March 31, 2013

Easter Moments

A mature clump of Crocus tommasinianus blooms near the studio entrance.

When Easter arrives in March rather than April, there can be snow, or at least, very little in bloom out in the garden. Crocus, snowdrops and maybe some witch hazel is often all that there is, but in the greenhouse we were able to grab a mish mash, albeit it nice mish mash, of flowers to use in 8 little Weck canning jars which we ran down the center of our table along with a pile of fresh straw from the chicken coop. We dyed our own duck eggs and chicken eggs, except for a few duck eggs which I kept natural, as the olive green is nice enough. With 14 people for dinner today, we needed twice that amount for our annual egg fight. I was raised Lithuanian, as both of my parents are Lithuanian, so Easter is a big Holiday around here, with lots of tradition including my grandfathers Easter egg bread, leg of lamb with fresh herbs and of course - lots of Easter eggs.

The two Khaki colored eggs are from our Mallard-colored Indian Runner Ducks ( so delicious in pastry), the
other eggs are from our Bantam hens, and larger breed chickens. All dyed with onion skins, berries and beet root.

I never get sick of dying Easter eggs, I guess it's a color thing. My mom would start saving onion skins around the new year, keeping the red ones separated from the brown ones, just so that we could have another color of dye. Red cabbage, beets and blueberries were also used, always on our own free range eggs. If Easter came in April, we would have had pigeon and pheasant eggs too, which always adds some scale to the baskets. An April Easter would also mean green grass, and lots and lots of spring bulbs to pick, but this year, as the snow is still melting, there is nothing much in the garden, as the ground is still frozen.

There is still snow on the north side of the house, and most of the ground is still frozen, so there is little garden clean up
but we are getting ready, as there is much to be done.

The chickens go out for a stroll, as we used the chicken yard for an egg hunt for the kids. Of course, the roosters and turkey toms attack them, but then, that's part of the fun! These city kids needed to learn a thing or two about poultry anyway. No one was hurt, and later, although the kids insisted that they didn't eat lamb, we just told them that it was chicken, and they ate it.

Every year, as my sister and brothers come for the holiday, I make Lithuanian Easter bread, a typical Eastern European egg bread with far too many eggs and even more butter. I alternate between my grandfather's recipe, or our late neighbor Mrs. Putis. This year, I made Mrs. Putis's  recipe, which called for a little almond extract along with the vanilla, but then the lady across the street - an 85 year old Lithuanian, insisted that I should have used whiskey, as that's what her father used. So next year - whiskey it is, as I am always up for any excuse for decent whiskey use in a recipe.

I even braided one with the traditional three red eggs to represent the Holy Trinity. We aren't religious, but tradition is tradition, and it must be done.

Weasley, the Easter Terrier, could not keep his snout off of the Rosemary shrubs once I brought them out from the greenhouse. Even the Prostanthera ( Australian Mint Shrub) was lunch for him.

Rosemary is the herb of choice around here when Easter comes around. With Lamb on the menu, I needed a cup of Rosemary needles, and another cup for the roasted potatoes. You Californians will think we are crazy here in New England, but we cannot grow Rosemary outdoors, so I keep a few large tubs in the greenhouse where it grows perfectly in the cold, moist air. In the spring ( this week, actually), the tubs are brought outdoors where they can handle light frosts, even heavy freezes as long as the mercury doesn't drop below 20º F.

In the greenhouse, the Clivia are beginning to blossom. This one is a variegated one.

This prostrate rosemary is blooming already. I am bringing it outside for the season, as long as the temperatures stay above 20º. This one is my favorite for cooking because of it's dense growth.
Joes grand nephews  hunt for eggs 

The days are getting longer with the passing of each day. This afternoon, the setting sun illuminated the shrubs in such a way that I could appreciate their texture. In the foreground, the vertical growth habit of an Enkianthus, just behind that, the brown leaves on the English Hornbeam hedge have yet to fall, staying on for most of the winter.

Our harsh winter has taken it's toll on the Japanese forest bamboo ( Sasa vietchii) but it still doesn't look that bad. The robins are singing, the birds are starting to gather nesting material, and perhaps, spring has begun to arrive.

