Organic Gardening
Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

Growing Winter Lettuce

Cultivating winter lettuce in the hoophouse. Photo by McCune Porter 

Sowing Lettuce in September

We transplant a lot of lettuce - our annual series of sowings runs to number 46 on 9/27. (The last few sowings are “insurance plantings” in case something goes wrong with an earlier planting.) From 9/1-9/21 we sow head lettuce every 2 days. The rate of growth slows down when the weather cools, and the harvest dates of those September sowings will spread out. They feed us through winter, if we protect them from the cold. We used to grow lettuce outdoors in winter under double rowcover, before we got our hoophouse. It stayed alive, but we didn’t get harvests very often. Rowcover keeps the lettuce 4–6 degrees F (2.2–3.3 degrees C) warmer, depending on the thickness. Lettuce survives an occasional dip to 10°F (–12°C) with good rowcover outdoors — but not 8°F (–13°C), I know!

Half-grown lettuces are more cold-hardy than full-sized plants. Small and medium-sized plants of Marvel of Four Seasons, Rouge d’Hiver, Winter Density, and Tango can take 15F (-9.5C). I’ve seen some small unprotected lettuces survive down to 5F (-15C): Winter Marvel, Tango, North Pole, Green Forest. Other particularly cold-hardy lettuce varieties include Brune d’Hiver, Cocarde, Esmeralda (a bibb), Lollo Rossa, North Pole (bibb), Outredgeous, Rossimo, Sunfire and Vulcan.

From 9/1-9/7, we use cold-hardy varieties for planting in cold frames in central Virginia: Green Forest, Hyper Red Wave, Merlot, Midnight Ruffles, New Red Fire, Oscarde, Panisse, Pablo, Red Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl, Winter Marvel (a Bibb) and Winter Wonderland (Romaine). Pablo is a hold-over from the summer Batavian lettuces - heat-tolerant varieties also tolerate cold. There are also specialized cold-hardy varieties that do not tolerate heat (because they have a relatively low water content). Sow these in fall and winter only.

This year we had cutworms eating our outdoor lettuce seed bed in August and September. We sowed (and resowed on 9/16) some outdoor baby lettuce mix to play catch-up and help feed us salads until the hoophouse lettuce were ready. Our lettuce mix was ready to cut on day 35 after sowing. We had a warm spell, which helped them grow faster. Because we usually only grow lettuce mix in our winter hoophouse and hadn’t planned to sow the mix outdoors, we didn’t have enough ready-made lettuce mix seed. I made our own mix of seasonally appropriate leftover fall varieties that we wouldn’t need for the second hoophouse sowing on 9/24.

The lettuce sowings from 9/8 to 9/17 get transplanted in our (unheated) greenhouse. During the winter we harvest lettuce by the leaf, rather than cutting heads. We don’t grow butterhead lettuce (bibbs) after the end of August. The green and red salad bowl varieties do well in the greenhouse and the hoophouse, although they are not cold-hardy enough for growing outdoors here. We use Green Forest, Hyper Red Wave, Kalura, Merlot, Midnight Ruffles, New Red Fire, Oscarde, Panisse, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Salad Bowl, Tango and Winter Wonderland for the greenhouse.

For the hoophouse winter lettuce, we sow outdoors on 9/15 and 9/24 to transplant inside. We like the Osborne multileaf lettuce types (Multigreen 57, Multired 4, Multired 54), Green Forest, Hyper Red Wave, Merlot, Oscarde, Panisse, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Tango, Red Salad Bowl, Outrageous, Salad Bowl, Winter Wonderland Romaine.


Young Green Forest lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Sowing Lettuce in October

In October our lettuce planting moves indoors, while our lettuce harvesting is straddling outdoors and indoors. On 10/15 we transplant the first outdoor sowing (9/15) into the hoophouse, about 230 plants at 10″ spacing in 4 rows in a 48 ft length of bed (half the length of our hoophouse). We expect to harvest leaves from these from 11/16 all the way to 3/1. On 10/25 we transplant our 9/24 sowing, a similar sized planting. We hope to harvest from these from December to mid-April. We plan to start harvesting our outdoor lettuce heads from 4/15.

