Making a DIY maple tap or stile from elderberry or sumac stems

We’re rapidly approaching the maple syrup season. Actually if it wasn’t for this cold snap we’d be gathering sap right now. It all depends on the weather,  cold nights with quickly warming morning stimulates sap flow.

Now that I reminded you of it, maybe you want to try making some maple syrup yourself this year. First you’ll have to collect maple sap and for that you’re going to need some equipment before you start. One very important piece of equipment is the stile, or tap. That’s the little doohickey that is used to funnel maple sap from the tree trunk to a pail or other collecting container.

Like so many other things that started out simple, a huge retail industry has developed around selling items for tapping maple trees. To hear them tell it, you can’t even get sap out of a maple tree without their products. People have been tapping trees and making maple syrup for centuries, How did they do it without access to modern day gadgets? Well, they made their own equipment using raw materials available in the environment around them.

If you hurry and ask for priority shipping, you may be able to order tree tapping stiles online and get them before the season ends. Or you can make your own.

You can easily carve a stile from an elderberry branch using tools you already have around the house. Sumac branches work just as well or perhaps even better than elderberry and may be easier to find in your neighborhood.

The hardest part of the whole process is finding the shrubs. Once you find a likely bush, take out your sharpened pruners and cut off a section of branch around a half an inch in diameter.  Freshly cut, green stems are relatively soft and very easy to work with.

Cut elderberry branches into sections three to four inch long.

This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.
This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.

Using a screw driver, hollow out stem by removing the soft pithy part running through  the center.

Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.
Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.
Work the screw driver  through the pith to form a hollow tube.
Work the screw driver through the pith to form a hollow tube.
Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.
Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.

For the next step, use a sharp pocket knife to whittle away one end to form a taper. This will be the end that goes into the tree.

A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.
A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.

Finally, make a slanted cut at the far end to form a spout. And that’s all there is to it. Your first stile will probably take several minutes to make but once you’ve done it, you’ll find the next one will be easier and can be finished in less than a couple of minutes.

Make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout.
To complete your stile, make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout. Shave off the bark f you want.

I’m not going to go though all the steps necessary to tap a tree and boil down sap into syrup but if you want to learn more, click here  to find an old publication that I posted several years ago describing the process from start to finish.

After the first year, you may find you’re interested in expanding your syrup making hobby, if that’s the case then by all means go online and start collecting  more sophisticated equipment for next year.

Bob

 

Checking stored flower bulbs

Several weeks ago I blogged about how I store dahlias. Did you keep some of yours too? If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to check on them to see how they’re doing. Serious dahlia growers begin planting their tubers in mid-March, in pots and in a greenhouse of course.

I opened mine up right after the polar vortex blew through a couple of weeks ago. They were in a spot that normally stays cool but never freezes. However, this fall I rearranged boxes and stuff in the garage. Without realizing it, doing that must have changed the airflow pattern and allowed cold air to settle in the spot where I stored my dahlia tubers. I didn’t have a thermometer in that area but I knew it got cold because the storage bags were partly frozen. That’s not a good sign.

They didn’t look too bad when I opened them up to take a peek, but some looked to be partly frozen. The outside layer of damp sawdust was lightly froze. Instead of warming the tubers up to thaw, I moved them to another more temperate part of the garage to slowly warm up. Today I finally brought them out to see how they were doing.

It's very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged.
It’s very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged. The one on the left was frozen.

As suspected, most of them were damaged beyond salvaging, I’m looking at about an eighty percent loss. The ones that survived look healthy though. I’ll re-pack the good ones in fresh sawdust and compost the rest.

I also had some elephant ears tubers in storage, those I kept in the pots that they grew in last summer. They look pretty good. I gave them a small amount of water whenever the soil looked really dry — maybe once every other week or so. In the spring I’ll knock them out of the pot, divide them and replant.

You can't see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.
You can’t see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.