March 29, 2013

My Tips on Starting Seeds

Celery seedlings must be started early, these were planted on February 1st, and are now ready for transplanting
into individual pots before being hardened off and set out into the garden.

Fair Warning - These tips for starting seeds which I am about to share are different than many which you will see from other garden bloggers. - growing plants is a science and seed starting in particular, can be complex, as much as it can be simple.  I want to share my most helpful tips with those of you who might be planning your vegetable gardens. In our world of Pinterest and pretty pictures of egg shell pots with mini moss gardens, when it comes to seed starting, there are no guarantees - seeds cane be fussy, young plants can die practically overnight from fungus, and even malnutrition. When it comes to starting your own food crops or even flowers - please, don't mess around - seed starting is serious business, and I am about to share with you my best hints and tips to help you achieve greater success.

Seed starting can be fun - especially if you are a new gardener, and even more so if you have your kids helping you. I know many moms treat seed starting as a craft, but rather than make it an art projet, seed starting can also be an opportunity to teach science, or, a valuable lesson on 'how-to-do-things-right' – a skill we often forget in our disposable, DIY culture of superficiality and sound-byte practices. One cannot rush seed starting, one cannot cheat, since seed starting IS science - it's a biology lesson waiting to happen.

To make things easier for you, I designed this poster showing the basic seed-starting facts for a few of the most common vegetables. Save in, pin it, or print it out to use as a guide.

Before I start, I like to do a little ( or a lot!) of research about what conditions the seeds which I am to sow, may require. Even for experienced gardeners, starting seeds successfully and growing them on requires some do- diligence.  Search on-line, and use the most informative sites such as your local county extension service, plant society forums and university sites rather than most blogs, at least at first. Later, you may want to visit a few of your most favorite and trusted blogs to see if there might be something that was left out of the techy information.

What I am trying to help you avoid, is something that we all do when given a stack of seeds - that is, to in the interest of time, just tear them all open, and sow them in any old soil, and water them. This may work for the easiest of seeds such as beans and tomatoes, but we all learn as gardeners, that even the most challenging seed can be germinated - all you need to know, is what the particular species which you are sowing, requires - environmentally ( temperature, moisture, soil). 

I will  admit to you all, that even I with over 40 years of gardening experience, find seed starting as perhaps the single most challenging skill when it comes to gardening - it's where I still have much to learn ( that is, until I try grafting!).

I say this all because I see many phrases advice being shared on-line such as like "just plant the seeds in dirt and water, and stand back".These broad statement are generalized, and they are not only misleading, they are often wrong.  The entire plant world grows from seeds, and almost each one requires something different culturally. The goal here is to achieve optimum results - not just a few seeds germinating. Often, a shift in soil temperature just while germinating may make all the difference in the world.

This snapdragon seedling not only needs clean soil, and cool temperatures while it is growing if it is even going to compete with the ones found at nurseries in the spring with thick stems and dense growth due to rooting
hormones and plant growth regulators, it will also need a good dose of iron - something petunias also need.

Some seeds come from plants that grow in tropical climates in South Africa or South America (melons and cucumbers) demand soil temperatures near 80º F, but then again, so do many cold weather crops that you may think need cold soil in which to germinate - cabbage and broccoli come to mind.  Other plants such as those from central America (tomatoes, zinnias and Dahlias), benefit from light, or surface sown, yet need to be covered with cardboard to block out any light 0 such as Scabiosa. With your garden hosting plants from all over our planet, from South East Asia, China or even from the dry mountainous areas of Turkey. I like to think of seed starting as managing a zoo - where every animal comes from a different environment, penguins to jungle cats, and each need different stimuli and environmental conditions in which to grow properly. 

I know, I know - I need to order new labels! I can now master many hard-to-grow seeds, such as these Primula
sikkimensis, but I am not above cheating when it comes to my perennial seeds - see that packet on the right? It's
 from Jelitto seeds, and one of their pre-chilled Gold Nugget Seed collection. No need to refrigerate,
just sow and grow - and in no time, one can have hundreds of fall-blooming anemone plants.

My 10 tips for starting seeds.