On 10/24 we sow our first baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse. For those unfamiliar with lettuce mix, this is a cut-and-come-again crop. We like Fedco’s 2981LO Lettuce Mix OG or Johnny’s Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix #2310. For those with challenging growing conditions, both companies offer other specialized selected mixes. 1 oz of seed sows about 600 ft, 

Here’s how we grow baby lettuce mix:  we sow 10 rows 4.5 inches apart in a 4 ft bed. That will give us a lot of lettuce! We weed and thin to 1″ as soon as we can see the seedlings well enough to do so. When the plants are 3-4″ tall, we cut them about an inch above the soil, using large scissors or shears. I gather a small handful with my left hand, cut with my right. After putting the harvested leaves in a crate or bucket, I weed the just-cut area so that there won’t be weeds in the next cut. I have also read the recommendation to rake over the rows after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it.

We’ll get our first cut somewhere in the 12/5-12/22 range and might even get as many as 8 cuts during the winter. It will get bitter and need to be pulled 2/26-3/15. We’ll have some later sowings to take over before that happens.

We also sow some “lettuce filler” in our hoophouse. This is a small area of a few crosswise rows of the varieties we have sown to grow full-size. We’ll use the fillers to replace casualties, or if we don’t have any casualties, we ‘ll cut it as baby lettuce like our intentional baby lettuce mix.


Red Salad Bowl lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire 

Harvesting Lettuce in November and December

I have written blogposts about growing lettuce in October, September, August, July, June and May. Around 11/23 we waited out a cold snap (19F/-7C) until a mild spell so we could uncover the last outdoor lettuce beds and finish harvesting them.

In November we switch to harvesting winter salad mixes, no more big bowls just of lettuce. We use leaves from the outdoor lettuce, the outdoor lettuce mix, or leaves from the lettuce in the greenhouse, according to whatever is most ready. We chop the lettuce up as we harvest. I start with about half of the harvest bucket full of chopped lettuce. I notice that it takes 3 half-buckets of harvested greens to fill one bucket! The greens settle, and when mixed they take less space than they started out using.

Lettuce varieties we harvest in November include Green Forest, Hyper Red Wave, Merlot, new Red Fire, Oscarde, Panisse, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Salad Bowl, Star Fighter, Tango, Winter Marvel and Winter Wonderland. Last winter we grew some Osborne Multileaf varieties we liked a lot. This fall I learned the hard way that pelleted seed doesn’t store well. See Johnnys Seeds JSS Advantage Newsletter January 2012: “Some seeds, particularly lettuce, are primed before pelleting, which begins the metabolic process leading to germination. Because some of the early steps toward germination are completed before the seed is planted, germination happens more quickly. Germination times can be 50% faster with primed seed. When seeds germinate quickly, they may avoid potential problems including soil crusting, weeds, and soil-borne diseases. On the down side, primed seed doesn’t have the same storage life as unprimed seeds, so we recommend that you purchase only enough for the current season.”

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at, Pam's blog is on her website and also on

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Preparing Fruit Trees for Winter

You’ve pruned your fruit trees in early spring then harvested fruit through the summer and autumn. Before heading into the warm indoors, take time to prepare your fruit trees for winter. This includes giving them protection from cold temperatures, rodents, infections and even the sun. The following three steps will help insure healthy trees for your next year’s harvest:

Mulching fruit trees with a thick layer of organic material will protect the roots from severe cold weather. Because fruit trees naturally grow by the edge of forests where the soil is littered with branches and leaves, similar high-carbon mulch is best. Wood chips, straw and leaves are usually most available and will protect the trees’ roots during winter. As this mulch decomposes the following spring, it gives soil a slightly acidic pH that fruit trees require for their best growth.


Wood-chips are a valuable source of high-carbon mulch and minerals. The highest in minerals are small branches not more than 2.5” in diameter. One source of these branches is from springtime pruning. Additionally, if tree trimmers are clearing electrical lines in your vicinity, ask them to dump loads of chips at your house. It may be a chore to transport them from driveway to orchard, but worth the effort any time of the year.

Straw is also a valuable source of high carbon mulch. Unlike hay, it is an excellent insulator because it has hollow stems which hold air. Always be sure the straw you use hasn’t been “dried down” with Roundup. You don’t want to mulch your trees with an herbicide that has also been patented as an antibiotic. We want the soil surrounding our fruit trees to be vibrant with microbes!

