Sugaring season used to be a tradition. Everyone would go out around late February into March and tap maples for syrup. Just when the weather starts the warm, but the ground is still snow-covered and cold… that’s the perfect time for tapping trees for sap you can boil into syrup.
Finding trees to tap
First off, you can tap many deciduous trees for sap. Even birch and walnut will provide you with plenty of sweet, flavorful sap that you can boil down.
But, the most common trees used are sugar maples. You can, however, tap any maple tree. The abundance of sap will vary depending not only on the tree but the type of maple. Sugar maples provide the most sap while silver maples, black, and even red can also be utilized and provide sugar.
Since the leaves can’t help you identify the species this time of year, you’ll want to get a winter field guide like this one to identify which are maples if you aren’t familiar with the characteristics.
Another option, of course, would be to identify the trees in the summer or fall when the leaves are still on the branches. But, if you didn’t plan in advance, not all hope is lost.
You’ll want to make sure that your trees are a minimum of 12 inches in diameter (indicating they are mature) and of course, healthy. Picking trees with the most exposure to sunlight can also help with the flow of sap.
When to tap maple trees
Of course, like most things, timing is everything with tapping. Typically the time is around late February to mid-March. But this will depend a lot on where you live.
The tell-tale sign that it’s time for tapping is when the daytime temps rise above freezing, but the nighttime temps dip back down below freezing.
This warming temps create pressure within the tree, which generates the flow of sap. The season usually lasts about a month to a month and a half and most sap will flow earliest in the season.
You’ve found the trees, you have an idea of the timing. You need to make sure you’re ready. That means you’re going to need some supplies.
This doesn’t require anything fancy, just a few things and you’ll have sap flowing. You’ll need:
Cordless Drill and bit. A corded drill will work in a pinch, but it’s going to make use of a lot of drop cords unless you have electrical outlets next to your trees. You will want to use a bit about the same diameter as your spile (typically 5/16″ or 7/16″ ). If it’s a little more narrow, that’s ok, too. You want your spile to fit tightly.
Hammer. Once you drill your hole, you’ll need to pound your spile into the tree. A hammer will do wonders for this task.
Spiles. These are your “taps”. For trees 12-20″ in diameter, you’ll use one spile each. For trees 21-27″ in diameter, you’ll use two taps. For any tree 27″ or larger in diameter, it will take three. They make these in metal and even plastic. We prefer metal.
Hooks. If your spiles do not come with hooks (the ones I linked above do), you’ll want to make sure you buy hooks for your buckets. You’ll be mighty disappointed if you don’t have a way to hang them.
Buckets and lids. These are, of course, to capture the sap. We don’t like plastic. Thankfully, you can still purchase aluminum sap buckets and lids on Amazon or even at your local farm store. Unless you purchase a maple sugar starter kit like this one.
How to tap a maple tree
The time has come. You’ve got your trees identified, the weather is right, and you’ve gathered your supplies.
This task is fairly easy. You’ll want to locate the trees you plan to use and use the guidelines above for how many taps to put into each tree. Anything under 21″ will only take one tap. If a tree is under 12″ in diameter, do not tap it.
The height of your spile should be comfortable for you. This is usually around 3 feet. If you’re only placing one tap, you will want it on the south side of the tree. If you’re placing more than one, you’ll want to divide them around the circumference of the tree. So, if you’re placing two put one on the south side and one on the north.
Ideally, you will want to put the spile above a big root or below a big branch to get the most sap out of the tree.
You will take your drill and drill to the depth required by your spile, about 2 to 2 1/2″ deep. To make things easier, you can mark that depth on your bit with a piece of tape. You’ll want to drill at a slight angle to facilitate the downward flow of sap.
If you’ve tapped the tree in previous years, do not tap within 6″ of the previous holes. If the tree has damage, avoid those spots. And if the shavings are dark brown when you drill into them, pick a different spot (the shavings should be light brown).
You’ll insert the spile into the loop on the hook and pound it gently into place using a hammer. Do not pound it, this will split the wood. Generally, if the weather is right, the sap will immediately begin flowing from the tree.
Simply hang your bucket and lid and move on to the next tree.
How much sap to expect
This will vary wildly depending on the tree, but typically each tree will produce anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons of sap per tap, per season. This will then translate into a small amount of maple syrup per tree.
Keep in mind that it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. But, that doesn’t mean the process isn’t worthwhile. If you have an abundance of trees that you can utilize for tapping, you should absolutely try this rewarding experience.
You’ll want to check your buckets daily and empty any collected sap. You can run it through a cheesecloth or similar to remove any impurities that found their way in. Keep checking until the sap stops flowing and then you can turn the sap into syrup.
Tapping maple trees can be a fun, rewarding experience. Whether you have an abundance of trees on your property or find a nice neighbor, it’s definitely worth giving a try to get some delicious, natural sugar.
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