1. Use proper containers for optimum results. Use deep seed pots for tap-rooted veggies like Artichokes, or wide pots for fibrous rooted veggies like celery. People - Enough with the up cycling when it comes to producing the finest vegetable seedlings.

It may make you feel good to recycle white plastic yogurt containers, toilet paper tubes, egg shells etc. ( and I'll admit that it might be a pet peeve of mine and that there may be nothing wring with using yogurt cups or egg shells to start seeds)-  but there are other things to consider - mainly, excellent root growth ( sometimes difficult in white or transparent plastic pots without the use of root hormones) and what about plants that need deep root runs? 

2. Find out what the optimum soil temperature should be for your seeds to germinate - remember, it's different for each type of plant that you grow.

Know what temperature you seed germinates best at is crucial.  Blindly opening a packet of seeds, and then sowing seed before knowing what it needs is perhaps the greatest error any gardener can make. Lettuce seed germinates best at 40º and poorly at 73º, cabbage seed germinates best at 85º, but then requires bright light a cold temperatures in order to grow well – difficult to do under artificial light systems.  Some seeds require stratification ( a cold period), some seeds need boiling water poured over them.  Learn first, and then practice.Cabbage may need to germinate hot, but then stay cool, only to be set out into the garden near your frost free date, but something like lettuce not only prefers to germinate near freezing, the seed will often go dormant once the temperatures rise into the 70ºs, which may simply mean that you will need to sow lettuce straight into the garden, but not ever under lights in the house. 

3. Once your seeds have sprouted, then find out what temperature your seedlings need to grow at - as this is often different than the germination temperature. 

Broccoli may like cool growing temps in the spring, but few people know that need to germinate in hot soil, but then it needs to grow-on in cool conditions, eventually the strong seedlings can be set out into the garden near your frost free date. Yet lettuce germinates best when temperatures are near freezing, the seed hates warmth so much, that it will actually go dormant once the temperatures rise into the 70ºs, so sowing lettuce straight into the garden in March will ensure that you achieve the maximum germination rate.

4. Use sterile soilless growing media, and yes, I advise not using coir for seed sowing. 

Seedlings are like premature babies, and they need clean, sterile  bedding and spotlessly clean diapers or they will get sick. Be a good parent, and you won't get fungus gnats, green algae or insects because poor cultural conditions will encourage all of these things. Start with sterile soil-less mix, which means that it’s been pasturized or heated, to kill all of the nasty stuff, and the good stuff will them be added if you can find an excellent mix. While on the subject of soil – perhaps the most controversial subject that there is in gardening today next to fertilizer and insecticide - all I can tell you is what I use –  Pro Mix BX with mycorrhizae. Yeah, it’s a peat based mix, and yes, it is commercial ( but I have yet to find a mix at a Home Depot or Lowes that doesn't look like it was made with pine bark, black hair dye and garbage. 

So proceed carefully here. There are many Pro Mix blends, and the one generally available at retail in small bags is also not the same mixture, so you might be on your own here. I stay far, far away from coir products ( I just think that they are bad for plants in my opinion – I’ve killed more plants with coir than any other soiless product, and the way it is produced in India isn't all that good for the environment either ( let alone it's carbon footprint). In a year I will be creating all of my own soil mixes without peat, but for now, I still use peat. My two bales  are my contribution to global warming. 
The ideal mix is generally impossible for most people to create - garden soil baked or steamed to kill the nasties, mixed with composted Beech leaves, sharp sand and you could end up with the finest seedlings of all, but the professionals use a virtually clean peat mix, drenched with fungicides, starting with chemicals to stimulate first root growth, and then chemicals to shorten the cell growth so that stems become thick, and leaves dense ( think of those awesome, "healthy looking" tomato plants you will soon see at the big box store). There are chem's to stimulate flower growth so that the flats will sell in full bloom, and you know the results. My use of peat based mix and some water soluble professional fertilizer may be frowned upon by some, but it doesn't come close to what commercial growers use. Be realistic, be responsible, be serious about what you grow, and I believe that there is a middle ground.