Leaves are a wonderful addition because the roots of trees transfer minerals from deep in the soil to their leaves. By enriching fruit trees’ soil with minerals, we are fortifying their immune systems from disease and increasing the nutrition of their fruit. At our house, we chop and gather autumn leaves with the lawn mower and then stack them thickly around our fruit trees.

Compost can also serve as mulch for fruit trees, but additional carbon should be added to standard compost used for vegetable gardens. Adding “brown” material like wood-chips, straw and leaves, gives compost the balance fruit trees need.

Three caveats regarding mulching fruit trees:

1. Mulch should be placed at least six to eight inches deep to protect the trees’ roots during cold winter months.

2. Mulch should be placed out to the drip line of each tree. If we picture each tree’s branches as an open umbrella, the “drip line” becomes evident.

3. Keep mulch at least six inches away from the trees’ trunks. Mice and voles find mulch an excellent winter home, and you want to discourage them from damaging the tree’s bark.

All this mulching also gives you a head-start next spring when it will reduce competition from weeds and grass as well as preserve moisture for the trees’ roots.

Protecting fruit trees’ trunks is especially important in winter for two very different reasons. The first was mentioned above—rodents and rabbits love to chew on tree-trunk bark which can kill fruit trees. Besides keeping mulch a distance from the trunks, young trees need the extra protection of tree guards. I’ve found the easiest tree guards to use are the white, spiral variety sold through tree nurseries and online. Not only can I put them on without damaging the bark, but if I forget to take them off, they expand as the tree grows. Rodents can’t chew through the plastic guards, so that problem is solved.

White tree guards also solve the second winter problem to fruit tree trunks—sun scald. Sunny winter days heat up the dark fruit tree trunks which then cool rapidly in the evening. These swings in temperature cause expansion and contraction of the bark which result in it cracking and peeling. Fruit tree trunks thus become more susceptible to insect damage and disease.

white tree guard

White latex paint can be used instead of tree guards to prevent wintertime’s rodent and sun damage. White paint reflects back the winter sun and prevents the bark from warming and thus avoids cracking and peeling of the trunk’s bark. Interestingly, white latex paint also discourages rodents, rabbits and insects. It can either be diluted to ½-strength with water or used full strength. At our homestead, we place the tree guards on trees for their most susceptible first couple years and then use white latex paint on their lower trunks as the fruit trees mature.

Remove dead fruit to prevent fungal infections. There are usually some desiccated fruit remaining on fruit trees and the ground every autumn and early winter. This old fruit provides breeding ground for fungal pathogens. Balance can be tipped to the “good fungi” by removing all dead fruit from the vicinity of fruit trees. This helps the trees’ natural immunity withstand disease without using chemicals. At our homestead, old fruit is placed in a young compost pile where pathogens will be destroyed during the natural heat of the composting process. We never use fungicides because fungi are essential for delivering the soil’s nutrients to the food we eat.

Mulching around fruit trees, protecting their trunks and removing old fruit are three important measures to insure healthy fruit trees the following spring.

Photos by Mary Lou Shaw. Mary Lou, a retired physician, homesteads with her husband in Ohio where they grow most of the food they eat. Mary Lou's book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Why Growing Your Own Food Matters More Now Than Ever

The Protectors of Industries

The Protectors of our Industries by Bernard Gillam (1883)

Don't believe the hype. The mess we’re in is bigger than any one politician's promises. The policies of both ruling political parties and the concept of an American Dream are based on the fallacy of an infinite supply of cheap energy. The way out is to cut defense spending by 50 percent or print $500 billion more dollars a year for 30 years to pay for infrastructure upgrades, renewable energy, education, health and the general welfare of all the citizens of the country.

And stop selling weapons all over the planet. That ain't gonna happen. Congressional gridlock prevails over a populace suffering from nature-deficit disorder while climate change is rapidly changing our options for food production.

The need to learn how to grow your own food, live in a like-minded community, and develop the self-reliant skills Mother Earth News has taught since 1970 has never been greater and I’ll explain why I say this, below.

