This Month On The Homestead: Making Maple Syrup, Starting Vegetable Seeds, and Other Pandemic Pursuits
March was weird. I’m not sure there’s a better way to put it. We did some homesteading stuff, but mostly I stress-ate homemade baked goods while listening to podcasts about the pandemic. Now that you know this about me, we can discuss how we made maple syrup, started some of our vegetable garden seeds, and kept our children (and selves) alive.
I begin with an update to let you know that Glamour Shed is handling quarantine with her usual aplomb. Unbothered by the lack of friends popping by, unconcerned with the fact that school is closed for the rest of the year, Glamour Shed is just glad her roof hasn’t (entirely) fallen off.
She is thankful I don’t allow the resident toddlers to pelt her with snowballs, fearful as I am for her tenuous architectural state. But Glamour Shed is hearty and currently harboring two different bird nests in two different locations. New life, it seems, will endure.
Welcome to my series documenting life on our 66-acre Vermont homestead, which we moved to in May 2016 from urban Cambridge, MA. Wondering about the financial aspects of rural life? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown as well as my monthly expense reports.
Making Maple Syrup!
This was our second year of tapping our maple trees, collecting the sap, boiling it down into syrup, and canning it for use all year. Every year, we get a tiny bit better at each homesteading pursuit (or we’re so bad we give up) and this year, we did a few things to improve and increase our syrup yield:
- We had more firewood split and stacked for boiling sap. Last year, we ran out of wood WAY before we ran out of sap. This year, we ran out of wood way before we ran out of sap. Note that the first WAY was larger than the second way. Next year: more wood.
- We used a hydrometer to determine when the sap completed the transmutation to syrup. WAY better and more accurate than the turkey thermometer we used last year…
- We filtered the syrup before canning it so we don’t have tons of sediment at the bottom of each jar (as we did last year).
- In other words, we did what every syrup-making book says you should do. Turns out, they were right!!!!
The very best thing we did differently this year was turn our boiling days into parties. Thankfully, we squeaked in a few weekends of boiling before the pandemic lockdown orders came into effect. We discovered that the only thing better than making your own syrup is making it with friends. The friends who make syrup together, stick together.
Here’s what it felt like to be outside in crisp early March air, gathered around the evaporator with our friends:
Sap’s on the boil, syrup’s in the making. Maple odor is in the air (that is, in fact, a real thing). This is my evaporator, from the Vermont Evaporator Company. This is my husband and children. This is my land. What you can’t see are my people, my community surrounding us. There are mamas and dadas and kiddos and a dog running around, holding my youngest, cooking me lunch–they came over to enjoy, to support, and to live together. I am a believer in community because I require it to survive, to thrive. I am grateful for this family we’ve created.
I’m thankful there are other people in this polarized, fearful world who come into my kitchen, find the pots and pans and get to cooking while our kids run around trying to feed that one dog, who turns out very well fed at the end of it all. I didn’t know I needed this until we moved here. People ask me (all the time) if I feel isolated here in rural Vermont, living as I do on 66 acres with trees as my neighbors, and I have to laugh because I am encased, surrounded, and consumed by love and presence.
We don’t have cell reception, so texts don’t always come through, and sometimes the power and internet go out and so, folks just stop by. On this boiling day, one group of friends left as another arrived. All relatively last minute, hasty, and unscheduled. But all perfect and exactly as I’d hoped my life would unfold. All exactly as I hoped to raise my children. My gratitude is a well that grows deeper by the day.
Then, because March was weird, sugaring became a family-only affair and my husband and I discovered the joy of sitting around the evaporator chatting while the kids played in the mud alternating between holding hands and pushing each other down.
Here’s how it felt to boil sap as a family on day 7 of isolation:
Spent the weekend boiling maple sap in quarantine. Not a bad way to be alone, if we’re honest. I had an ill-fated attempt at our first outdoor dinner of the season and, let me tell you, 28 degrees is not warm enough for a picnic. We’re in an earnest effort to accelerate spring. I wasn’t a summer person until right now. Until the quarantine of 2020. But on the same token, I’m beyond grateful for our land and our ability to be outside without risk. I’m grateful to our maple trees, which provide us with the sap to boil into maple syrup.
Making our own maple syrup is the stuff of our dreams. Our boiling this year was a good run and we made six gallons of finished syrup, which is just about exactly, precisely our family’s annual consumption (don’t judge, I bake bread with it). Thanks to my children for eating lunch and dinner outdoors and being amenable to smelling like maple sap smoke and to my husband for tending the fire and to myself for inventing the MapleTini: caramel vodka and warm, almost-finished maple syrup mixed in a mason jar.