5. Fertilize often ( weekly) and use the right formula for the right plant.

And here is another touchy subject with those who are not serious gardeners. Just don't use 10-10-10. Read-up on what the professionals use, and be careful with those home remedies!!! Look. Save your chamomile tea spray for your evening tea and not to spritz on your seedlings to discourage fungus gnats – these nasty while lies are being spread on social media sites faster than Justin Bieber comments. The real reason why you have fungus gnats is because  your soil is too wet, and you are just making it worse by wetting it more. Forget completely about molasses fertilizer, Epsom Salt fertilizer ( it's just magnesium, and most likely, your seedlings don't need just magnesium), - I will say it again – GARDENING IS SCIENCE, and thus, plant nutrition is far too great a subject for me to cover in this post - all I will say is my life changed once I took the time to reseach exactly what formula my pansies, tomatoes or celery needed, and pay attention to what stage of growth they will need a certain formula.  No tea bags, no crushed egg shells, no beer.

Gardening is a science, not a craft.

Baby Snapdragons ready to be transplanted into flats. These were sown in February, and now they have deep, strong roots due to a fertilizer formula that is 5.17.24, high phosphorus, low nitrogen.

I’d love to hear from you, if there is one that you love- I have heard that the Lobster compost is good, and Oh yes, I like the composted peanut hull mixes, but again, I am sticking with ProMix for now, black plastic containers, or dark green Kord pots. The only recycled pot I do use are some black plastic take-out containers from our local Chinese delivery, they work well for seedlings, but beyond that, I use clean, new pots.

Yes, I an still growing crazy rare things too! Two years after sowing, this wild collected
Narcissus is just germinating! Yay!

March 25, 2013

My Troy-Bilt Saturday 6 Partnership

Here is the story behind my new partnership with Troy Bilt, and why sometimes, a deal can be good for all of us.
Troy Bilt treated us Saturday 6'ers with a flight to Phoenix, VIP treatment at a Cleveland Indian's game
and a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden as we tested product and learned about the company.

Preface -  This SO not like me, but I am writing this long post about how ridiculously amazing some companies and social media agencies can be, especially when communicating with a blogger like me - one who hates advertising, but fair warning, I’ve been compensated with product and peanut butter deserts to be part of this very special project sponsored by Troy-Bilt called the Saturday6 – a creative project where 6 garden bloggers are invited to be brand spokespeople for a year. Here is the story about how the snagged me -seriously, peanut butter, chocolate and bacon combined. Ya, amazing. I will do anything for bacon and peanut butter as you can tell from my gut in the pictures. But that’s another story.

Last year, you may remember that I tested and then gave away two products for the Troy-Bilt company- you know, the once classic rototiller company that now makes so much more than tillers - like high quality mowers, leaf blowers and all sorts of gardening equipment, and all mostly here in the USA. Now that my blog is showing up in some important top ten lists, I am starting to get, well, countless requests from PR people trying to reach influential bloggers like me :) - mostly wanting free PR from us social media types who are connected to their target consumer. These mostly come in mass-emailed blind press releases that offering everything from free product in exchange for an ad or a link to just request for plain ‘ol free PR. I don't want to be commercial, so mostly, I pass.

This time, the offer was a bit different, and here's why:

The folks at Troy-Bilt and their agency took the time to care, and for me? That goes a long way.

Here we are, the new Saturday 6 crew along with the key players from the agency and from Troy-Bilt
while in Arizona two weeks ago.

As many of you know, my career ( my day job) keeps me smack in the middle of big business (full disclosure- I’m a creative director at Hasbro, you know, G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, Furby), so, I ‘get it’ – I interact daily with ad agencies, PR firms, art reps and marketers all over the world, most don’t even know that I write a gardening blog ( and most probably don’t care, or if they did, they would just think that it was weird) - also am intimately familiar with how the world of advertising and branding is changing – super fast. I also steer clear of any commercial endorsements, or hidden sponsorship deals ( product placement, etc - so you ain't gonna see me repotting an aloe while "Wait, let me take a sip from this giant liter of soda in a red glass with a wave on it". 

Also, ain't gonna happen.

I know what it costs to run an ad in a national magazine, at least, when there were magazines. I know what it takes to place a TV spot, and what it costs to create one. I also know how these media outlets are changing –faster than anyone imagined.  Between you and me, a company offering me a plastic trowel or a free bag of blue fertilizer to reach 75,000 eyeballs doesn’t equal a $100,000 TV spot, but then, a million-plus page hits isn’t something to sneer at either. So as businesses shift their thinking and ad-dollars to social media attempts, some ugly things are happening.