History Lesson

The wealth extracted from us during the last 40 years is gone, sitting in protected off-shore accounts, built into mansions on tropical islands and in towns like Aspen, Colorado. The 401K scam was set up so Wall Street could get our money and they use it to finance factories and operations in Mexico and Asia to outsource our jobs so their profits would rise.

The graphic above titled The Protectors of our Industries by Bernard Gillam was published in 1883 and shows the captains of industry at the time being carried on the backs of the rest of the country. The rich got richer. The poor got poorer. We’re in the same boat 100 years later.

The Ronald Reagan dream of living in the Information Age with a service economy is coming to an end and is turning into a nightmare. Uber, self driving cars, and the next smart phone app are not going to save the economy or the nation.

Mother Earth News was founded by back to the landers from the Woodstock generation who were a product of the turbulent 60's when churches were blown up and cities burned in this country while peasants were massacred for oil in Vietnam. It sounds like Deja View all over again, doesn’t it?

Is it 1969 All Over Again?

An interesting piece of history going back to that time was an exchange between two factions of the back to the land movement.  The Whole Earth Catalog was the paper version of the Internet back when ditto machines ruled before the invention of the Xerox machine.  They couldn't print enough catalogs. It was a reference guide for access to tools, knowledge and the wisdom needed on the utilitarian and spiritual journey back to the garden. MOTHER EARTH NEWS was the monthly how to for the movement. The Whole Earth Catalog editors also began a publication called Coevolution Quarterly.

In the summer of 1976, the CQ editors asked the founder of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, John Shuttleworth, if he could recommend CQ to his readers. He replied that "CQ is nothing but 1969 endlessly replayed." My opinion is that the two political parties ruling this country have not progressed since the 1968 Democratic Convention and the trials of the Chicago Seven. The events we see taking place today remind me of 1969.

Coevolution Quarterly comments

The interesting thing is that the first three articles in the Fall 1976 CQ magazine sound like they could have been written today by the current sustainability and back to the land movers and shakers. They were titled:

From Present to Future by Herman Khan et. al.

The Shift from a Market Economy to a Household Economy by Scott Burns

Future Primitive by Raymond Dasmann

Also interesting is that MOTHER EARTH NEWS continues its fine tradition of publishing the same variety of information it did 40 years ago. I’ll bring two stories to the table. One is based on history, the other is based on numbers.

The Fourth Turning

The ebb and flow of history, the rise and fall of empires, are a familiar themes. The Greeks, the Romans, and recently, a couple of historians named Strauss and Howe have studied the characteristics of generational cycles (20 years) to explain the similarities between political and economic systems that have affected our ancestors. These generational characteristics have distinct psychological profiles and repeat over time. The alignment of these generations has been matched to the great highs and lows in our history.

Strauss and Howe published their book The Fourth Turning in 1997. They predicted that according to the characteristics of generational cycles, there would be an economic disruption in 2008. They were 100 percent correct. So pay attention. They predict that we are approaching a Fourth Turning, a time of immense stress and change. By 2024, they predict that the United States has only a 50-percent chance of surviving intact.

Get the picture?

The Math of Energy and EROI

Now for the numbers. What is EROI? In the oil patch it’s known as "Energy Returned on Energy Invested." It is the ratio of the amount of usable energy delivered from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy used to obtain that energy resource.

As can be seen in a novel presentation prepared by the Hills Group we are close to the half way or break even point where the amount we get out of a barrel of oil equals the amount it took to find, refine, and transport the oil we use. This presentation has four of the best graphs I’ve seen. It is a little wonky at times but the math is simple. It’s a 45-minute listen, so find a time to take it all in.

EROI Graph

Photo still from YouTube video on SRSrocco

The point of the presentation is the effect on the economy. When the energy available in a barrel of oil equals the energy costs of exploration, extraction, processing and distributing, the entire system breaks down economically. Production and processing stop. There is no product to distribute. There is no gas for you car. The economy collapses — worldwide! Carbon emissions cease. Global warming emissions end. At the current rate, the projection is that this will occur by 2022.

I ask the question: Will carbon emissions end in 2022?


We face total collapse, according to Strauss and Howe or the EROI gurus. You tell me. Do you want to take a chance? Considering the recent election, Hunter S. Thompson, in consideration of an upcoming election once said, "All we have to do is get out and vote, while it's still legal, and we will wash those crooked warmongers out of the White House." It did not happen in the election of 2016. The status quo is baked in. But we will survive. Change will come. 