My Pandemic Anxiety vacillates between extreme and non-existent and standing over a boiling vat of tree sap, letting the steam infiltrate my senses, was a balm. The MapleTini didn’t hurt either.
If you want, like, actual, actionable information on how we make maple syrup, I have a few posts with technical details:
- How We’re Preparing To Make Maple Syrup
- This Month On The Homestead: Maple Trees, Maple Sap, Maple…
- A Hydrometer And Other February 2020 Expenditures
- Drink Whiskey, Look at Stars, Make Maple Syrup
Starting The Garden
In March we started our first batch of vegetable seeds to germinate, grow and get strong in the warmth of our kitchen before we plant them in the garden in late May. The girls were very into the dirt aspect, with less attention to the precise location of the dirt.
Kidwoods created snow/dirt cupcakes while Littlewoods rubbed dirt in her hair. Needless to say, we did not enlist their assistance in the seed planting itself since we would like for these things to, you know, actually grow.
So far, we’ve started sugar snap peas, watermelons, ground cherries, orange peppers, and several varieties of tomato. These are our first phase of starts because they’re the things that take the longest to grow.
We’ll plant another batch in a few weeks and on we’ll roll, planting and watering and warming until the time comes to transplant to the garden bed and direct sow the final seeds. I’m thankful for the time, the space, and the dirt that allows us to grow food. Also, it was in no way warm enough for a tank top, but Kidwoods is a hardy soul and she dresses herself…
This is our third year starting seeds for our garden and, hey! We’ve learned some stuff. Most of which is exactly what gardening books advise; who would’ve guessed?!? Here’s how we’ve evolved over three years:
You will not be surprised to hear that Mr. Frugalwoods manages our garden via spreadsheet. He lists the seed variety, the seed starting date, and the transplant date. Then, he makes notes on how each variety performs over the course of the season, including: pest resistance, flavor, hardiness, etc. This serves to keep our planting on schedule and informs the varieties we choose to plant the next year. For example: not all cherry tomatoes are created equal. Since my primary preservation method for cherry tomatoes is to dehydrate them, I prefer larger tomatoes that slice well. Given that, we’ve grown several smaller varieties in the past that we no longer grow.
The other major improvement is the massive seed starting tower Mr. FW built for us last year. He designed it to fit perfectly in our kitchen’s bay window and it has enough rack space for all of our seed starting trays. Prior to this, we had flats of dirt and seeds all over the house, which, as you might’ve guessed is a fairly bad plan vis-a-vis the fact that we have two toddlers. Have you ever vacuumed dirt (and seeds) out of a heating vent? I know I have.
We also use heat mats and grow lights to encourage germination, and they seem to work well.
And finally, we’re doing a no-till approach to our vegetable beds–aided by our infamous flame weeder flame torch–and I’ll report on this in greater detail once we’re transplanting starts into the ground.
Pandemic Parenting: Nailed It
The other thing we did A LOT of in March was parenting. Schools and daycares are closed for the rest of the school year in Vermont so we carved out a New Normal for our two-year-old, four-year-old, and two thirty-six-year-olds.
As an Ideal Mom, I can assure you my children are not watching television while stuffing popcorn into each other’s mouths. Clearly they are engaged in the intellectual pursuit of sitting backwards in a rocking chair and mastering the art of persuasion to induce your sister to fork over some snack. I never share pictures of my kids watching TV because it’s embarrassing. But it’s real life. So, here ya go.
Yeah, sometimes my kids are outside climbing snowbanks and pushing each other into puddles. And yeah, sometimes they’re cooking scrambled eggs with me in the kitchen. Sometimes they’re dancing and singing and using toy busses as roller skates (all I ask is: why????). But other times, they’re watching TV. Sometimes, I need a break. I need to clean the kitchen or put in a load of laundry or work. And sometimes, they need a break.
Sometimes, Kidwoods and I both need a break and I fall asleep on the couch with her nestled next to me, watching TV. Screens aren’t evil. Screens don’t make you a bad parent or your kids bad kids. Used in moderation and with appropriate content, screens are a tool in the arsenal of making sure you remain alive for your children’s future. And that, you know, some laundry actually gets done and your house is not condemned by a health department. For example.
