

How to drill a tap hole

This part is super simple. We actually drilled many of our holes with our neighbor kids, and they loved helping out. By the fourth tree, they were running the drill. Here's a quick step-by-step:

STEP 1: Mark your drill bit with tape or a marker at 11/2 inches from the end. This will show you how far to drill into the tree.

STEP 2: It's not essential, but for best sap flow, select a spot above a large root or below a large branch on the south-facing side. Drill the hole 2 to 4 feet off the ground, and measure from the ground and not the snow level--as the snow melts, your tubing may not reach your bucket. Also, if the tree has been tapped before, locate your new tap hole no closer than 12 inches above or below an old mark or 6 inches from side to side.

STEP 3: Hold the drill steady, and drill at a slightly upward angle into the tree, stopping when you hit the mark on your drill bit. This ensures that you will only drill into the sapwood and not the heartwood, which could render the tree more susceptible to disease. Be careful not to wobble the drill, as this can result in an "ovaled" hole, which will not adequately hold the spile and may allow sap to leak out around the edges. As you remove the drill, try to pull with it the debris left in the hole. Sap will most likely begin running as soon as you drill the hole. Go ahead and taste it--it's just barely sweet.

STEP 4: Insert the spile into the hole and gently tap until the hammer begins to bounce back. Be careful not to tap too forcefully, as it could cause the spile to bend or break and possibly damage the tree.

STEP 5: Attach your collection container and smile. You've just tapped a tree.

What to do next

Once you've tapped all your trees, it becomes a waiting game. If the temperatures cooperate, you will need to empty your containers every day. Sap can be collected and kept chilled for a few days until you're ready to boil. Happy tapping!

Article and photography by Julie Fryer

Julie Fryer lives with her husband in a small southeastern Minnesota town. She's raising two boys, a wirehaired pointing griffon, a veggie garden, and lots of flowers. She is a blogger for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Her books on maple tapping and making maple syrup can be found on Amazon or at Her next book covers the topic of wildflower prairie restoration, out spring 2018.
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Title Annotation:Gazette
Author:Fryer, Julie
Article Type:Instructions
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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