The team at Troy-Bilt rolled out the red carpet for us, and even though I am not keen about lawn care nor
lawn equipment, I happen to have two acres of garden that needs constant care. So, I get it.
I was so impressed with the quality and care that goes into each of these machines.

This post is not about any of those sort of partnerships, it's about how some companies approach this sort of thing honestly, and creatively. A company has to work differently today in able to connect with a personal blog, and simply sending me a press release is not going to get me involved.

In short, I am not really in this for the money, which, I think you guys can tell by the lack of ugly ad’s right?. I’m a designer, and the aesthetic design on this site is important to me, and the experience you get on my site is important to me too, and yes, to my brand, (Yeah, OK…I need to think of my space as a ‘brand’) well, that all suffers if I make compromises - I may be a designer, but I am not naive - I need to have total control over it to keep it pure.

If you are serious about gardening, and serious about composting, then you need one of these -
a serious chipper/shredder. it's on my wishlist this year, and my wish may have just come true!
Maybe your's will come true too?

Now my story about this Troy-Bilt experience:

Last summer, I was approached by Troy-Bilt’s ad/PR agency to test a couple of products. I like Troy-Bilt,  and the deal was fair – no money, just  free product to give away. I accepted, and posted a nice honest review, and then offered the product to you. Fair enough. After all, I felt that I knew the Troy-Bilt brand well enough to truly recommend it – maybe because we have two old tillers in the shed that still work, a snow blower and a leaf blower - one tiller still works after 30 years, time tested and true. My geeky neighbor loves small engines, and always love talking about how Troy-Bilt packs oil into their….oh, I don’t know what it’s called – who am I foolin', - I know nothing about engines, but believe me, this guy does, so I trust him. Besides, when a small engine manufacturer has fan sites created by engine geeks, it says something.

The Troy Bilt mowers are stylish, use mostly American made parts, and are designed for people who love to work
in the backyards.

Fast forward to January when I was approached again by the Troy-Bilt agency, this time by their rep - Mary Jo. She said that she had a better, if not amazing offer for me - if I was interested. She was wondering if I would like to be one of their Saturday6 Spokespersons – a deal that would last a year, requiring me to write a couple of articles for their on-line newsletter THE DIRT, write some tweets and then to test or review a couple of products. In her email, she explained that I would also be able to share more impressive products with you – my readers – as free giveaways ( these are kind of big products,as you can imagine).

Amazeballs ( what my designers would say).

I was also invited to spend a weekend in Arizona ( Oh yeah!), with the Troy-Bilt team, to test product, be wined and dined, to be rolled in bacon, chocolate and peanut butter, and to meet the other Saturday6 bloggers.

Meet the Saturday 6 Team!

Hey, time to meet my fellow Saturday 6-ers! I almost forgot, please promise me that you will visit their sites and support them, they were all so smart, so nice and for whatever Kismet, we all bonded in a special way – new friends are rare, but, it’s funny how sometimes it all works out. I am happy to share their blogs with you!

Steve Asbell is the author of the blog The Rainforest Gardener. From Florida, he is a talented graphic designer, illustrator, artist and an plantsman. He secretly shared with us that he is working on his first book.

Amy Andrychowicz from Minnesota is the author of the blog Get Busy Gardening! might be a software developer  while are work, but  at home she is a deeply passionate gardener who has a the green gene big time.

 Noelle Smith Johnson from The Home Garden blog, is from Arizona. Not only is she a knowledgeable horticulturist, but she is also a successful landscape designer and a garden writer. In her spare time, she is also a busy mom!

David Townsend from the popular vegetable growing blog  Growing the Home Garden, lives in Tennessee with his ever-growing family, which he feeds from his garden. He is currently in the process of kicking-off his own nursery business 'The Blue Shed Gardens'.

Helen Yoest from the blog  Gardening with Confidence. is the author of the fab gardening book Gardening with Confidence. She is our own Elisabeth Lawrence - garden writer, plantswomen, location scout and stylist for many leading horticultural publications and books, she too is a mom!

