Drill and Tap it’s Time for Sap

We had an inch of snow last night but daytime temps have been above freezing for at least a week now.  That means I’m late to the party.  Oh well.  Trees are tapped now.  And here I planned on tapping trees on Valentines day.  Silly me.



Let me know if you are tapping your trees this year.  Have you collected any sap yet?


Walnut and Hackberry

This is not a recipe for food.  It’s an example of walnut and hackberry tree guilds.  They go together like peas and carrots.

I didn’t realize this until I read Gaia’s Garden but I have hackberry trees next to my walnut trees.  Now, to be fair, I have hackberry trees everywhere.  But I also have oak trees everywhere…except where the walnut trees dominate.  So, here is a walnut tree.Walnut

And here is a hackberry next to it.


Walnut in the foreground, hackberry in the stream and more walnuts up the hill a bit.


Now, these guilds would be much more complex if the cattle hadn’t been run through the woods non-stop for at least the last half-century.  Really, the only trees that have not been grazed immediately after sprouting are the ones with thorns.  Neither the hedge nor honey locust seem to be bothered by the juglone.


And they are making more thorny things for my pasture.  Look at those thorns!  I really have to replace my honey locust with black locust.  I’m all in favor of fixing Nitrogen but not at the expense of my foot.  I had one go all the way through my boot last year.  I can’t let these seeds germinate.


Back on topic.  Need more?  How about this?  Hackberry, walnut and grapes with a side of Virginia Creeper.


Or a whole grove of hackberry that the walnuts have infiltrated


Both trees are alleopathic but, in a guild, can function to allow other plants to grow as well.  The book, which in this section is slanted toward the west, suggests currants and wolfberries.  I don’t even know what a wolfberry is but we do have currants.  We also have gooseberries.

With proper management, and a bit of luck, I should be able to get ahead of the thorny things and maintain the existing tree guilds while establishing new trees to increase plant diversity.  I just had to learn to see the forest for the trees.  What do you see out there?

Goumi and Apples

In working to establish tree guilds around the dwarf apple trees I planted I ordered goumi.  Near as I can tell it’s pronounced gwammee, not gummy.

The book Gaia’s Garden lists plants appropriate to an apple tree guild.  The guild includes bee balm, comfrey, daffodils and a few others but let’s just start with what we have.


I have apple trees already.  Thanks to Sandusky Valley I now have goumi.  They don’t look like much now but they should take off in the spring.  Toby Hemenway suggests you fit Goumi anywhere you can to help establish new trees and boost production.  The idea is that goumi (a nitrogen-fixing plant) grown next to and in proximity of trees will provide nourishment to the trees.  He even suggests you plant your apple and goumi in the same hole, cutting the goumi back each year to half the tree size.

Goumi is propagated by cutting.  The cuttings I got were bare-root and well rooted.  I made a mix of well-composted horse manure, sawdust, perlite and a greensand and planted the goumi at even spaces between the apple trees.  The trees are planted 8′ apart so I planted 2 goumi in a line at the 4′ mark.  This should keep the plants in sufficient sunlight as the guild develops.

Let me know if you have any experience with goumi or recipies you can share.

Apple Trees in the Ground!

Once upon a time, probably laying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning (when we lived in the city, churched on Saturday and still had lazy Sundays), I said to my lovely bride, “I would like apple trees.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a fall family gathering where we make fresh cider, take a hayride and roast a pig?”  And that’s where it all began.  That was the dream.  That’s why I live here.  That was probably 8-10 years ago.

And today (after 3 years of planning, hoping, researching and looking for frost pockets) I planted my first apple trees.

They aren’t much to look at.  Just sticks …um..sticking…straight-ish up.  But that’s the start.  They arrived bare root so they need to be staked.  They are planted in hills next to the Georgia wall on the North side of the main garden.  I have all sorts of plans for planting tree guilds all around them but the main point is they are in the ground.

Now, I just cross my fingers and hope for the best.  The money used to buy trees was just money.  The trees themselves are wealth.

Thanks Stark Bro’s.

What Does “Romantic” Mean?

Ah, the fire.  The warmth.  The light.  Somehow the food tastes different when cooked on the wood cook stove.  There’s a slight crackle.  Instead of the normal 57 degrees in the house, we have one room that’s 90.  There’s always hot water.  You come in from outside and park your tookus next to the stove and you are instantly warmed up.  It’s the fulfillment of some romantic dream of hers.  Best thing ever.

Well.  Sort of.

Sopka Magnum Wood Cook Stove

The crackle, the smell, the warmth all come at a cost.  My time.  You see, my lovely bride loves the wood cook stove.  To her it’s just a matter of splitting some kindling, lighting a fire and keeping it fed.  Works well enough.  But from my perspective it’s hours with the chainsaw then hauling, splitting, stacking, restacking when it falls over, etc.  My days off.  My weekends.  Every trip out in the woods I’m looking for a standing dead tree or a snag to cut down.  What will I do when the woods are clean?  Where can I start growing the forest I’ll need over the coming years?  Should I burn that log or should I run it through the sawmill?  Oh, the stress!  Oh, my leg!  Oh the guilt! (Anybody get that reference?)