Isolation Through The Eyes of a Two-Year-Old
I’m not in a great place. I don’t know about you, but it feels this virus closes closer to us daily. I’m worried for everyone I know, for everyone I don’t know. So I’m trying to focus on the tiny, good bits from each day, like Littlewoods and I loading the wood box together. I handed her the smallest logs I could unearth and she gingerly foisted them into the box, slapping her hands in satisfaction. We shoveled ashes from the wood stove, cleaned the glass, loaded it and started a fire–Littlewoods and me–and she mimicked my every move.
Blowing on the coals, loading the logs, and sweeping up the debris. She came away with soot on her nose and a huge grin. We ate a snack of oatmeal and homemade maple syrup and made conversation according to her limited vocabulary: “Eat mama,” “More water please” as well as “Snow!” were our main topics. It was divine. In her little world, from her viewpoint, all is well. All is wonderful. She got to carry some logs and eat a treat with mama. I’ll hold onto this innocence and bliss. I’ll try to see everything through her eyes.
Isolation Through The Eyes of a Four-Year-Old
What, you don’t wade through streams as soon as they thaw, impatient for spring, undaunted by cold? We crested 45 degrees in March, which–for my Vermont children–might as well be August. This photo is from a rare outing during which Kidwoods wore a shirt. There’s nothing like 13 degrees above freezing to make you say, “hey let’s go outside without shirts.”
Unless you’re four-year-olds, in which case this sartorial selection makes 100% sense. After (temporarily) losing a boot to suctioning mud, Littlewoods was less enthused by this outing, but we goaded her on with promises of namo upon our return to the house. Namo, obviously, being popcorn. I’m in an alternate universe, people, where shirts are unneeded in frigid outdoors and popcorn is known as namo. Truly, there’s not enough wine.
Isolation Through The Eyes of a Thirty-Six-Year-Old (that would be me)
There’s a weird tension of enjoying these new routines, while longing for old routines, coupled with ambient anxiety and general dread about the state of the world that keeps life interesting right about now.
Actual picture of me at right. Like this last snowman, I’ve melted into the earth and become one with anti-productivity, due to the fact that my arms are, in fact, tree branches. Much like this snowman, my mouth is set in a line-made-of-wood that parrots on repeat, “it’s not snack time, stop pulling your sister down the slide, I cannot get you a snack right now because it’s not snack time, stop trying to dress your sister in the dinosaur costume, she does not like it.”
Just like this snowman, my nose is a carrot, accompanied by my stick arms. And it is with this carrot and stick that I wend through the day, bribing and threatening in equal measure. These be weird times, my friends. Try not to melt.
My solo hikes have taken on new meaning. Despite being in isolation, I need time away from my loving, hectic, noisy household. Being home–and only home–is wonderful and wearying. I am thankful for our woods, for the respite and challenge they offer.
Yoga With Kids: Like Goat Yoga, Except With Your Own Children
Listen, if doing yoga with toddlers isn’t living the dream, I don’t know what is. I would personally like to thank Littlewoods for her perfect execution of upward dog on my backside: I didn’t know I needed that in my practice. I would also like to thank Kidwoods for toddler-splaining yoga to me and my husband for falling over laughing while taking these pictures.
I will brag for a moment: I’ve done a lot of yoga in a lot of joints with a lot of teachers over the years and I’ve never–until the pandemic of 2020–done bowl pose with a two-year-old on my back. Isolation is expanding all sorts of horizons over here. I would like to thank Cosmic Kids Yoga for their amazing videos. I owe them a very large % of my sanity and gratitude.
After moving here, we decided to have solar panels mounted on our barn roof. My full write-up on the panels is here and I include a solar update in this series. This is the only way for me to remember that: a) I have solar; b) you all would like to be updated on it.
In March, we generated 605 kWh, which is pretty decent for early spring. For reference, in January 2019 our panels generated a paltry 70.4 kWh and in July 2019 we raked in 907 kWh.
Since our electric company offers net metering, we’re able to bank our summer and fall sunshine for use in the winter, which keeps our electric bill low year-round, even when the sun isn’t shining.
This has been your solar production update. You’re welcome.
Want More Fotos?!
While I only document homestead life once a month here on the blog, I post photos to Instagram (almost every day!) and updates to Facebook with much greater regularity.
Join me there if you want more of our frugal woods. Some folks have asked about this and yes, I do try to post a picture to Instagram every day and–unlike with many other things in my life–I actually have a pretty good track record.
The Uber Frugal Week Returns Next Week!
My pandemic-inspired, what-do-I-do-with-my-money Uber Frugal Week series continues with Day 5 next week! For more about the series, including an overview of what I’ll cover each day, check this out. I recommend reading the series in order; start with Day 1 here. If you’d like to get an email that lets you know when Day 5 of the series is available, sign-up for my email list in the box below.