Garden equipment and Matt? Not always a good mix, but I do have a few Troy-Bilt machines in the sheds, so
it is a brand that I not only believe in, but one I depend on year after year. With design
such as this on their new line of ride-on mowers? I could not resist.

So why did I agree to participate? Nah, not really for the free product or even for the deserts – I joined because this is a company that does everything right. I mean it. For example, last week I received an offer from a big blue fertilizer company via their PR agency, and they actually wanted me to post pre-written tweets about their brand, that they provided me, as well as requesting me to recommend their brand site for no reason at all- then to recommend a new app they created to market their brand. Why would I ever do that? The quotes about their greatness were pre-scripted, and thus would not be in my own voice, (what if I don’t even use the brand?) – come on people! Learn some social media skills, especially if you are a fortune 100 company!

Helen Yoest gets some practical advice on edging.

To contrast that, here is how the Troy-Bilt people play -

With my big-brand hat on, I wrote a list of questions to ask the team while playing on their buck, in Phoenix. Their agency rep MJ gladly read my questions. “Who is your target audience? What products are you trying to focus on from your portfolio of brands? What are my limitations? Are you trying to focus on a specific or target consumer like women or young dads?”

MJ’s response surprised (read- impressed) me. She said  “Matt, we want you to just be honest.  No need to mention Troy-Bilt or any products in your tweets or Facebook posts. We would like you to write one post about your visit with us and your experience in Phoenix (this post) and also about meeting your fellow Saturday6 blogger team, and then two articles about anything you want – as long as it’s about backyards, gardening or plants - we are hiring you to be our voice about gardening for our newsletter because we at the agency really are not serious gardeners and just not as knowledgeable as your real gardeners are. Just be honest, forthright and you don’t need to mention any products at all even in your tweets or even in your Facebook posts.” 

I was in.

MJ said all of the right things. We has total freedom to write honestly, and the last thing the team wanted was for me or any of the other Saturday 6’ers to feel as if they were uncomfortable with specific requests like pushing a product. My point is that Troy-Bilt believes enough in my brand, that they felt that my audience would sense any dishonestly, which goes to the core principles of their company, and why I decided to be a partner with them.

Another great PR/business lesson - learn from these, my Mom always said.

SO here I am, an official Saturday6 Troy-Bilt spokesperson for a year. You can expect two reviews of new product, some tweets and Facebook mentions, and a nice, little ad on my sidebar. I, get to eat bacon and chocolate until I puke, and I get to make a video for their website on anything I want about gardening, ( yes – finally you get to see me in a video) with no need to mention any brand or product.

This automatic starter was BRILLIANT! If you hate pulling the cord start you lawn and garden tool, this device will become your best friend. As if - a flashlight had a baby with you automatic car starter.

March 24, 2013

Vermont Maple Sugarmakers Rejoice

This years' maple sugaring season promises to be profitable for local Vermont farmers as the weather is finally cooperating. These old maple buckets are not actually being used, but they are hung for tourists. Today, sap is collected in vinyl pipes, which connect to tapped trees.

Maple Sugar season in Vermont is a subject that I've been wanting to report on for a few years now, as it is one of the best plant-related experiences in New England. We can all thank the trusty Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum for not only the brightly colored foliage in autumn, but for the tasty syrup we all enjoy on our breakfast pancakes. That is, if you buy real maple syrup and not Mrs. Buttersworth's. There is nothing like real maple syrup, and as a third generation New Englander, how could I not report on this traditional harvest. So today, Joe and I hopped into the truck and drove to the Robb Family Farm in southern Vermont for a lunchtime visit to a few sugar shacks, as the season officially has begun.

The snow is still deep in Vermont, and with mud season just beginning, it's perfect weather for sugaring. The snow cover
will keep the air and soil cold, and the warm March sun will rise the temperatures to just above freezing each day -
exactly what the Sugar Maples need to get their sap flowing.

We almost drove up to Vermont last year, but when we found out that the season didn't really exist, we opted to wait another year. You see, the maple syrup industry is completely dependent on the weather, for maple sap runs only in March and part of April in those years when the night time temperatures drop just below 32º F, and the daytime temperatures rise to near 40º or so. Any higher, or lower, and the sap stops. If you live in New England, or if you are planning spring ski trip soon, check out the Vermont Sugarmakers site for more information.

