DIY maple syrup: building a local tradition

Eight years into our do-it-yourself adventures in maple syrup, things are getting serious.

Another cold, blustery February has come to an end, and with it, the worst of winter’s bite is behind us.

Seven years into our journey of becoming self-sufficient, I still baffle folks when I tell them March is my favourite time of year.

“But why?” they ask, vivid memories of March blizzards painting pictures in their heads. “Why March?”

I love March for its promise of new beginnings. Rabbits give birth to this year’s litter of kits, nestled in their underground burrows. Birds pair up and begin to choose their nesting sites. Deep below the surface of the ground, tree roots awaken from their slumber, and begin the weeks-long task of preparing for their springtime growth. There are many reasons why I love March, but chief among them, due to my sweet tooth and love of ‘DIY’ philosophy, is that March is maple syrup season.

Those of you who follow our homestead adventures are probably aware of maple syrup season by now. The sight of maple syrup buckets hanging from trees in the capital city, once limited to the stretch of the Waterford River directly out front of our house, can now be seen at a dozen or more spots around the city.

‘Do it yourself’ culture has seen a big upswing in recent years, and if provincial—and global—political and economic trends continue down the shadowy path we now find ourselves, we’ll probably all be doing a lot more ‘DIY’ in the future.

Consider the case of community gardening. I first heard of community gardens around the turn of the millennium, when the first little community co-operative gardens popped up in the east side of downtown Vancouver. Since then, the number of community garden initiatives in Vancouver has risen to over 75 official sites (and more sites that lack official sanction), with more being planned every year.

The situation is the same here in Newfoundland and Labrador, where what was once a localized trend of a few individual community garden plots has given way to community gardening being a standard fixture of many urban and suburban neighborhoods.

The Community Garden Alliance of NL has a list of over two dozen sites in NL, many of which have been founded and built over the past 10 years. This trend of community gardening, which connects residents to each other socially while connecting them to their food and lowering their grocery bill, is on the upswing for several excellent reasons.

“A bucket hanging from every tree!” was a mantra I would sometimes exclaim while outlining my vision for maple syrup making here in Newfoundland. There is no shortage of maple trees in and around the Avalon Peninsula; a  ‘tree census’ carried out by the city of St John’s in 2008 determined that over half of our urban trees are maple trees, all of which are suitable for tapping when they reach the proper size (12” in diameter).

Our trees may be smaller than their mainland counterparts, which means there no large commercial arboretums in our province, but this is all the more reason for a significant presence of hobbyist syrup-makers making their own syrup in the lengthening days of March.

Pippy Park, through its volunteer-run charitable organization Friends of Pippy Park, has helped create awareness in recent years about the benefits of ‘do it yourself’ maple tapping. In addition to offering workshops that teach residents how to make their own maple syrup, Friends has also hosted a maple syrup Harvest Festival in April. At the last event over 700 people came out to taste maple syrup, enjoy some hot cocoa, and learn more about the process.

The workshops Lisa and I have facilitated on tree tapping and syrup-making, previously limited to one or two a year, will now run every Saturday and Sunday throughout the entire month of March. As with previous years, this Friends of Pippy Park workshop will be free of charge, while donations to help build the evaporator and sugar shack are gladly accepted (tax receipts available upon request).

Pippy Park will soon be home to a Community Maple Grove. Photo by Lisa McBride.
Pippy Park will soon be home to a Community Maple Grove. Photo by Lisa McBride.

Workshops will take place in the park, allowing participants to get up close and personal with the trees and observe as a spot is selected, and a maple tap (called a spile) is installed, and, weather permitting, the first run of sap observed as it collects in the bucket. For those who want to make their own maple syrup at home, spiles will be available for purchase at the workshops and the festival, with all proceeds going toward funding the work of the Friends of Pippy Park, including future maple events. No registration is necessary to participate; meet up at the large maintenance shed located near Pippy Park HQ on Mount Scio Road, at 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday in March, where it is just a few minutes’ walk to our maple grove.

This year, in addition to running the festival and workshop tutorials again, Friends of Pippy Park has selected stands of mature maples to turn into a ‘Community Maple Tapping Grove’—a maple syrup resource modelled along the same lines as a typical community garden. This community resource will begin as a ‘sap sharing’ program, allowing participants to take home raw maple sap, which they can drink as a tasty health supplement, and turn into their own maple syrup at home. Check out a step-by-step guide I wrote if you are thinking of making your own maple syrup this season.

Once this year’s maple workshops and festival are finished, the real fun begins. Pippy Park has approved the development of a site at the community maple grove, where Friends of Pippy Park will develop and build the city’s first evaporator and sugar shack. A wood fired evaporator can sustainably boil down syrup using some of the deadfall and cut wood produced each year by the forests of Pippy Park, allowing residents to gather around a warm fire while they produce their own syrup communally.

The presence of a sugar shack complements the purpose of a community garden, offering residents a place to gather socially while also engaging in a time-honoured sustainable tradition. In talking to community gardeners, this is a welcome addition, something to fill the space between late winter and seed planting, and to break the ‘cabin fever’ that affects many of us outdoorsy types who anxiously await the arrival of Spring.

Photo by Lisa McBride.
The Maple Syrup Harvest Festival will be held at Pippy Park on April 2. The family event will include a visit from the Mobile Goats and a performance by the Teddy Bear Man. Photo by Lisa McBride.

So, come on out to Pippy Park in March if you’d like to learn how to make your own maple syrup, and consider joining our maple tapping grove. New slots will be available as we get off the ground and develop, with capacity increasing significantly once the evaporator is complete. See the Friends of Pippy Park Facebook page for details, and come on out to the Maple Syrup Harvest Festival on April 2, where we will have tapping demonstrations, and tasty maple syrup to sample.

A syrup tasting competition will be held, where those who have already learned how to make their own syrup can enter their homemade syrup to compare against others. Hot chocolate will be provided, and we will be providing live entertainment for the kids with a visit from the Mobile Goats, and songs from everybody’s favorite children’s entertainer, Terry Rielly, AKA the Teddy Bear Man.

I hear teddy bears love maple syrup almost as much as they love honey!

Steve McBride is a CFA originally from Vancouver. He moved to St John’s for the fine climate, and to pursue a self-sufficient lifestyle through foraging, gardening, and keeping some backyard animals. He and his wife Lisa are now up the Southern Shore developing a sustainable homestead.

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