How was March for you? What’s your new normal?
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I love you. I love your writing. I love maple syrup. I’m jealous of your bowl pose, less so of the toddler assistance 😄
Would you be willing to share the seeds/gardening spreadsheet?
I second this request!
We use a rocket stove to boil our sap down. We don’t get a tremendous amount of sap, mind you, but we boiled down about 15 gallons of sap a few years ago using only a bundle of wooden stakes and less than 3 wooden pallets. We found it so much more efficient, although it requires constant care and stoking.
I can’t self-isolate since we need the infrastructure of my workplace. My country is opening things up again – I confess I am a bit afraid. I NEED to go out to work and the last weeks the streets were empty enough to avoid people… now, it’s a penguin colony out there. You have to wear a mask, but most people do not know how to wear masks. They still touch their faces constantly, even though the used mask counts as “contaminated” or they only cover their mouths but not their noses. Or they take it off to talk… as for keeping their distance? They wear masks! We are save! … Well. Let’s see how that goes.
I see Stinky & Dirty!! (the amazon prime show, not your sweet children lol) Haha we have a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old, so basically the iPad is raising my toddler now. I’m trying to embrace it and give myself grace. Thanks for always sharing a real look into parenting while we navigate this crazy time.
HAHAHAH. My girls decided to name themselves “Stinky” and “Dirty” the other day, which was actually quite apt.
Thank you for this in my email. It was a wonderful diversion from Zoom meetings, virtual church, and pending furloughs and layoffs. I grew up on a farm in Texas so some of your life resonates, but the snow for months obviously doesn’t. I, too, am glad that you (and your husband) can get out and hike and feel solitude every day if you want to.
“Truly, there’s not enough wine.” —On point. I am here for this.
I don’t own wine glasses so mine goes straight into my coffee cup.
Wishing your family the best. Cheers.
Oh Jana, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this when you were here–I have ample wine glasses (all from the side of the road) that I could’ve sent with you. Why do I have so many wine glasses? Because I drop them. All the time.
I hope you’re starting to get in a better place, Liz. Our state has until at least late May (IL) before we re-open. It’s nice to have extra time at home with baby but I think I am ready to get back to daily life.
I so enjoy your posts! You are a bright, uplifting, humorous antidote to an otherwise stressful, sad time, and I’m thankful that you are still writing. Hang in there!
Thank you so much!!!
Me too!!! It’s been something to look forward to.
Would you guys consider sharing your vegetable-planting spreadsheet? If not, do you have any recommendations on how to find a guide like this that would be a good starting point? Thanks!
I had a life changing moment when I discovered the Total Wine 1 mile from my house started doing curbside pickup. May all find a similar situation to replenish their personal wine cellars.
What are your favorite cherry tomatoes? I usually grow something sweet like sun gold, but i just eat them out of hand.
Meanwhile, I think I’ve been working from home for 6 weeks (including one furlough week). it’s hard to remember, actually, and I know I’m less productive. But I also know I’m more bored now than frightened. I can see that people may become less fearful and thus stop social distancing as much.
OMG. I thought my niece used to dress inappropriately for the weather (as in wearing little to nothing during the dead of winter in Pennsylvania) when she was little. Kidwoods, I see, has her beat. By far. But she looks cute decked in out in her dirtied-up pink tank-top! LOL!
I think you’re not the only one who has stress-eaten baked goods throughout this pandemic. 😉
The MapleTini sounds good! I don’t have any fresh from the evaporator maple syrup (or caramel vodka for that matter) but I do have some store-bought syrup and some bourbon . . .
Pandemic times call for experimentation! Report back on your findings.
Thanks for such a wonderful time hanging out with you and your family during this strange pandemic sugaring season. As always, a delight.
What, you don’t wade through streams as soon as they thaw, impatient for spring, undaunted by cold?
Thanks again for another truly honest read of your experiences. Here in Georgia we are well into planting season and it has been a wonderful distraction from the work-at-home, parent-and-be-a-teacher-at-home life we now find ourselves living. With two school aged kids we too are hanging in there, trying not to melt. A MapleTini sounds fantastic!
Great update. I grew up in the country and your photos really take me back. I remember the Winters when we would tap the trees in our backwoods—I loved heading around to retrieve the sap. We had an old cabin in the woods where we’d do the boiling and then enjoy the syrup straightaway. Nothing like that taste.