Other large pots have cannas that I stored the same way as the elephant ears, right in the pots they grew. They got some water through the winter too but not as much as the elephant ears. I wanted to keep them a little on the dry side so they wouldn’t get water logged and rot. Remember, they are dormant and not growing so they don’t really need much water. On the other hand you don’t want them to dry out and shrivel up. It’s something you have to learn trough experience. I usually ere on the side of less water.

The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.
The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.

Unfortunately, we lost a large geranium to the cold. It was one that we’ve been saving and taking cutting from for years and years.  During the most recent warm-up, we set the potted plant out on the front porch and — you guessed it — forgot it was there and it froze overnight. There may be some dormant buds that survived, I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Bob

 

 

Forcing spring tree and bush branches

We’re getting an early taste of spring at our house by forcing branches into bloom. It’s something gardeners have done for centuries ever since someone figured out if you cut some branches and bring them into a warm room during the winter, they will bloom.

When I was in elementary school, forcing pussy willow branches in the classroom during the winter was a regular thing. Do they still do that?

Right now we have willow branches blooming that Judy cut a couple of weeks ago. They’re not the large-budded pussy willows but they are still attractive. They just happened to be the ones growing in our yard.

The color of our willow buds range from light pink to yellow, all on the same branch.

In addition to willows, just about any kind of spring-blooming tree or shrub will work including, forsythias, vernal witch hazel, most fruit trees and many others.

It’s fun to watch the buds slowly develop over time.

In its simplest form , all you really do is cut off some branches and stick them in some water. You can improve the odds of getting better blooms by choosing branches that have more closely spaced buds — more buds means more flowers. Branches that are thicker than the average on the plant, work best too since they contain more of the nutrients the buds need to open and grow.

Cut the branches you want to force two to three feet long for best results. Once cut, remove all buds and side twigs that would be under water in your vase or other container.

Sometimes making a slit at the bottom of the stem will help it take up water more easily. Branches from lilacs and possibly other plants benefit from being lightly crushed at the bottom, best tool for that is a hammer. Just put the end of the branch on a scrap of wood and tap it until it is crushed.

Placing the entire branch in lukewarm water will help jump-start the process. The only big enough container we have to do that is the bath tub, plus there’s plenty of warm water handy right from the spout. A couple of hours in the tub will do it.

Change the water in the vase every couple of days or so to prevent mold and algae from growing and clogging up the water-conducting parts of the branch.

When forcing branches, keep in mind that not only are the flowers fun to see but the shape of the branch itself is also part of the arrangement. Don’t be tempted to cram too many branches into the vase or you may lose the pleasing design effect the branches add.

To extend your forcing season, cut new branches every week now until spring to have a fresh set of buds opening all the time.

Bob

Sharpening my pruners

The recent ice storms caused some damage on my trees and shrubs. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be considering we had about a quarter of an inch of ice accumulation. I’ll need to do some extra pruning this spring to take out broken branches and that made me think about my pruning tools.

I got out my box of pruners and took a look at the ones I use the most for pruning outdoors. They are in pretty good shape but they do need some sharpening.

Years ago I bought a special sharpening tool designed for pruners from Corona Tools. It’s about about five inches long with a strip of carbide material brazed onto one end. The carbide is super hard so it can sharpen steel blades without ever getting worn out.

One of my Felco pruners and Corona sharpening tool.
One of my Felco pruners and Corona sharpening tool.

I use both Corona and Felco pruners as well as others. The sharpening tool works on all brands of pruners and similar cutting tools.

To use the sharpener, cradle the tool in one hand and draw the carbide toward yourself, over the length of the inside cutting edge bevel four or five times. Try to keep the angle of the tool at the angle of the original bevel. You don’t have to use much pressure.

Grasp the pruners like this to avoid contact with the blade while sharpening. This grip also gives you better control of the sharpening tool.
Grasp the pruners like this to avoid contact with the blade while sharpening. This grip also gives you better control of the sharpening tool.

Then turn the pruner over, gripping it to avoid being cut and rub once across the flat outside edge. Keep the tool flat on the blade to avoid creating a new “micro-bevel”. That’s it, you’re done.

