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We’re approaching the end of winter; too early to think of planting but just right to get ready for maple sugaring.

Mom Nature decides when the sap will flow and we wait: drill, spouts and buckets ready. Sap flows with below freezing nights and above freezing days. There are several ways we can tell when it’s time.

One way is to snap a small maple twig and watch for the drip or watch for an icicle hanging from the broken end after a below freezing night. Another sign is a stain on the road from a low hanging maple branch that has been broken by a high truck.

I have a yellow-bellied sapsucker in my neighborhood that punches holes on the south side of a sugar maple that I tap. When I see the stain on the tree I know the sap is flowing.

These signs can happen anytime from late January to late February.

How long will the sugaring season last? Once the buds start to swell the sap becomes cloudy and somewhat bitter. At this point the trees need the sap more than we do anyway.

Sugaring has been done for centuries, probably started by the Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands and picked up by the early white settlers. A good book on sugaring is “Sweet Maple,” written by James M. Lawrence and Rux Martin. The Internet is an even better source to learn the history.

My sugar bush consists of three large sugar maples and one still too small to tap. A maple should be at least 10 inches in diameter at breast height (D.B.H.) to hang one bucket from it. A 20-inch tree can accommodate two buckets: 30-inch, three buckets, and so on. A relatively new standard is no more than five buckets per tree regardless of diameter.

At about waist height, using a 5/16 inch bit we drill into the tree at a slight upward angle. If the hole is not angled the sap does not flow as well. Drill a hole about an inch and a half deep and insert the tap or spout. These can be bought at farm stores or some hardware stores.

The spout should be gently tapped into the hole, taking care not to split the bark, allowing the sap to flow around the spout instead of through it. The bucket used is a matter of choice.

Traditional metal buckets with lids to keep out rain and snow can be bought through catalogs. I like to use a two and a half gallon plastic spring water container with the pour spout removed and a small hole punched below the opening. This allows the container to be hung from the hook under the spout. It’s always satisfying to hear the sap dripping onto the bottom of the container.

These containers are recyclable and go to the transfer at the end of the season. The buckets need to be checked daily and dumped as needed. Sometimes on warm days they can be emptied twice. On an exceptionally good day I can get 20 to 30 gallons from my 10 taps. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup.

A clean, covered 32-gallon plastic trash container is good for storing sap. Use a round one because the square or rectangular ones will round out when full and the cover will not fit.

The stored sap must be kept cool. If there’s enough snow, a snow cave can be created with a snow-blower or shovel and the container placed inside. The shaded north side of a house or inside a barn or garage will work as well.

A general rule is not to store the sap more than a week unless the temperature is below freezing. In Part 2 of this article we will discuss converting the sap to syrup.

George Moore lives in West Groton. He is an educational consultant to the Nashua River Watershed Association and a canoe guide and instructor with the Nashoba Paddler.

“Stewardship Matters” is a biweekly column sponsored by the Squannassit/Petapawag Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (S&P-ACEC) Stewardship Committee. Its mission is to foster cooperation and awareness amongst diverse environmental, historical, cultural, and resources. Visit our Web site at www.squannassit.org for more information or contact us at info@squannassit.org.

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