As soon as a few warm days arrive early each spring we search our yard at Winding Pathways for two of our favorite plants – Stinging Nettles and Dandelions.
To most people they’re weeds. To us they’re delicious yard gifts.
Stinging nettles are one of the tastiest of all wild greens. They begin growing very early each spring and are usually ready to pick about the time when gardeners plant spinach and lettuce. In Iowa that’s sometime in April. Nettles love moist soil at the edge of woods where they receive partial shade. Often they’re common on yard edges. Nettles are well named, because they can sting! Another name for the plant is “three minute itch”, because the slight stinging sensation is just temporary. There’s a way to avoid the “itch.”
We pick nettles when they are only a couple of inches tall. To avoid the sting, we either wear light gloves or carefully pluck off the top few leaves between the thumb and forefinger. About 100 leaves are plenty for dinner for the two of us. We bring the plucked nettles into the kitchen, rinse them well, and boil them for just a few minute. It’s really more like steaming them as we only put about a half inch of water in the pan. Once steamed the sting disappears. Put a dollop of butter on them with a sprinkle of vinegar and enjoy as the year’s first green crop.
We continually pick from the same nettle patch and each plant constantly creates new leaves at the growing tip. This extends the picking season for over a month, and by then our spinach is ready to harvest from the garden. For the rest of the growing season, foraging insects enjoy the nectar of the nettles.
Almost everyone knows that dandelions are edible but most people who try them quickly toss the bitter plants out and never try again. Take heart and try again! Dandelions are revered in many eastern cities where Italians live. Festivals abound across the country “…from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters….” (apologies to Woody Guthrie) and the Amana Colonies in Iowa are known for their dandelion wines. Google Dandelion Festivals to find one near you. One coming up for St. Patrick’s Day is Dandelion Days in California.
Dandelions are delicious but there’s a trick to enjoying them. The best ones are picked in very early spring when the leaves are brand new. Those poking out from under leaves are semi blanched, lack bitterness, and are delicious and packed with vitamins. As soon as dandelion leaves are full size they are too bitter to eat without special processing. Young blanched leaves can be eaten raw in salad or steamed.
Before eating any wild plant for the first time make sure you correctly identify it, using at least two sources for identification……….an expert forager and a wild food book, or a wild food book and a credible website, for example. Our all-time favorite source for wild food information is Euell Gibbons’ classic book STALKING THE WILD ASPARAGUS. If you spot one at a used book sale snap it up as quickly as you do fresh nettles. Some helpful websites include Eat the Weeds , Eat the Weeds You Tube Videos, and Food52. Episode 134 of Eat the Weeds features neighborhood foraging. At about six minutes, Green Deane, the host, shows and talks about dandelions.
A variety of fencing keeps deer and rabbits out of the garden.
Like millions of American homeowners we at Winding Pathways have a love/hate relationship with deer. Few animals are as beautiful as a peaceful doe nursing her fawns or as majestic as a powerful buck sporting husky fall antlers. But a love of deer only goes so far. Anger mounts quickly when they devour flowers and vegetables, girdle valuable trees, or dart in front of the car on a dark night. Last year we planted a small river birch that was growing well until a buck utterly destroyed it while rubbing his antlers on it. Frustrating!
Until about 25 years ago deer mostly lived in large forests and rarely ventured into town or suburbia, but as their rural population grew they moved right into town. Most suburbs have plenty of wooded pockets where deer can hide and nutritious forage in parks, gardens, and yards. Today deer are amazingly abundant in suburbia, where they prance up and down streets and dine on valued vegetation.
Deer generally do two types of vegetation damage. One’s relatively easy to prevent, while the other is more challenging.
RUBS: Antlers form during warm months as a blood rich skin, called velvet, nourishes fast growing bone like antlers that are mostly calcium. By September, antlers have reached full growth. Velvet dies and dries, and bucks remove it by rubbing antlers against small trees. They prefer saplings a few inches in diameter. Rubbing often girdles and kills the tree, and deer always seem to attack the most valuable tree in the yard. It’s infuriating and costly. Although velvet is mostly gone by early October deer continue to bang and rub their antlers against trees throughout the fall.
The Cure: Fortunately there’s an easy way to prevent rubbing.
At Winding Pathways we use heavy wire in 2” X 4” mesh that we buy in 50 foot rolls. It’s relatively easy to cut an eight foot length of fencing using wire cutting pliers. Once we have the section cut we ring it around the tree and hold the ends closed with cable ties. Usually one metal fence post driven 18” into the ground will hold the wire in place. Sometimes two posts placed on opposite sides of the tree are needed. We attach the wire mesh to the post using big cable ties. The wire stays in place year round until the tree is at least 4 inches in diameter and no longer threatened by rubbing.