The Gambler said, “you gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away when the dealings done.” The dealings done folks. It’s time to ante up. You may be living according to Plan A but you better have a plan B and learn to float like a leaf in the river. This is why I say growing your own food matters more now than ever. This is not bad news. This is just data. Where do you want to be in six, eight or 10 years? Find it and move.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, addresses the changes that are to come with this advice to a young activist; My friends, do not lose heart.We were made for these times."

One of the best solutions to the problems and the times we face has been proposed by the Transition Towns movement. Their goal is to to build community resilience in the face of challenges such as peak oil (EROI), climate change and the economic crisis. Find your Lake Wobegone and move to a place where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.  You are gathering the tools you will need to make the trip back to nature.

Some of you have all the tools and you’re getting ready to pass then on to your kids and grandkids. Some of you are just beginning. Enjoy the ride. We have.


Coevolution Quarterly, Issue No. 11, September 1976.
Steve St. Angelo (SRSrocco Report)
The Hills Group (2013). Depletion: A determination for the world'spetroleum reserve. Study overview.

Dr. Clarissa Estes

Toby Grotz is an electrical engineer who has been involved on both sides of the energy equation: exploring for oil and gas and geothermal resources and in the utility industry working in coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. He has been a community garden advocate and organizer ever since. Recent projects include lecturing for the Food Not Lawns classes sponsored by the University of Missouri, Kansas City Communiversity. He is a member of the Sierra Club and past officer of the Kanza Group. Read all of Toby's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Operation Aphid: Combating the Garden Pest

Aphids On A Plant Stem

Photo by Andreas Eichler

The aphid. The name hardly conjures images of destruction, but that’s exactly what these little pests do best. A longtime scourge of gardeners and farmers alike, these sap-sucking insects thrive in temperate regions and multiply very quickly if not controlled.

Luckily, reducing and eliminating aphid populations is manageable and can be done quickly and inexpensively with products found around the house.

Aphids are very small in size and may escape detection by the naked eye. Color will vary depending on the species, but they all share a pear-shaped body with two antennae-like tubes protruding from the rear.

In search of plant juices, aphids will attack all parts of a plant, causing the plant to lose nutritive sap. In some cases, aphids may transmit harmful viruses to the plant.

In general, aphids prefer new growth and the underside of leaves. Look out for the following telltale signs of aphid activity.

Spotting Aphids

Leaf curl. Aphids will attack the underside of a leaf, causing it to yellow, wilt and curl inwards. Check the underside of a curled leaf and you may find an aphid hiding spot.    

Sticky leaves and stem. Honeydew is a sticky, fluid-like byproduct of aphid feeding. It clogs leaf surfaces and can also attract ants.

Black leaves. The growth of a black mold on honeydew is known as sooty mold. The mold greatly decreases a plant’s appearance and inhibits its ability to absorb sunlight.

Increase in ant population. As mentioned above, honeydew attracts ants, which in turn will protect aphids from their natural predators.

Distorted flowers and fruit. Flower buds and fruit that have been attacked by aphids may have a distorted and stunted appearance.

Many plant species can withstand a minor aphid infestation; however, a more severe infestation can greatly impact your plant’s ability to grow and flourish. In cases where the root has been attacked, the plant may shrivel and die.   

Getting Rid of Aphids Quickly and Easily

Like most maladies, early detection and treatment can be instrumental in warding off a more serious infestation. Here are a few quick and simple methods you can try using products from your own home.    

Dish soap and water. A simple dish soap diluted in water works wonders as an insecticide. Dilute two tablespoons of dish soap in one gallon of water. Stir and transfer to a spray bottle. Before you begin treatment, spot test the soapy solution on a small area of the plant and wait a few hours. If the plant shows signs of damage, your solution may be too strong.

When spraying an affected plant, be sure to spray both sides of the leaves, as well as any fallen aphids you may see. Upon contact, the soap solution will disrupt cell membranes and dissolve any exterior protective waxes that cover the aphid, resulting in dehydration and death.   