Why are we burning wood when it’s barely getting to freezing at night?  I think the word “romantic” is French for “because she wants to”.  Why isn’t it romantic to sit under a pile of blankets reading a book?  Oh well.  The kids are a big help and do most of the stacking and carrying.  My oldest helped split this time too.

No Doubt, it’s a Drought

Farmers are never satisfied with the weather.  Environmentalists are never satisfied with the weather.  In both cases, it seems it’s the worst it has ever been and there is no hope of recovery.  I’m an alternative environmentalist and an alternative farmer.  I need medication.  Global climate change advocates tell me it’s too hot/cold/wet/dry because of decades of human activity.  Astrophysicists present that temperatures follow solar flare cycles (and that a huge solar flare could wipe out the power grid).  The alternative farmer in me knows I can do little to affect the sun but I can take action to positively (or negatively) impact the hydrological cycle.  I can sequester more carbon.  I can cycle nutrients more quickly.  I can grow more food with less irrigation.  I can landscape in such a way to not only hold more of the rain that falls on my farm but to encourage more rain in my region.  “If everyone of us would sweep their own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.”  These notions appeal to my inner alternative environmentalist but where the rubber hits the road, I need rain now.  Now.

Today we’re in a drought and it’s getting pretty gritty.

I helplessly watch the rainclouds float on past to the North and South.  They kind of spit at me for a few minutes here and there but no rain.  No real rain for weeks.  We’re short by 18 inches this year…a big deal to a midwesterner.  We had solid rain at the beginning of May, an hour of hail mid-May and a half-inch of rain a few weeks ago.  The pond is down a foot already.

The grass under the maple trees has given up…the maples have sucked the ground dry.  It seems that nothing can stop the poison ivy though.

What can I do about it now?  Not much.  Drought is a fact of life.  It happens.  It always happens.  As I read Walt Davis he jokes that the Texas rainfall average may be 20″ but that’s because they get 60″ one year and none for the next two years.  I have to learn to manage for drought.

I have grass.  It’s not pretty, it’s not a lot but it’s there.  Where the goats, chickens and pigs have been there’s a tall, diverse stand of grass…even if dry.  I’m surprised how little moisture there is under the tall grass but at least there’s something standing to catch the dew…when there is dew.  I need to fence out the neighbor’s cows so I can monopolize the growth.  I need to maintain and encourage that stand.  Where the grass is short I need to allow rest.  Where there is bare dirt I could put down any number of things but I have been leaning toward using litter out of the layer house or sawdust as a mulch.

Going forward I need to catch my greywater (not to mention the infrequent rain) in a series of swales down the hill from my house.  I don’t really know how to establish the swales at a minimum of expense but I’m considering using a 2-bottom plow just to get something out there.  I need to grow more trees.  The lack of shade out there is a killer.  Beyond shade, I need protection from wind to help limit evaporation.  Also, I need more things for my goats to eat.  I may buy a box of hybrid poplars and interplant with fruit and nut trees on the swales.  But the real focus needs to be on building additional ponds.  I don’t even know how to estimate what a pond will cost but I know what it’s worth to the land.  That’s going to have to become a large part of our future farm budgeting.  We need to catch and hold the water as high as possible and work to slow it down as it runs downhill.

Each of these things will work to dampen (lol) the effects of drought in the future.  What can I do now?  Right now!

There are good chances for rain this weekend.  All I can do today is pray.  Just pray.  Rain breeds rain.  If we get a little moisture this weekend, maybe we’ll get more next weekend.  Maybe, by the time hurricane season gets started in the gulf, we’ll have so much rain I’ll write a blog post complaining about being waterlogged.  Oh, to dream!  In the meantime I’ll keep my animals watered and shaded and my kids cool inside.  I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about the solar flares.

Where do You See Yourself in 5 Years

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

I hate that question.  I work in tech.  I have a hard time telling management, most of whom don’t work in tech, that I have no idea what changes are in store for my career.  I don’t really see myself moving to management and if you try to explain current tech trends to HR their eyes glaze over and they just wait for you to finish talking.  I like what I do and would like to continue doing it.  Tech changes constantly and if I were to guess, 5 years from now I’ll still be diligently working to stay abreast of new trends, add value, etc.  Looking back 5 years I couldn’t foresee the iPad.  I couldn’t foresee (and still don’t really understand) Facebook.  I have no idea what Microsoft will dream up next.  I don’t think we’ll use keyboards much longer though.

Looking at my farm in 5 years is a little easier.  I’m a little restrained by the economy and have no idea how to pay for this but I have a vision of how I would like to reshape the farm over the next 5-40 years.  I have plans to add greenhouses and ponds, I have a plan for pasture grazing and improvement, woodlot improvement, establishment of new tree stands, orchards, swales and general beautification of the farm.  On the topic of beautification I need to replace a number of buildings but that’s further down on the list.  More water on the farm = more life.  I need to build 6 or 7 ponds over the next few decades.