A single pass straightens microscopic distortions on the cutting edge.
A single pass straightens microscopic distortions on the cutting edge.

I have several different small diamond files and others that I have used in the past and they work OK too, but I find the Corona tool is the easiest one to use. It is not designed to grind a new edge on damaged tools but it can be used to touch up the edges on loppers, shovels and other gardening tools. Be extra careful with loppers, their long handles make them a bit awkward to hold.

I have 14 different pruners, snips and secateurs that I use for different purposes. Now would be a good time to get them all sharpened up before the pruning season gets here.

Bob

Plants for butterflies

It’s been a long time coming, but more and gardeners are finally becoming interested in growing butterfly gardens. Eleven years ago, almost to the day,  I posted a blog trying to encourage folks grow more plants that attract and sustain butterflies. I figure it’s time to revisit that subject again.

Seed catalogs are arriving everyday in the mail now, both in my email inbox and in my outside mailbox. Almost all of them offer seeds for butterfly attracting plants.

This blog is about plants that have flowers that the adult butterflies readily come to for nectar. An even more ambitious butterfly garden is one that includes plants that the larvae of butterflies need to eat, but that will have to be another blog.

Butterflies are looking for flowers that have lots of nectar and a good landing platform for them to cling to. They also prefer small tubular flowers that are especially adapted to the butterflies’ proboscis, their specially shaped tongue that works like a straw. These tubular flowers cannot be too long or the butterfly cannot reach all the way down to the nectar which is usually at the base of the petals.

There are so many plants from to choose from that it can get frustrating. To help you get started , here’s a of list of the more common plants, in no particular order, that attract butterflies:

Thyme; Valerian; Heliotrope; Asclepias incarnata (common name-Red Swallowwort); PhloxAllysum;Verbena, all the different kinds of verbena are good — Verbena bonariensis is very easy to grow here in Michigan; Thistle; Scabiosa; Columbine; Chrysanthemum; Herbs, many of them have good nectar flowers; Milkweed, attracts at least 17 different kinds of butterflies; Queen Anne’s Lace; Liatris, common name Gayfeather; Gaillardia; Butterfly Bush (of course); Echinacea purpurea, common name Purple Coneflower; Violets; Lilac; Yarrow; Rudbeckia hirta, common name Black Eyed Susan; Monarda, common name Bee Balm; Lupine; Marigold; Daisy; and Lavender.

Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.
Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.

Other things you will want to consider when you plant your garden is: 1) have a sunny site that is sheltered from the wind, butterflies get tossed around by a breeze fairly easily 2) provide a place for them to “puddle”. Have you ever noticed butterflies hanging around mud puddles? They are slurping up much needed dissolved minerals, sort of like a food supplement, that are not found in nectar. A shallow container of water containing sand and rocks allows butteries to land and puddle. Actually, even just a simple mud puddle is fine, just replenish it as it gets dry.

Bob

 

 

Going through my seeds

This is the time of year I drag out all of my old seeds from last year and years before that. I always like to take inventory to see what I’ve got on hand before I order anything. We’re in the middle of winter and not all of the seed catalogs have arrived yet.

You would think that after all these years I would have come up with a better system for keeping track of my seeds since I have dozens of different varieties. You know maybe a spreadsheet, color-coded vials, a numbering system things like that, but I don’t.

Some of my current seed collection.
Some of my current seed collection.

Seeds don’t last forever. In rare cases however, seeds can germinate after decades or even centuries. One famous example is a Judean date palm seed that germinated and grew after 2000 years. Seeds that we use in the home garden typically last just a few years unless special steps are taken to preserve them. If they’re in an unopened, original envelop, they’ll have a better chance of remaining viable for longer periods of time. That’s the principle behind the survival seed kits that are sold on line.

Seeds that are kept dry and in a cool place fare better than those that are exposed to moisture or heat. Located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault takes seed saving to the extreme and is able to store seeds from around the world for expended periods of time. Home gardeners on the other hand, can only do so much. Most of the time we seal up our seeds the best we can and keep try to them away from temperature extremes.