Make sure to rinse the plant with water after treatment. Sunlight will react with any residual soap solution and may cause a chemical burn (for this reason it’s recommended spraying in the early evening, as the plant won’t be exposed to much further sunlight). Repeat treatment every few days until aphid population is under control.

Lemon spray. This natural solution kills aphids on contact. Simply zest a couple of lemons into a pot filled with enough water to fill a spray bottle. Boil the mixture for 10 minutes then let sit overnight. Transfer the mixture to your spray bottle and begin the treatment.  

Yellow bowl. A more passive and less invasive approach, this trick takes advantage of the aphid’s attraction to the color yellow. Simply fill a plastic yellow bowl with water and place it amongst the affected plants. The aphids will climb into the bowl and drown.

Striking a Balance

When treating your garden for pests, it’s important to keep in mind that you are altering the balance of an ecosystem. Many plant species are able to withstand minor aphid populations, and beneficial insects such as ladybird beetles and green lacewing larvae will help keep aphid numbers in check.

However, when you believe aphid activity is beginning to have an adverse affect on your garden, it’s best to employ minimally invasive tactics that won’t harm the general biodiversity of your garden. There are many products available at your local hydro store that combat aphids, but many growers prefer a DIY approach like the ones above if the infestation is caught early on. While they’re not the only ways to get rid of aphids, they’re a good, fast and inexpensive start.

Bryan Traficante co-founded GardenInMinutes in 2013, turning a passion for home gardening and innovation into a family-owned venture to make starting a quality garden, easier. Bryan and his family invented the Garden Grid watering system which combines square-foot planting principles with ground-level adjustable irrigation and no complicated assembly. They also craft tool-free, modular cedar garden beds and provide time saving gardening insights on their blog and social media pages. Find Bryan and GardenInMinutes on Facebook and Twitter.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Tapping Maple Trees Using Natural Sumac Spiles, Part 2


Part 1 outlined the beginning steps to tapping maple and birch trees using natural sumac taps, including how to make sumac taps and how and when to tap the tree. This post will tell you what to do with your sap to boil it down into maple syrup.

What to Do with Maple Sap

We usually start boiling down sap when we get at least 7 to 10 gallons of sap. Note: It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. If you don’t have enough sap to start boiling, you can freeze the sap until you have enough to boil. Boiling should be done outside, because it can cause sticky walls! We use a very basic/rustic pit fire. Never use propane — fumes can cause an “off” taste.

Some people are using the sap as a health drink and the birch sap is also being used in the making of beer. This is where you can “tap” into another market. We have an order for our sap to be used by a brewery this winter. We also have our bottled "sap" water. In the state of North Carolina, it is suggested to have samples of your proposed "sap" water tested before selling to market.

DSCN0708 800x600

The Boiling Down Process

Time and temp. With the maple or birch sap, you do want a hot and rapidly boiling fire. You want to burn off the water content to get to the “sugar." Boiling 7 to 10 gallons of sap can take up to 10 or 12 hours. This depends on the water content. Although you don’t have to use Sugar Maples, they do contain less water and more “sugar”.

Container and heat source. Always boil in stainless steel containers. We use stockpots. We have containers we only use for this purpose because the bottoms get blackened. You either want to have your fire under cover (lean-to shed) or do this on a clear day. You can boil on an electric burner but, it can be expensive and the burner needs to heat enough to be a rapid boil.

Skimming "niter." When boiling, you will see a grayish foam ("niter") collect on top — skim this off. You can set up a makeshift table to have your stainless steel skimmer and a bowl of water. When skimming off the niter, rinse the skimmer in the bowl of water — otherwise you’ll be putting niter back into the pot. This niter is very bitter and will cause your syrup to have an “off” taste if not removed.

My grandmother use to say, “that tastes as bitter as niter." This is also referred to as “sugar sand."

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Maple Syrup

When the sap has boiled down to an amber/dark liquid, you can now take this inside to finish off. It won’t take much longer to finish into syrup now. Take inside and put on medium-high and boil.

It will be like making candy. It will start to froth and may try to boil over, so stir down. When you see “frog eggs”, or tiny bubbles, you know it’s getting close to being finished. It will do like jelly and “sheet” off the spoon. When you reach that point, get ready to strain and bottle.