Attache zip ties firmly to a post.
What You Need to Make a Wire Ring
Wire: We buy rolls of 2”X4” four foot tall galvanized wire mesh from a farm or building supply store. Many brands and types of wire mesh are for sale but we prefer Red Brand. It is stiff and strong and we usually only need one fence post to hold it up. Red Brand fencing is made in the US. Less sturdy wire mesh is cheaper but bends easily, rusts more quickly, and usually requires a few fence posts to hold it in place.
Pliers: We unroll about eight feet of the wire roll on the driveway for cutting. Any type of cutting pliers will work to cut off a section but we find “Bernard” pliers perfect for the task. These are usually made for anglers and have a wire cutter and spring that automatically opens the pliers after a cut. They make slicing off a section easy and fast.
Fence Post: With stiff wire mesh one fence post will hold a ring of wire in place around a tree. Wire mesh that readily bends may need two or three posts. We buy 6 foot posts, called T posts, at farm or building supply stores and pound them 18 inches into the ground 12” to 20” out from the tree’s trunk. A small sledge hammer makes a handy pounding tool. We then form a circle of the wire panel around the tree and fasten the ends together.
Cable ties, sometimes called nylon zip ties, make joining the ends of the wire mesh and attaching the wire to the fence post easy. The ties come in various sizes. It takes big ones to run through the wire mesh and secure around the post. Twist wire also works to hold the ends together or attach the wire mesh to the post.
Putting a ring of wire around valuable young trees is almost certain to protect them from rubbing and browsing. Just be sure to do it before damage starts.
At Winding Pathways deer come into the yard. We protect young trees with fencing as seen in the back to the right.
LUNCH AND DINNER WITH BREAKFAST TOSSED IN: Deer love eating many landscape and vegetable plants. Although they have preferences, the hungrier the deer, the more likely they are to even eat plants they generally dislike. Garden books often list species of plants that deer do and don’t like to eat but beware, like humans, individual deer have food preferences. Although most deer may not like a particular plant species, others may consider it a dining delight. Deer seem to have regional tastes, so the plants they don’t like in Connecticut may be gourmet fare in Alabama or Iowa. Unfortunately, many plants that deer relish are the same ones homeowners like to plant, so protecting them is vital to success.
Damage to trees by rubbing is seasonal and normally only happens in the fall. In contrast browsing damage happens all year with deer generally eating softer vegetation during warm months and twigs during winter.
The Cure: Preventing deer from eating valued vegetation is difficult but here are some ways to either eliminate or stop it:
No doubt about it. A sturdy fence keeps deer away from plants and prevents damage. Fencing has downsides. It’s expensive, often unsightly, and it requires maintenance. A fence can ring an entire property or just an area that needs protection, such as around the vegetable garden. Generally there are two types of fence used to prevent browsing.
Electric fences work well. Many newer ones are moveable and easy to install. Electric fences don’t need to be very tall. They are relatively expensive but their biggest disadvantage is that they sometimes give a shock to a careless homeowner or even a child. Many towns ban electric fences, so be sure one is legal before you buy one. We like fences made by Premier.
Nonelectric fences work well to exclude deer but also have disadvantages. They are laborious to install and are relatively expensive. They can be made of heavy duty nylon or wire mesh. Deer are amazing high jumpers and can clear a six foot fence, so a deer proof fence should be eight feet tall!
A good fence will prevent deer damage by keeping hungry animals away from desirable plants. Repellents are less certain but can help reduce damage. Repellents are most helpful when temporary protection is needed or where fences won’t work and they are less expensive. They have these disadvantages:
Need to be reapplied often and always after a rain.
Sometimes smell strongly.
May not be suitable for use on vegetables.
Only somewhat deter deer from snacking.
Our good friends Dave and Sue Kramer own Kramer’s Flower Farm and produce thousands of varied colored day lilies every year. Visit their farm in mid-summer and it is a sea of blooms. People love looking at colorful flowers but deer consider them lunch. Kramer’s farm is surrounded by woods, so they have to be vigilant in keeping deer way from their crop. Dave uses a home-made spray that keep deer at bay.
Kramer’s Deer Repellent Recipe
One gallon of water.
Three egg yolks
One teaspoon garlic powder.
One teaspoon cayenne pepper finely ground
Add ingredients and shake well. Leave in the sun for a couple of days. Shake again and filter through an old nylon stocking to remove lumps or they will clog the sprayer. Put in a standard sprayer and spray plants. Treatment needs to be repeated often and after every rain.
Deer don’t like the smell or taste of rotten eggs. Who would? Anyone who would rather not make their own egg based spray can buy commercial mixes. The one we use is called Deer Stopper and is made by the Messinas Company. The label says it’s made of putrescent whole egg solids, rosemary oil, mint oil and several inert ingredients.
