It’s early Spring in south-eastern Ontario and oh, wait, what?
This just in: the flowerbed is trying to kill me.
Based on how I feel about The Nature, you might have already guessed that I am not really a gardener type. In fact, I’m rather a grey thumb. That is, when plants get anywhere near me, they turn a sickly sort of grey and hang around, torturing me for a while with their droopy leaves and browned-up flowers and unrequited dreams of a life spent being watered, before finally expiring and leaving me with a plastic container thing-y that I don’t know what to do with.
I can’t just throw it away. Those plastic plant containers take about a zillion trillion years to compost down. Not like my poor, dead plant, which was composting (drama, drama) in the plastic container thing-y, long before it officially died.
Usually, I give the plastic container thing-y to Practical Man and he puts another plant in it.
Yep, he’ll plant a seed from the apple he was eating at lunch. Or, the stem of the celery we have in the fridge.
Not to give back to me, oh no.
He’s not stupid, that one.
He does, however, have a very green thumb. He can grow sticks, that man. Not to mention, bits of kale from the grocery store that I cut off before chopping up some to put in the oven.
Anyway, my point is that I don’t grow stuff. So, I’m not quite sure why there is a flower bed out to get me.
But, there is. Right along the front sidewalk (which no one ever uses because we live in the country and in the country you always enter people’s houses through the open garage door), it lies in wait. It and its companion on the sunny side of the house.
I have to confess that there are no windows overlooking the second flowerbed on the sunny side of the house so that one gets largely ignored because I can pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s not as if I wander around the perimeter of the house and see it all the time.
That side of the house is out in The Nature people. Don’t you read my blog?
So, I can see where the flowerbed on the sunny side of the house would feel put upon and maybe even downright hostile towards me.
But, with four windows facing directly out on it, the front bed gets a fair bit of attention.
It spends most of the day in the sun so it’s a little micro-climate of its own (that sounds like I’m all official and garden-y, doesn’t it?) that doesn’t require much intervention to keep things alive. That is to say, Practical Man no doubt revives it while I’m at work, but, full of perennials, a couple of bushes, and no annuals, I can pretend it’s just magically growing on its own. We mulched it last year with that store-bought stuff that looks seriously artificial and probably leaches chemicals into our water table, but I desperately wanted to make the flowerbed feel loved so that maybe, maybe, it would play nice.
I have viewed others’ gardens, replete with chemical mulchiness and they look lovely. Tidy. Weed-less. Just like I thought ours would look.
So, I don’t quite understand how when the blanket of snow came off and the softly-rounded heads of daffodils, pasque flowers and grape hyacinth started poking out of the ground, mere days ago, this source of Springtime pleasure and much celebration turned so very very quickly to Yes Indeedy, This Flowerbed Is Trying to Kill Me.
More on that in a moment.
In other gardening news, we pulled out two giant clumps of bushes in the lawn last summer and Practical Man has put down repeated layerings of grass seed, only to have the spots – a year later, still look like male-pattern baldness in our lawn. