As the weather warms in late winter and early spring sap begins to flow in maple trees. For many people that live in the northeastern part of the United States, that means that maple syrup season has arrived. Spiles (taps) should be installed in the maple trees before typical sap flow begins, that means for most people by the end of February or in early March. However, this year has been anything but typical with temperatures well below average. However, we seem to have finally gotten through the coldest part of spring and should have excellent sap collection opportunities once temperatures settle down and it starts to warm up. It is just going to be a little more challenging than usual, getting to the trees to install the spiles and then collect the sap – lots of snow and soon mud to trudge through.

Trees need to be at least 10-12” in diameter at about 4 feet above the ground to be tapped. Larger trees can even have a second spile installed to collect even more sap. Spiles come in two sizes, designed to be installed in either a 5/16” or 7/16” hole that you will drill into the tree about 1 1/2 to 2” deep. Wrap some tape around the drill bit to indicate the depth you want. An ordinary drill bit will work fine. Angle the hole up slightly so that sap will easily flow out of the hole. Remove any wood chips from the hole by blowing in it or use a small piece of wire to get them out. Position the spile in the hole so that it is pointing the right way up, which will vary depending on the type of spile you are using, but generally you will see the tip of the spile, where the sap will flow out will be open on the top. The spiles designed to be hooked to a small collection tube should be positioned so that the tube will be pointed downward. Carefully tap the spile into the tree until it is snugly seated in the hole. The spiles are tapered so that they will go in easily but become tight in the hole as you tap them in farther. If you tap them in too far, you might split the wood, causing a poor seal.

Attach the bucket to the spile, either by hanging it from the spile or by inserting the tube into it. A good method that we have found in tapping trees at McCrory Gardens is to purchase inexpensive 5-gallon plastic buckets with covers. Drill a hole in the side of the bucket, large enough to accept the tube near the top of the bucket and insert the tube through the hole. Try to position the tap in the tree at the right height above the ground so that the bucket can be set on the ground. It is important to keep the collection buckets covered so that bird droppings, twigs, rain, snow and other things do not get into the sap. Weigh the bucket down with a rock or brick to keep it from tipping over in the wind. The more traditional metal or plastic 2-gallon buckets can also be used with the spiles that are equipped with the large hook that hangs down below the spile. There are also other systems that use heavy-duty plastic bags and an aluminum frame that attaches to another type of spile. You can even use a clean milk jug to collect the sap. Just cut a hole in the jug near the top large enough to allow it to fit over the spile. You may want to also support the jug with some twine or wire so that it does not fall off the spile when it is full of sap. We now prefer using the larger 5-gallon buckets because we do not have to worry about emptying them as frequently – a good producing tree can yield one to three gallons of sap in a good day. But as much as five gallons of sap from one tap can be collected in one day from a good tree, so a smaller container might need to be emptied more than once per day to gather all the sap.

Daytime temperatures need to get above freezing, preferably above 40° to get sap flowing. Nighttime temperatures should drop down below freezing, preferably down to about 25° to get maximal flow the next day. Wait until the weather forecast looks like these conditions will exist before you put out your collection containers.

Since it takes between 35 and 45 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, you probably will want to store your sap until you have a larger amount to boil down to make at least a quart of syrup. It was often thought that the sugar content of maples other than sugar maple was too low, making using them for maple syrup impractical, but we have found that the sugar content of silver maple to be about 3%, like that of sugar maple which can range from 2 to 5%, depending upon the time of year. Boxelder sap has a similar sugar content so that all of these are suitable for making syrup.

Converting your maple sap into syrup is the most difficult part of the process because it takes lots of time, and you will need to do this outside your home. If you had 40 gallons of sap collected you would not want 39 gallons of water, converted to slightly sweet steam, added to the inside of your home. It could lead to disastrous results. So, typically the sap is boiled down outdoors, often over a wood fire. Small amounts of sap can be cooked down over a propane fired turkey fryer, but a flat, wide pan will provide a much larger surface area to create more steam to remove the excess water more rapidly. Flat, steam-table pans work well, old turkey roaster pans or ordinary kettles can be used too.

Something as simple as a fire ring in your backyard can be used or a structure out of concrete blocks to support the pans and allow a place to build the fire beneath the pans can be constructed. Containing the fire beneath the pans to concentrate the heat will create a more efficient system and need less wood to evaporate off the excess water. Small, commercial type evaporators can be purchased if you find that you really like this hobby and want to produce more syrup. While these can just sit outside, it is better to have them in a covered structure to prevent rain or other things from getting into the boiling sap.

As the water is boiled off, the color of the boiling sap will gradually get darker. The temperature of the boiling sap will also slowly rise from near the typical boiling point of water finally reaching the boiling point of syrup which is 7.1° above the temperature of boiling water or about 219°. Be careful as you get close to the final temperature because the sap is more likely to boil up. The bubbles created will also become lighter in color and larger in size as you approach the end point. If you exceed the 219° temperature, there is a good chance that it will boil over and burn. It is a good idea to stop at about 218° and then finish the syrup over a stove or turkey fryer where you have more control of the process than over an open fire.