The Robb Family Farm run by Helen and Charlie Robb in West Brattleboro, VT offers an idylic sugar house, as well as family raised beef and dairy products. Located on a quiet, unpaved farm road, be sure that you have four wheel drive!
I drove in the long way from the north, but I also think I found our dream house ( farm).

This year, things are looking up for those with sugar orchards or "in the sugarbush' as near perfect conditions are promising perhaps a record harvest. I'm always up for a drive to Vermont, which is an easy day drive for us, as the Vermont border is only an hour and fifteen minutes north of us. Today we visited three sugar houses, and even though all were collecting sap, only one was actually boiling sap.

 If you are unfamiliar with how maple syrup is made, here is a brief primer. ( you all probably know the facts from school - Maple syrup comes mainly from the Sugar Maple, or Acer saccharum, which native throughout much of Northern New England and Quebec. Sap runs only in spring, when the daytime temperatures rise above freezing, but when the nights drop below freezing. These are the magic days, when the sap - which looks exactly like water - is collected via pipes and tubes, and not in buckets as it once was. 

Another sugar house that we visited, the Sprague & Son. Sugarhouse, was still loading in their sap. Run by the same family for 6 generations, this sugarshack was recently restored.

Glass jugs of maple syrup for sale at the Robb Family Farm.

Trees are tapped in late winter, and plastic pipes are connected in an elaborate system, that connects tree to tree, sometimes miles away from the sugar house. A vacuum system essentially sucks the sap down hill back to the sugar house, or, an osmosis system is used by some farmers.  Sap is collected in food-grade tanks, sometimes 300 gallons a day, or more, which then is transported to often larger holding tanks, stainless steel today, but they used to be made from spruce wood ( we saw one today that was made in the 1800's).

Maple syrup comes in many grades, with the lighter ones being more light in flavor, and the darker amber grades more flavorful.

Inside the Robb Family Sugarhouse.

It takes a lot of wood to heat the fires in wood-fired evaporators. The Robb Family stacks wood near some antique sugaring buckets hanging from old taps on this 100+ year old sugar maple.

When enough sap is collected, it is transferred to an evaporator, traditionally wood heated. Sugar shacks are constructed like giant chimneys, where the steam can escape. All over Vermont today we saw sugar shacks with steam rising, which is a great sign for the Vermont Maple Syrup industry. The snow is still deep in the Green Mountains, so the outlook looks good, especially with ideal temperatures expected for the next week or so.

Tapped maples are connected in elaborate systems, this one extended a mile up this hill, from trees that have been tapped for over 120 years. The farmer, who was 79 told us that when he was a child, his parents, who moved to the farm in 1909 took over a sugarbush as their retirement project. In the 1920's, he told us that they had nearly 1000 buckets, and all were collected daily by horse and sleigh.

Tubes transporting maple sap arrive at a pump station, where these blue valves release the liquid into a holding tank. Many of the farmers who make syrup in Vermont are also dairy farmers, so they convert electronic milking machines into suction pumps. The sap was not running when we arrived, but within 20 minutes, these valves opened up and the sap started pouring into the tank. The farmer yelled back to his son to fire up the evaporator.
The evaporator filling with sap, getting hot with the newly lit fire. Hundreds of gallons of sap will boil, and remember, it takes 86-90 gallons of raw sap just to make 1 gallon of syrup.

An old label from the turn of the century, discovered by Mr. Robb at the Robb Family Sugar Farm.

 Mr. Robb found the original label that his great grandfather used, and decided to use the original label on his glass gallon jugs, and this newly crafted version for the smaller bottles.

The Robb Family farm sits on a long, dirt and ice road, which made us glad that we had 4 wheel drive! I do sort of like it when my truck is covered in mud! This vent in the roof will soon by shrouded in steam as the wood fire heats the syrup to the boiling point. All over Vermont today, sugar houses steamed away as the sap flowed in the March sunshine.

Vintage syrup buckets hang in the rafters of the Robb Family sugar house.