Here’s a chart I put together a while back that you can refer to when deciding whether or not to keep a particular type of seed. I’ve only included the more commonly planted food crops. This assumes that seeds are kept under typical conditions found in a home. Clip it out and save with your seeds.

SEED VIABILITY CHART

 

Five years Four years Three years Two years One year
Broccoli Beets Beans Chives Onion*
Brussels Sprouts Squash, winter Leek Corn Parsley*
Cabbage Squash, summer Lima beans Okra Parsnip*
Cauliflower Swiss chard Peas Pepper Peanut*
Celery Tomato Soybean (Edamame) Popcorn† † may lose viability after one year * may retain viability for two years
Cucumber
Eggplant
Kale
Lettuce
Muskmelon
Pumpkin
Radish
Rutabaga
Spinach
Turnip
Watermelon

Many people believe that the larger the seed is the longer it will stay viable. Looking at the chart you can see that seed size is not a factor. Compare corn which are large seeds with celery seeds that are quite small. Corn can be stored only for two years before it loses viability while celery lasts five years.

Bob

Selecting squash, pumpkin and gourd seeds

Under good storage conditions, winter squash and pumpkins can stay edible well into winter. I have a spot in my garage that stays cool, around 50 degrees, through the winter and that is right around the ideal storage temperature for squash. Air circulation is also important and there is plenty of air movement in that spot too. So we have been eating squash on and off for the past couple of months.

One thing I have noticed is that flavor can vary from squash to squash of the same variety. Sometimes there can be quite a large difference in quality. You can buy seeds of the same variety from two different seed sellers and even though the squash looks the same, the flavors may be close but not the same. I think that explains some of the difference in opinion people have when discussing which variety they prefer. I’ve noticed this inconsistency in other vegetables too, especially with certain heirloom tomato varieties.

What I like to do is save squash seed from the best tasting squash and discard seeds from those that are bland or off-flavor. That way year after year I gradually improve my squash. Since the seeds are well preserved inside the fruit until it’s ready to cook, seed saving for me is an ongoing thing until the squash run out. You can end up with a lot of squash or pumpkin seeds in a hurry since each one can have dozens or even hundreds of seeds as anyone who carved a pumpkin knows.

Squash and Pumpkins
I have three different kinds of winter squash. I keep pumpkins to feed to my chickens in the winter.

The way I go about it is that I never toss out the seeds until dinner is over and I’ve had a chance to sample my squash. I mentally rate it and if it is better than the last one I had, I keep the seeds and get rid of the ones from the previous meal. By the time I eat my last serving of squash, I’ll have the seeds from the best tasting one from the garden. The rest of the seeds go to the chickens. I know it seems like a lot of fussing around but hey, it’s what I do.

Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.
Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.

This is a relatively simplistic way to select for a single genetic trait. Professional plant breeders select for other things such as disease resistance, high yields, ease of storage and other traits. In the home garden, flavor is a good one to select for.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poinsettia care after the holidays

For a vast majority of people Christmas poinsettias are a disposable commodity. There are a few of us however, who adopt them as part of our permanent plant collection.

A while back, for several years in a row, I kept one particularly bright red poinsettia that eventually grew to almost four feet tall. You can imagine it was pretty impressive at Christmas time while in full bloom. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of it to share with you. The computer I was using at the time crashed and took all of my plant photos with it. I learned a hard lesson that day.

To keep your poinsettia going for as long as possible,  keep a couple of things in mind.

Most poinsettias die from over-watering and that is related to growing conditions. Your home probably has a lower quality of sunlight than the greenhouse from which it came, so your plant will be less actively growing and therefore need less water. So, let the soil dry out some before watering. Then water the plant thoroughly until water flows out of the bottom of the pot.