Once the final temperature is reached, it is ready for filtering and can be poured into storage bottles. There are special filters used in filtering the syrup. The minute particles, sometimes called “sugar sand” are so fine that they will pass through ordinary filters, like a coffee filter. It would be better to invest in one of the filters made specifically for filtering the syrup. You can also allow the syrup to sit for several days in a closed container, allowing the fine particles to settle out to the bottom. Then pour off the clear syrup on top. Ordinary pint jars may be used for storage, but plastic maple syrup bottles may also be purchased for this purpose as well. The syrup should be at least 180° before you put it into the storage container to assure that the syrup will store well.

For more information on collecting maple sap and making maple syrup see

Sign up for Master Gardener Training

Registration for this year’s EMG training is now open. Training will be held on the following dates in these locations: Watertown (Tuesdays) May 21, June 4, 11, 18, 25, July 9, 16, 23; Yankton (Wednesdays) May 22, June 5, 12, 19, 26, July 10, 17, 24; and Sturgis (Thursdays) May 23, June 6, 13, 20, 27, July 11, 18, 25. All sessions running 8:30 a.m. — 4:30 p.m. local time.

Topics include: Basic botany; soils and composting; plant ID; lawns and turf; weed management; plant diseases; tree and shrub care; pest management; insects and pollinators; biodiversity; vegetable gardening; fruit trees; herbaceous ornamentals; plant propagation; and Master Gardener activities.

Cost – two options:

  • Training with volunteer commitment to become an SDSU Extension Master Gardener: $250. To take course at discounted rate, you must provide 50 hours of volunteer service over the next two years as a Master Gardener Intern. The balance of the full course fee will be invoiced if service commitment is not completed. Eligible for 6 CEUs.
  • Training to obtain Certificate of Recognition in Horticulture (no volunteer time required): $600. Participants will receive the same training but will not be required to volunteer. Participants will receive a Certificate of Recognition in Horticulture. Eligible for 6 CEUs.

Register at Online registration deadline is May 6.

Contact us at or call 605-782-3290.

What is a good lilac substitute for a windbreak?

Common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) typically reach a height of about 12 feet and a spread of 8- to 10-feet. Common lilacs sucker profusely so they tend to fill in and make a thick, almost impenetrable, hedge. Lilacs are also tough, there is many an abandoned farmstead that is only identifiable by the concrete foundation and the lilac hedge.

There is also a late lilac (Syringa villosa). It achieves a similar height but not quite the spread as it does not sucker. The shrub, while drought-tolerant, will not perform as well as common lilac on droughty soils. The flowers are not as fragrant. Some have more of an odor than a fragrance, certainly not one that you want to bring the blooms in the house and set in a vase. Still it’s a tough plant.

The toughness of a lilac is the hard part for finding a good substitute. There are many shrubs such as dogwoods and viburnums that have similar height and spread (since they also sucker) but are not nearly as tough. Dogwoods on dry sites are prone to stem canker diseases and the viburnums become infested by borer when also planted on dry site. These shrubs need moist, well-drained soils for best performance.

There are other tough shrubs that meet the criteria – tall shrub that spreads and can tolerate dry sites – but are not commonly available. Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) may grow about 15 feet tall with an equal spread. It does not sucker but seeds prolifically so it will fill in. It’s a tough tall shrub but almost impossible to find as liners.

Another possible substitute is Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens). This shrub achieves the same height as the lilacs, though not quite the spread. It is also drought tolerant, through droughty soils will affect performance. It is also a legume, so it is a nitrogen fixer. But as a legume, it is suspectable to defoliation from the blister beetle. This insect is often found in alfalfa fields and if peashrub is planted nearby it will suffer the same defoliation. The other issue is deer seem to like to rub on them, but the plants usually sprout and recover after this injury.

Shrub pruning

Which shrubs can be pruned in the spring before they bloom?

Our spring flowering shrubs form their flower buds during the previous growing season so the flowers we will see on the forsythias this April were formed during the summer of 2018. Heavily pruning these shrubs now will result in the removal of the flower buds so few flowers will develop this spring.

Delay pruning of spring flowering shrubs until just after they bloom. This will provide them with the time to develop flower buds for the next season. Summer flowering shrubs can be pruned now as their flower buds have not yet formed. These shrubs produce their flower buds in the spring for their summer blooms.

Some of our common spring flowering shrubs that should be pruned after they bloom are: Bridal wreath spirea, Common lilac, Dwarf Korean lilac, Forsythia, Garland spirea, Vanhoutte spirea and Weigela.

Some of our common summer flowering shrubs that can be pruned this spring are: Bush-honeysuckle, Bumalda spirea, Japanese spirea, Late lilac, Panicle hydrangea, Potentilla, Smokebush, and Smooth hydrangea.

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