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Urban Sugaring and Knowing Your Neighbors

Author Joanne Garton and her son tap a sugar maple in Montpelier this past March. Photo by Michael Moore.
By Joanne Garton

While I love the beauty of the forest, I value living downtown. But it seems that without much land — and no forest to speak of — I’m missing out on one step of our region’s waltz into spring: sugaring. As an urban woman landowner of just five lovely trees on shared land, this was my year to skip the trip to the big sugarhouse and join the sugaring club from my own yard. With a handful of taps and some friendly advice from rural neighbors (don’t boil inside!), I drilled into our two sugar maple trees, hung buckets, and began peering expectantly under the lids, waiting for the drip I had heard would come. 

Originally attributed to Indigenous communities of the region including the Abenaki people of Wabanahkik, the practice of tapping maples, collecting sap, and boiling it into syrup or sugar is thousands of years old. Read Alexander Cotnoir’s article “Sugaring in Wabanahkik: An Abenaki History of Maple” at vt.audubon.org to dig deeper into the many ways people, particularly women throughout the region, have known maple trees and their sap.

For many Vermonters sugaring is a family affair, an income stream, and even a full-time business. Caitlin Cusack, co-owner of Little Hogback Farm, noted that sap collection and boiling is only part of a sugar maker’s year: selling wares at farmers market spans May to October, while November, December, and January lend themselves to repairs and inventory. Not confined to one continuous season, tree sap runs sporadically now, beginning in February and stopping sometime in April. 

“Each sugaring season is different,” said Cusack. “We’ve boiled in blizzards, but today it’s going to be 50 and sunny. This year, it’s been a prolonged start-and-stop. In the past, it’s been fast and furious.” With a laugh, she added “It can be anxiety-provoking and exciting!”

As a downtown resident with less than a quarter acre of land in shared ownership with neighbors, tapping would be confined to two trees and boiling limited to the small stack of firewood stored in the garage. I hung two buckets on one large sugar maple that grows twisted and gnarled in the backyard, bravely overhanging parts of the house. Its broken cables and amputated limbs tell a long history of this ever-changing property, dating prior to house construction in 1904. The second pair of buckets graced the other sugar maple on the property, a tree that sprouts haphazardly each year, seemingly throwing crossed branches left, right, and center to eke out as much sunlight as possible. Sandwiched between our driveway and the neighbor’s porch, I figured its life would be too tough, its soil too compacted, and its crown too damaged to have reliable sap flow … but I’d hang a few buckets anyway.

In just a few weeks, I learned that the backyard giant was often dry, its vigor waning and the flow of its sap slow. The tree told me that just holding its form another year is enough work for now. But the sap flow of the rough and ready maple tree a stone’s throw from the street amazed me. It was a veritable fountain of clear and sweet water. I marveled at the trees … and told everyone else about them, spending more time socializing than staying committed to my harvest. Folks wanted to talk about trees and sap, and as the local sugar makers said would happen, I fell into the undeniable truth that with sugaring comes company.

A DIY maple sugar boiling set up. Photo by Joanne Garton.
Over the next week, my family and I emptied buckets of sap into 5-gallon containers, storing them in snow banks until the following weekend when it was time to boil our 18 gallons or so. With a small fire ring from Aubuchons and a few roasting pans (so black with soot now they will never see the inside of our kitchen), we enjoyed our Saturday in the backyard, restocking the fire by gingerly removing the pans and grate, stacking in wood, and putting the entire system back together again. When the sap seemed close to syrup — and we took no specific data on this — we finished the last stages of the boil inside where we could control the temperature and avoid burning it all. And then, we had syrup, maybe a quart or so. The sap kept coming, and with more firewood, free Saturdays, and tenacity, we could certainly have boiled again.

So while my syrup tastes smokey and the remaining 35 gallons of sap went to a friend with a sugarhouse (with plenty of space for socializing, I might add), I’m delighted with this season’s bounty. I learned that sugaring has deep roots, that the trees have complex pasts and presents, and that I have my own capacity to know the land where I live with greater intimacy. Will I upgrade to more taps and bigger fires next year? Maybe. But I hope it doesn’t take time away from talking with my neighbors.