Do not use coffee filters to strain syrup. You can use linen or cheese cloth while the syrup is very hot — as it cools, it will be harder to strain.

Caution: Don’t pour into glass bottles. If you have boiled too much, the syrup will crystallize and cause the glass to break. Especially if this is your first batch. We let the syrup cool for a short period and then pour into “honey bear” jars.

How can you tell if you haven’t boiled enough? You can test your syrup by putting it in the freezer. If it freezes, there is too much water left in the syrup. You could re-boil or keep refrigerated until used up. A perfect product stays liquid in the freezer.

Ending the Flow

The tree will let you know when the flow is over. Sap will decrease of course. The sap you are getting will be cloudy and this is the way the tree says STOP. It’s time for leaf buds to begin and the tree needs her energy. We stop sapping by the first week in March. Remove the sumac taps and allow the tree to heal.

Good luck with a new farm/homestead project!

Susan Tipton-Fox uses continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Tapping Maple Trees Using Natural Sumac Spiles, Part 1


Being a sustainable farm first, most of the projects we try are for our needs and then we think about how we can offer the product or idea to the public. Most of the time we will use it in an on-farm workshop or use it in a demonstration for a Mother Earth News Fair event. Such was the case with our Maple Syrup project.

Living on this property, I had passed two huge maple trees (one was a sugar maple, the other was not) day in and day out. I often wondered how could they be utilized — they were so big and bold and there!

I thought about making homemade maple syrup. I knew there was a lot of equipment and expense associated with this process. I also didn’t want those tap lines running all over the place. That’s when I went back to my roots. I knew maple syrup was made here (Western North Carolina) years ago, and there wasn’t all that fancy equipment that’s available today.

So, how could we do this in an economical, environmentally friendly and productive way? This is where the idea of Agri-tourism gets “sweeter”.

How to Tap Maple and Birch trees Using Natural Sumac Taps

Select the tree or trees you will be using. You can use maple, birch and others. These are the two we are familiar with. The tree needs to be at least 10 inches in diameter for 1 tap (spile). If the tree is larger, you can use two taps. We’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now. We tap depending on our needs and market. Sometimes we tap as many as seven trees.

You might say how can I develop this into a money making project for my farm? We have taken this idea and now do on-farm workshops through our local Community College. Again, this is an idea you could use to grow Agritourism for your farm. You could host an event where you could show tapping and boiling. You could offer syrup for sale. You could offer pancake and home-made syrup breakfasts. Let your visitors help in the boiling. All kinds of ideas! You might even want to develop into a commercial product.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension Agency and find out if they have a Certified Commercial kitchen equipped with “boiling” pans. You could rent kitchen time/equipment for a small fee. If you’re looking to go commercial there are grants out there that cover Non-Traditonal Forest Products (NTFP) — of which Maple tapping is one.

Making the Taps

We learned to make the taps from the (Staghorn) Sumac shrub. For this, we reached into our Native American Heritage. You could also use elderberry — anything with a pith. You can cut these pieces (approx. 3-4 inches long) and should have an opening end about ¾ inch wide and a tapered end 3/8 inch that goes into the tree.

You can heat a metal skewer or coat hanger (we do this when we have a wood fire going) and run it through the center of the tap to remove the pith — it will smoke as it burns through because Sumac is somewhat sticky. Run through several times until you can see it opening up. When you’re finished, run water through it to make sure it has opened up all the way through — this also cleans it out. I recommend letting the taps dry out a few days before using.

How and When to Tap the Tree

The “When” of it usually depends on your location and your weather. Since we are located in Western North Carolina we usually (I said usually) start about Jan. 25th. What you want to look for is when temperatures start dropping to 32 (or below) degrees at night and day temperatures are at least 36 (and above) degrees. What happens is that this drives the “flow” like a pump!

The “how” to tap is to drill a hole. Yes, for this you will need a drill or auger. We use a drill bit size 7/16-½ inch. From the base of the tree, measure up anywhere from a few inches above ground to about 2 feet. Make sure there are no scars or growths above where you are going to drill for the taps.

People have asked can I drill in the same spot as last year? The answer is yes, but make sure it is drilled out again really good and debris cleaned out of the hole.