Oh, Liz, give yourself a break! You do SO much for your kids! A little structured TV is not going to hurt them. Somedays, it just how it has to be. Good education programming on PBS and the CBC (Canadian equivalent to PBS)! Like you indicated, there are some things that just need to be done around the house. Let it go~
Your house sounds like mine. We’re enjoying outside time and very ready for summer warmth. Stinky & Dirty often on TV, popcorn is a huge hit with my two-year-old right now (Popcorn pop! Bubble pop! Monkey pop! is our constant refrain), and we’ve also been doing Cosmic Kids Yoga. I’m finding this world / life just as worrying and exhausting as you are.
We’ve watched Frozen 2 more days than not, and it is getting us through this….highly recommend.
Just wanted to give a shout out to Glamour Shed–you’re my favorite! (After the funny writing and oh-so-cute kids, of course!)
The old normal is still our current normal. For the most part. I was already a remote worker, so no change. Husband manages a calibration lab so has to go into work, albeit with a staggered schedule to get time with all of his newly-turned-shift worker crew, so mostly no change. We have 50+ miles of trails for only our community so we’re still able to walk, hike, trail run, mountain bike, road bike, etc and easily socially distance. Thank. Goodness. I would be in a totally different headspace otherwise.
What we’ve gotten out of this crazy time is a confirmation that our values are where we thought they were and hubby and I are great compliments to each other; those are really good things! What we don’t miss: eating out at restaurants (we cook/grill/bake darn good food, thank you!), going to bars (we like to play pool sometimes, we like to socialize, but ya know… just hasn’t been a big deal), shopping (NO! we are both shopping averse in the first place, save for my addiction to plant stuffs), hair cuts (probably get one once a year, husband does his own), nails (way too active to care about pretty nails as they’d be ruined the next day), um… not sure what else. What we DO miss: seeing friends and family, traveling, exploring new, awesome trails (but we have our amazing 50+ miles of hiking, trail running, and mountain biking trails just for our community i.e. not heavily used and we are BLESSED for that!), that’s really about it. Oh, and I miss not having much concern about our investments, but we’re so diversified that we’re actually faring well in that regard, thank goodness!
I knew we were on the far end of not being typical consumers, but this has proven it. I want this virus to pack up his bags and get out of town as much as everyone else, but if we have to sustain another few months, we’ll be just fine. And that’s a very positive place in which to be. I feel, truly, for all the small businesses being impacted by this, so please don’t take this as me not caring. I do. The small businesses we support (meat, eggs, gardening, etc) are actually hanging in there with pickups, thank goodness. For the rest in which we don’t partake, I know your customers are missing you and will be there waiting as soon as you can reopen.
We are lifelong MN residents but I keep telling my husband that I really want to visit NH/Vermont! Thank you for all the calm you are bringing to your writings!
Liz – If you do come out to the east coast, be sure to check out Western Mass (specifically Franklin County); it’s the rural part of the state and quite pretty!
I definitely relate Liz! Being home with small children 24/7 is exhausting without the usual breaks of childcare or school or babysitters, and the diversions of play dates and playgrounds, and basically anywhere else other than home. I’ve never been so tired in my life, and I have been a SAHM for several years now – but nothing prepares you for life in a pandemic.
Is your adopted grandma doing okay? Although I live in a city (Baltimore), I truly enjoy reading and following you and all the family!
Thankfully, yes! She and her husband are doing just fine. Sadly, we haven’t seen them in over a month and a half! We really miss them even though they’re just down the road.
….you’re rocking now!
Here’s to a different May, cheers
Wood – have you considered a wood splitter?
It is not a very expensive item new $799 …but would help with the wood chore…or, with neighbors pooling and roating use?
Just some thoughts…
We have a wood splitter and love it (read about it here)! I discuss the differences between sugar wood and house wood here: Drink Whiskey, Look at Stars, Make Maple Syrup
If you can somehow stream Bluey, it’s a gorgeous Australian show for kids xox
Question about Cosmic Kids Yoga. We are on our third year of doing this and I feel like more of the emphasis is on the story rather than on a good yoga flow. Does anyone know of other kid friendly yoga practices (online) that don’t have you jumping up and down every other minute? I ask this because I’d like to migrate my seven year old into a practice that matures with him. Well that and I’m 48 years old and I’m growing more fond of the practices that flow from one pose to the next…my age is showing. =)
Ooo great question! I’d love to know this too. I find Cosmic Kids to be perfect for my 4-year-old, but I definitely see that she’ll age out of it at some point. I’ve tried having her do my adult yoga classes with me and they’re too tough and the directions are too abstract (as in, side angle lunge on the right is too confusing to understand when you don’t know your right from your left!!!!)