Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Life is Pretty Sweet Beyond the Maple Trees

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

On February 21, Landis Valley and the Backyard Fruit Growers will be hosting the February Workshops, a set of four classes, taught by experts, on various intermediate- to high-level gardening topics.  These include:  Restoring the American Chestnut; Soil, Carbon, Gardening and Agriculture – the Rest of the Story; Apple Pruning Basics; and An Introduction to Making Maple Syrup.  I plan on attending this year, but choosing a topic to take will be difficult as all are interesting and, surprisingly, all are pertinent to a person with a small plot of land like me.

Even syrup production. This flabbergasted me, since sugar is difficult to produce on a small, artisanal scale, especially if one is allergic to bees, lives too far north for cane or sorghum, and doesn’t have acres for corn or decades to wait for maples to reach maturity.  What I have are some black walnut trees, some very mature maples, and a bunch of maple saplings that just won’t die.

Other years, I’ve looked at these and sighed.  This year, after hearing about research being done in intensive vacuuming techniques on young saplings and expansion into black walnut tapping, plus some of the great things you can do with the ever-versatile apple, I’m a little more excited.

In an experiment aimed at learning more about maple sap flow under vacuum pressure, researchers Tim Perkins and Abby van den Berg chopped off the top of a young maple tree, sealed it with a plastic bag, and attached a vacuum hose to it.  Not expecting anything revolutionary, they were pleasantly surprised when the tree produced sap long after the researchers predicted that the sap flow would stop.  “The only explanation was that we were pulling water out of the ground, right up through and out the stem,” Perkins said in the article, “Remaking Maple,” published by the University of Vermont and written by Joshua E. Brown.  Brown likened it to sucking water through a sugary straw.

The potential in this discovery is a much more intensive maple syrup production method, called plantation production, where producers could yield up to 400 gallons of syrup from 6,000 chest-high saplings on one acre.  What it means for me is that those chest-high maple saplings in my yard are on the chopping block.

Now, those maples are Norway maples, which don’t produce as much as sugar maples do, so I may have to supplement with something else.  Enter the black walnuts.

Black walnuts are another type of sap-producing tree that are prevalent in our section of the country.  Landis Valley’s millstone grove is lined with them (at right).  They, as well as their much-rarer cousins, butternuts (white walnuts), can be tapped in much the same way as maples are tapped now.  They produce a sweet syrup with a nutty taste and this is often combined with maple syrup in maple/walnut flavored products such as ice cream.  According to the article, “Move over maple syrup: Researchers in Syracuse are tapping walnut trees (and a birch),” Cornell University researchers are testing whether black walnut syrup can be a commercial crop, with small stands along streets and in parks and college campuses being tapped (with permission).  No mention was made of plantation syrup production from these types of trees.

Another source of sugar and/or syrup, one often overlooked, is cider.  Farm manager Joe Schott and his family made a batch of it at Harvest Days this fall and it was absolutely delicious—mildly sweet and full of cider-y flavor.  After pressing apples grown at Landis Valley, the thin cider was boiled in a small, uncovered copper pot over a fire until it reached the consistency of syrup.  Schott said that the boiling time would depend on the amount of water in your apples and how much cider you start with, but the amount in the demonstration took an afternoon to boil down.  My small plot of land could grow one or more apple trees, especially if I grafted multiple varieties onto one rootstock or they were carefully pruned in espalier form, with their branches trained to go out and up.

Classes at Landis Valley open up a whole new world of farming, gardening, craft and trade techniques, ones that were often used for centuries but are only being recently re-discovered.  As land prices rise and people look to local, native, heirloom foods they can grow and produce themselves, revitalized and re-vamped farming methods will increasingly apply to the small-scale farmer/gardener.  My small corner of the world is looking a little more productive now.