After buying several inexpensive sprayers that clogged we bought a Stihl brand sprayer that works well and seems less likely to clog.
Whether using a home-made or commercial repellent remember it needs to be reapplied relatively often and always after a rain.
Winding Pathways is near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Several years ago the City Council approved allowing citizens to hunt deer using archery equipment. Hunters need to prove proficiency with their equipment and special rules are in place to ensure safety. Each year hunters convert several hundred suburban and urban deer into chops and steaks. Deer meat is “free ranging, local, organic” and delicious.
Each year we harvest a deer from our property. This doesn’t stop deer damage but does provide us with food, and if enough people each take a deer, their population density and, thus, damage will decline. So, if it’s legal in your area, consider converting a deer to food. Normally a state and sometimes a local permit is needed. Look for a future Winding Pathways blog on how to harvest and dress a deer.
Late this winter and early spring dozens of maple syrup festivals will shake the winter blahs. From the Midwest to the Atlantic and from the mid-South to Canada folks will be getting outside as days lengthen and temperatures warm to welcome the season’s first harvest.
Most festivals feature tree tapping and boiling demonstrations as well as delicious pancakes topped with local maple syrup.
For over 40 years, the Indian Creek Nature Center has hosted families at their two day festival.
Children love to re-live harvesting methods.
Explaining the evaporation process.
Volunteers arrive early at Indian Creek Nature Center’s Festival to serve hungry families.
Trees of many maple species will flow sweet sap as soon as daytime temperatures rise into the high 30s while nights drop below the freezing point. That can happen in early February down South and six weeks later in Canada.
Syruping is fun, educational and a wonderful activity to share with children. It can be done far beyond the classic syruping regions of New England, Canada and the Lake States. We’ve been in touch with families from North Dakota to North Carolina who make maple syrup. We’ve made gallons in Iowa. All it takes is a tree or two of any maple species, the right weather and simple tools. When done properly, it doesn’t hurt the tree. Silver, sugar, black, and red maples all run sweet sap. So does the box elder, which is a true maple.
You’ll find past blogs on Winding Pathways that show how to make simple syruping equipment. Type maple syruping in the search box at the bottom of the screen or click on this link. Almost everyone already has everything needed to make small quantities of syrup, but it’s easier and a bit more sanitary to use manufactured equipment.
Many companies sell syruping equipment, but most are geared to supply large commercial operations. Tap My Trees is different. They sell easy-to-use equipment to folks wanting to tap a few backyard trees. Their website also includes helpful information on how to tap trees, collect sap, and boil it into syrup. Check it out!
Clear sap dripping into the bucket.
A clean milk jug makes a simple “bucket” to collect sap.
Carrying “modern buckets” on a yoke.
Maple Syrup’s taste is stronger with a deeper amber.
A traditional sugar shack
Modern equipment make backyard syruping easy and pleasurable.
Winding Pathways has had fun this spring working with neighbor children on syruping. While the season here in Iowa has ended, in more northern and Eastern areas it is still in full swing. The 2015 syruping season may last longer in the north east because of the deep snow and continued cold. Take in the excitement of a syrup festival in your region and take time to tap a tree in your backyard. Things will pop fast, so go outside and play!
Maple syruping is captivating. Perhaps because the process is fascinating, it’s one of the first signs of spring or it conjures up childhood memories reading books about syruping or seeing old Currier and Ives prints of Native Americans or hearty pioneers sugaring off.
Alhough it’s a historic process, tapping trees and making syrup is a fun family activity and a great way to pique childhood curiosity about history and science. Syruping is a blend of botany, weather, science, history and all topped off with delicious eating.
Native Americans invented maple syruping long ago. Before honeybees were imported from Europe and sugar became a trade item maple syrup was THE ONLY sweetener they had. Typically Native Americans made maple sugar by slicing the bark of trees in late winter, catching what sap they could in bark or wooden containers and boiling the sap in large, hollowed out wooden containers by dropping fire-heated rocks into the liquid. They used this cumbersome method because until Europeans arrived they didn’t have metal. Syruping was plenty of work.
When Europeans settled along the Atlantic coast they quickly developed a taste for maple and supplied Natives with metal buckets, pans, axes and spiles that enabled them and European settlers to make syrup efficiently. It was the main American sweetener until a cane sugar tariff was lifted in the late 1800’s. Today maple syrup is a delicious, but expensive, luxury.
Modern producers use plastic tubes to channel sap from their sugarbush (maple grove) to their sugarhouse, where it’s processed into syrup by eliminating water in ultra-modern reverse osmosis machines followed by some boiling. It’s an efficient, but not nostalgic, process.
