Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sunlight and Maple Syrup

Yep, I was wrong. In my last post, I downplayed the effect that Daylight Savings Time would have on me, because I work late and it's usually getting dark by the time I drive home. Except that it is downright invigorating not to walk out to the parking lot and drive home in the pitch dark, and sometimes I even get home with enough time for a walk before night falls. It's really fantastic.

I was also wrong to think that spring would come in a pleasant stepwise fashion. I've lived in New England and the Northeast long enough to know that spring is an ephemeral season, ever changing and predictable only in its unpredictability. We can generally depend on the ski areas staying open into the middle of April and the ground to be warm enough for planting tomatoes on Memorial Day, but anything can and typically does happen between March 20th and June 21st - wintry mix, floods, ice storms, 70-degree weather, weeks of continuous rain (or so it seems), mud season, black flies and maple syrup. Case in point - it was so warm that I didn't wear socks this past Friday, and yesterday it snowed five inches.

This weekend, the extra daylight was much appreciated as we hosted our second annual maple sugaring party. This party is actually just a ruse to coerce our friends and family into hanging out with us as we stand around all day waiting for maple sap to boil down into maple syrup. And it does take ALL DAY to boil down maple syrup - we figure it takes about 12 hours for us to boil down 20 gallons of sap into a half gallon of syrup. (For you math fiends out there, the ratio is 40 gallons of sap yielding 1 gallon of syrup - or 39 gallons of water that need to be turned into steam.) Commercial maple producers and serious hobbyists have specialized equipment to move the process along faster and are substantially more efficient. We have an abundance of scrap wood and free time, so we boil in a big pot over an open fire.

We got a late start this year on the boiling, so even though we stayed out until the sun went down (and much later into the full moon night), we ended up finishing the syrup the next day. It was a beautiful thing - sweet-smelling, amber-hued maple syrup on a Sunday morning. We're storing the jars of syrup in the fridge until we can distribute it to our partygoers.

The sweetest part of springtime - maple syrup
The non-linear tendency of a New England spring may be morally trying and spiritually disheartening, but it's great for maple syrup producers. Maple sap runs and is extracted by maple syrup producers when temperatures get below freezing at night and about 40 degrees during the day and before the trees bud out - not exactly the balmy springtime weather we might wish for. However, if we had ever-improving weather during springtime, the trees would bud out quickly and the maple syrup season would be short indeed. But with the on-again, off-again nature of the weather, there's usually around 6 weeks of maple sugaring season starting sometime in late February and ending sometime in late March or early April.

Stay tuned for the results of this upcoming weekend's maple sugar boil... we're hoping to have another 20 gallons to boil down.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Are We Really Saving Daylight?

This morning, I woke up late. The sky was overcast and the cat was not as insistent as usual about getting me out of bed, so I stayed in bed a lot longer than I might have. Plus, the clocks jumped ahead at 2 am, placing us squarely back into the time warp of Daylight Savings Time.

To me, Daylight Savings Time means a shift in "the day" (as in the workday) to start a little darker and end a little lighter. In my case, it's going to be just getting light outside when I get up for work and just getting dark when I leave work... until the days get longer, I'm still going to be spending the daylight hours indoors. So, there's really no "saving" of the daylight right now; the days are still too short for that.

I'll be more thankful for Daylight Savings Time once summer comes and the sun stays out long enough to enjoy an evening meal without electric lights. For the time being, I will settle for the cheery fluorescent glow from the lights over my seed-starting trays. These lights run about 14 hours a day (thank goodness that fluorescent bulbs are energy-efficient) to trick the baby plants into thinking that they are in a greenhouse and not an unfinished attic loft space.

I tried a new seed-starting medium this year, which I do not like very much, and so I will recommend using Pro-Mix, which I wish I had used instead. I have sets of black plastic 4-packs reused from last year, sitting in black plastic trays - I prefer the 4-packs to the 6-packs so that there is more space for roots to grow. Because this is the second year I'm using these trays, I washed and sanitized them to protect against any plant diseases - thanks to Minnesota Cooperative Extension for that advice. Later this spring, when the plants in the first four trays are big enough, they will go on the front porch, and I will plant more seedlings, trying out this trick to make seed-starting pots from newspaper.

Germination has been a little slow so far, because our house temperature is a little cold, but I'm not in a terrible rush. Even with a week of rainy, warm weather, we still have 2 feet of snow on the ground.

This is what 3-day old broccoli seedlings look like. It's really interesting that my mustard family plants all germinated first - Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower are very cold-hardy, even in seed form apparently. These will be some of the first plants to go in the ground this spring.