Drill in an upward slant about 1 ½ inches. You can mark your drill bit with tape so you’ll know when to stop. If possible, tap on the South side or where the sun hits mostly.

making maple syrup 95x128
Gently tap the spile (tap) in the tree after drilling the hole. You can use a rubber mallet for this. Make sure the hole is cleaned out or the sap may not start flowing. Note: If tapping Birch trees the flow starts later — sometimes March. You will want to do a hot and steady boil for birch, not rolling (it can burn).

Collecting the Sap

At this point you can attach the container to the tap. Use something to tie the container to the tree if you’re using a large container (or if it tends to be windy). We save milk jugs and mayonnaise (plastic) containers to use as our collection containers. This way you are re-cycling/re-using.

At the top of your containers, cut an “X” large enough to fit over the tap and the sap will drip into the container. When the flow just starts, you may only collect a quart per day from each tree. As it progresses, you may get up to 2 gallons of sap per tree per day.

The taps must be checked at least twice daily. To collect, I usually take a large stock pot to pour the sap into and then replace the container back on the tap. Some days you may need to transport your sap in a wagon, wheel barrow or 4 wheeler. Depends on how far you have to carry your sap.


Read Part 2 to learn what you can do with that sap you've collected. What other markets are available. Learn how to make maple syrup easily and economically!

Susan Tipton-Fox uses continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Step-by-Step Bokashi Composting Method: Fermentation, Compost Tea, and Finished Fertilizer

Fermenting Stage

At the beginning of the process, Bokashi composting is a fermentation process with the microorganisms working in a low oxygen environment. To use Bokashi composting systems, simply add the kitchen waste to the container and sprinkle with the bran.


Food and kitchen scraps to be composted.

You will want to press the waste down to push out the air, a potato masher works well for this, and replace the lid. Find out what waste can be composted with Bokashi in Part 1: Composting Meat, Fish and Dairy with the Bokashi Method.


Removing air from the composting container.

Continue to do this layering until the container is full. You do not need to have everything ready to fill the container at once, you can add to it over a few days or weeks depending on the amount of waste you generate. If you add to it weekly, you will notice that the volume will decrease as the materials ferment, partly due to the loss of water.


Bran covered waste which will start fermenting.

Bokashi Tea

The leached water and liquid produced  is known as Bokashi Juice or Bokashi Tea and should be drained off regularly like you would with a worm or vermicomposting system. The color of this tea will change depending what you have put in the container. I have had browns, oranges and even red when I put beets in there.

This liquid can be diluted down as a plant feed for houseplants, vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbaceous perennials in the garden. It can also be used neat to help prevent clogging of drains!

I placed 4 cups of Bokashi Tea in a 2-gallon watering can and used it all over my compost heap to get everything started up again. For general fruit and vegetable feeding, I use about 1 cup of Bokashi Tea to a 2 gallon watering can full of water.

You will want to leave the Bokashi to ferment for a week after the container is full. Make sure you keep draining any liquid coming off from the container.

Composting Stage

After a week or so has gone by, you should dig a hole or trench to bury the waste in the garden to allow the waste to be composted completely. If you don’t want to bury the waste you can add it to the compost heap to allow it to break down and this is the method I most often use.

If you are going to bury the waste, dig a hole in the compost heap:


Next, add in the contents of the container:


Cover the Bokashi waste with materials to be composted and water the whole heap. I like to water the heap with any Bokashi Tea in the container diluted in a watering can and also any rinse water from cleaning out the container.

I have found that in 7 days, the fermented waste is almost all composted and my compost heap is back in business decomposing and producing heat. If you use the trench or hole method, be sure to keep the roots of young plants away. The compost will be acidic but will neutralize over 7-10 days.  It is best to wait 2 weeks before planting on top of the trench.

If you have an established garden you could for example, dig a trench between trees or established bushes and place the fermented material in the trench to provide nutrients for them both. If you don’t have access to a compost heap or a garden to dig a hole into to bury the waste, you could try placing the waste in a large plant pot with some store-bought compost on top to cover up any potential smells and use that as your composting container.

Emma Raven has been gardening, cooking, canning and home brewing for most of her life. Formulation scientist, blogger, home brewer and avid gardener. Born in a village on the northern east coast of England, she now calls the Wasatch Mountains of Utah home. Find Emma at Misfit Gardening, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.