Most poinsettias come with a waterproof foil or plastic wrapper to keep water from leaking onto furniture. After watering, dump out any water that remains in the wrapper. It is this extra water held in the foil that is the main reason poinsettias die prematurely. Poinsettias standing in water develop waterlogged roots. Eventually the roots begin to rot and the plant rapidly declines.

Pour our any excess water that collects in the foil pot wrapper.

Don’t worry about fertilizing your plant, it won’t really need much until spring. A half-strength dose of water soluble houseplant fertilizer once in a while should be more than adequate until growth resumes in the spring.

Also, bear in mind that poinsettias weren’t meant to last too much longer than the Christmas season.  They were bred for color, not hardiness. On the other hand, I’ve seen some poinsettias growing under abysmal growing conditions that survived until spring when the owners set them out in the sunlight to grow again.

At the very least, enjoy your poinsettia as long as possible this winter as a reminder of wonderful Christmas memories.

Bob

Protecting bonsai from bitter cold

There’s some talk among weather prognosticators about a speed bump developing in the polar vortex this winter. Some are saying very cold, below normal temperatures are just over the horizon and heading our way. If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to finish up prepping your garden for winter.

I’ve done all I can for my gardens making sure they are all set for the cold weather . The last item I had on my outdoor things-to-do list was winterizing my bonsai trees. Usually I have them all tucked in around the first week of December but this year it’s been so mild that I left them out until this week.

Every year I change the way I winterize them but there are a couple of important things I always make sure happens. First, the roots and tops are protected from the extreme cold and fluctuations in temperature. I do that by digging an over-sized  hole in a protected area big enough to bury my pots.

The second thing is to make sure melt water doesn’t settle in to the pots. Re-freezing of water in the pots can cause them to break due to the expansion that occurs when water freezes. So, I tip the pots on their sides keeping the water out.

Placing them on their sides also allows part of the top branches to be in the hole. The surrounding soil helps moderate the temperatures that they are exposed to.

This year I dug my hole in a well-drained area near a group of white pine trees. The trees will slow down brisk winter winds lessening the chance of desiccation. After placing the trees in the hole I covered them with a layer of white pine needles. That will help insulate them and make it easier to clean off the soil when I take them out in the spring. Then I took the soil that was left from digging the hole and covered the needle covered plants.  I also banked up the soil on the pot end of the hole giving additional protection to the roots.

Here’s what they look like with a layer of needles and soil. Next comes a layer of leaves.

Finally, I hauled in tree leaves and covered the entire area including the plants. A small amount of branches are still peeking up through the leaves. Later, when the Christmas tree comes down I’ll cut off boughs from it and lay them over the mound. The boughs will help catch snow allowing it to drift over the spot and provide even more insulation.

I know this sounds like a lot of work for a few plants but my bonsai are valuable to me. I’ve been caring for one tree for seventeen years so I sure don’t want to lose it now.

Bob

Last minute gift for chicken fancier

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a flock of chickens that not only provide eggs but also help out in the garden. For example, in the spring I let them out to weed fallow areas and to dig up grubs and other underground garden pests before I plant.

I’ve had hens for eighteen years and in that time have become very familiar with their behaviors, habits and even personalities. Yes, chickens have individual personalities that become easy to spot once you get to know them.

Through the years I’ve read a lot of articles and books about chickens, so good and some not so good. Most I read or skim and never go back to them again. Recently, a book from New Zealand caught my eye, “Cluck A book of happiness for chicken lovers” edited by Freya Haanen.

Look no further for that chicken enthusiast who has everything.

It’s loaded with charming photographs of chickens in their natural habitat, which is just about everywhere and anywhere. What tickles me is how she was able to capture those chicken personalities perfectly through her selection of photographs.

The book also contains memorable quotes about chickens from philosophers, poets, scholars and great thinkers throughout history. Some serious, some amusing and some just leave you scratching your head.

This is not the type of book filled with facts, figures and how-to’s. It’s one that you keep around the house and keep coming back to. Folks who long for a flock of hens of their own but can’t swing it right now, for what ever reason, will love it.

Bob