Making syrup from a backyard tree using old methods is fascinating fun. It’s now late winter. Soon days will be above freezing and sap will flow. Syruping season is upon us. Assuming there’s a maple tree in the yard most families have many of the items they need to make a small batch of syrup. Here’s how:
What you need: It’s simple. You need a maple tree or two of any species. Sugar, black, silver, red and European maples produce sweet sap. Even common box elders, which are true maples in disguise, yield sap that makes delicious syrup. The tree needs to be at least 10” in diameter but bigger ones are better. Other needs are:
• A drill and bit to create a 7/16th or ½ inch diameter hole three inches deep into the tree.
• A homemade or purchased spout, or “spile” as it’s called in syruping country.
• A container to catch sap. Plastic milk jugs work!
• A container to collect and store sap.
• A way to boil off about 40 gallons of water to make one gallon of syrup.
Where can syrup be made: Although New England, Canada and the Lake States are traditional syruping regions it can be made anywhere maples grow and the right weather conditions occur. Syruping is possible from Alabama to North Dakota, east to the Atlantic, and even from street trees in western towns.
When are trees tapped: Maples drip sap only when nights are below freezing followed by daytime temperatures above 32 degrees. Ideal conditions are several days in a row with clear, cold frosty nights followed by sunny warm days. Traditionally syruping starts around March first in the north but can be earlier down south. The season ends when sap stops dripping as night temperatures remain above freezing. The sap flow can be as short as four or five days or as long as six weeks. It all depends on the weather.
How to tap a tree: In late winter, just before warm days are expected, gather a drill, bucket and child and tap your backyard tree. If done properly it does no harm to the tree. A young 10” diameter maple is good for just one tap, but a 30” diameter veteran can support up to three taps. Use either an electric drill or be traditional and use a carpenter’s brace and bit. Drill at a slight upward angle two to three inches into the tree. A short piece of wire can be bent into a hook to drag wood chips out of the hole. Tap in the spout, or spile, and attach the bucket or milk jug to catch sap. If the weather is perfect sap will flow as soon as the drill passes through the bark.
Spiles and collection supplies can be purchased but here’s how to make your own:
Step One: Find a patch of sumac. These common shrubs often grow along roads. Cut off a three foot section about a half inch in diameter with pruning shears. Then cut it into pieces about four inches long. Sumac has thick soft pith. Either poke it out with a piece of stiff wire or drill it out to create a tube. Taper the end that will go into the hole in the tree by whittling with a pocket knife. Gently tap your spile into the hole.
Step Two: Use the pocket knife to cut a small hole in the neck of a clean gallon milk jug just above the handle. Slip the hole over the end of the spile. If you’ve done it right the jug will stay in place and is strong enough to hold a gallon of sap without pulling out of the tree.
If the weather’s right the jug will fill in just a couple of hours. Empty the sap into a storage container. It’s best to begin boiling right away but cold sap will keep a few days. But, there are other uses for maple sap than boiling into syrup. Fill a teacup with boiling sap instead of water and add a tea bag. The delicious beverage will have a hint of maple flavor. Some people drink sap as a spring tonic.
Step Three: Now comes processing. Nothing is added to sap to create syrup but about 40 parts of water must be evaporated to make one part syrup. It can be boiled in a saucepan over the kitchen stove, but that puts lots of sticky steam into the house. Boiling is best done outdoors over a wood fire or propane burner. Large shallow pans help speed boiling. Boil for several hours. The syrup is ready to eat when:
• It is golden colored with delicious sweetness.
• It slowly dribbles off a spoon dunked in hot syrup and suspended over the pan.
• It boils at seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter than boiling water.
Serious sugarmakers use more precise ways to tell when their syrup is done but these simple tests work for a small quantity. Finished syrup has sediment at the bottom of the container that looks like fine sand. It’s mostly calcium that’s perfectly fine to eat, but it can be filtered through cheese cloth to remove it. Refrigerate your precious syrup to prevent spoilage.
Commonly asked syruping questions:
Q. Will it hurt the tree? A. Only if the tree is overtapped. Only drill one hole in a 10” diameter tree. Up to three or four taps are fine in a massive maple.
Q. Do I plug the hole in the tree at the end of the season? A. Nope. Just pull out the spile. The tree will heal itself.
Q. How much syrup will one small tree with one tap produce? A. It all depends on the weather. During a long season a small tree could yield up to a half gallon of syrup, but during a short season it might yield only a cup or two. The long term average is about one quart of syrup per tap.
Sources of Syruping Equipment and Information
Simply Google Maple Syruping and the computer’s screen will be filled with places to buy equipment and information on how to tap trees and make syrup. One of our favorite sites is Tap My Trees.
Winding Pathways urges people to go outside and have fun. Few backyard activities are as fun as making a batch of maple syrup from your own tree.