1. Gather Your Materials: Here’s what we use.
- 20-40 Stainless steel buckets (these come with a little reinforced hole up by the rim to hang on the tap)
- 20-40 Bucket covers (I like the kind that slide on rather than the flaps)
- 20-40 Metal taps
- 40-60 gallon plastic storage drum
- cordless power drill with appropriate bit for taps (3/8” for us--I think)
2. Pick the Right Time: In our area, southern Vermont, that is usually early March, but it can be later or earlier. The sap will run when there are spring days that are enough above freezing but cool nights when the temperature drops back down below freezing again.
3. Select Your Trees: It’s important to be able to identify sugar maples by their bark. They have no leaves at the time of year that the sap runs. They can be identified by their buds, but if a tree is big enough to tap, the buds will usually be well out of sight. Learning to identify trees by bark takes practice. It helps to have a teacher and several good guides. Line drawings and descriptions do not easily convey bark textures. Photographs aren’t great, but they’re the best thing you can get in a guide. I like the Audobon Society guide for this. Even though the Peterson guide has a much better key, it doesn’t have photographs.
4. Tap Your Trees: We load all our materials into a sled as we go from tree-to-tree. We tap to a depth of almost two inches and angle upward as we drill. Some good taps will be dripping before the drill is even out of the tree. I usually blow the waste shavings away and get a good whistling sound from the tap’s hole. We try to keep in mind that the snow we are walking on now will be melting as the season goes on. What may be chest-height now might be over our heads in a few weeks. We use a hammer to gently tap the tap (get it) into the hole and hang the bucket on the tap itself. I prefer the taps that can hang the bucket directly rather than the ones that require a hook. I also like to watch the first drops hit the bucket’s bottom. Not only is it a satisfying sound, it’s also a great way to make sure that the sap is dripping where you want it and not down the side of the tree. Slide on your cover and move on to the next tree. Check your buckets tomorrow to see what you’ve got.
5. Tap Gently: Sugaring is great because you don’t have to kill any plants in the process, but it’s good to remember that you are affecting the tree’s overall health and strength. Try to use narrow taps and don’t hang more than one bucket on a tree unless it’s a giant. Natives once got sap by slashing large V-shaped notches in the tree. This made sense in an age of stone tools, but I think it’s unfair to our much diminished forests to use such a damaging practice these days. Taps are cheap. Please use them.