I plan to transition our primary revenue generation away from chickens to cattle.  We haven’t begun to build our beef herd yet.  I hope to divorce myself from the feed grinder as it is both dangerous and expensive to operate.  Further, it’s one more thing I have to store in a shed…a shed I need to replace.  Instead we’ll use dense swards of grass to harvest sunlight, earthworks to harvest rainfall and cows to cycle nutrients.  It’s a terribly complicated machine with no moving parts but entirely dependent on free and continued sunlight.  I plan to use a solar-powered fence charger to keep the cows where I want them.

To prevent wind and evaporation we have plans for tree plantings.  These will be primarily fruit and nut trees but I would like a larger stand of sugar maples to tap in my old age.  I better get started now!  The fruit trees will give guests another reason to come visit the farm…another over-arching goal of ours.

Everything we do should boost biodiversity, restore the local ecology, and help nurture our community.  I hope to raise big, fat cows and have room for big, fat groundhogs.  We plan to leave meadows ungrazed until the ground-nesting birds have hatched in July.  I hope friends and customers continue to come here seeking rest and inspiration…or at least entertainment.

We have given strong consideration to picking up a Fertrell dealership.  It could happen in the next 5 years though I have a lot to learn and, again, need a shed.  And a scale.  And a truck.  But it’s possible…

I anticipate my oldest son will begin to step up his involvement in the farm and will either relieve me of one or more enterprises or will start some of his own.  At 17 he should be ready to test his wings and I plan to enable him to do so.  He has always been our guinea pig so he’ll set the pattern for his siblings.  Whatever they are interested in, we are interested in.

I didn’t list revenue in my planning.  I can’t set financial goals outside of paying for the land and the improvements.  I am not a corporation.  This isn’t a machine.  This is a biological process.  Financial goals fit with biology like socks on a rooster.

These are, of course, moving targets.  These plans will likely shift as the wife and I dive deeper into our studies of permaculture.  So I guess, like tech, my farming goals aren’t entirely knowable.  It’s a best guess either way.  But it’s easier to keep my audience interested when I’m not explaining database index optimization strategies.  Yeah.

So, there you go.  The top-down view of the next X years.  That question is so much easier than career planning.  What about you?  Where do you see yourself in 5 years?  Will you finally achieve your “someday“?

What’s the Buzz?

I saw more bumblebees last night than I have ever seen in one place.  It appears that bumblebees like black locust trees when they are in bloom.

I thought it was appropriate to take stock of what is blooming currently.  Wild black cherry trees are in full bloom.

And the dogwood is looking great.

Elms are finished…

…as are silver and sugar maples.

Peonies are on deck.

Maple Sap and Nectar

My grandmother planted three sugar maples in the front yard around the time I was born.  We do everything with these trees.  We play catch under their shade, we enjoy their fall colors, we jump in their leaves, we tap them for sugar and our bees buzz their flowers.  I want to discuss these last two briefly.

We are a seasonal farm.  We shut down most of our business for the winter and just catch our breath.  Yes, we try to stretch our garden as late into the season as we can, yes we raise replacement layers in the winter but for the most part we put our feet up and read or play scrabble.  This year we added something to our winter activities.  We watched water boil.  We picked up a tree tapping kit from tapmytrees.com.  The equipment we got wasn’t cheap but was excellent.  Also, you need to be aware that there are different kinds of maple trees and they need to be at least 12″ in diameter before you tap.  Those could be 30 year old trees at their first tap.  You might want to get them planted soon.  Also, this doesn’t hurt the tree.

Here are the steps involved to gather the sap.  I’ll post a follow-up on how we dealt with the sap and made syrup and sugar from it.

Using the drill bit supplied in the kit, drill a hole in the tree.  Drill up at a slight angle and 2″ deep.

Now, tap the …erm…tap into the tree.  It will be a snug fit.  There is probably a bucket hook that goes on the tap before you insert it into the tree.  Again, don’t worry, you aren’t hurting the tree.

The bucket just hangs from the hood and the sap should start running immediately.  We were surprised by the instant and musical drip into the buckets.

Pop the lid on to keep out the rain and check your bucket daily.  Some of our buckets filled in 24 hours while other trees weren’t as generous.

Here’s a shot of the sap.  Please notice it’s a clear liquid.  Once the sap turns milky you’re out of business.

Being out of the maple business isn’t all bad.  A few weeks after our maple season finished the bees were busy at the tops of the trees.  Where the buckets had been drumming, the bees were humming.  What nice trees.  Thanks Grandma.

So, if you have 30 years to wait for syrup, go ahead and plant your trees.  The bees like them, they produce dense shade and beautiful fall colors.  Let me know if you find any additional uses for your trees too.

I would also like to point the reader to pick up a copy of Scott and Helen Nearing’s Maple Sugaring Book.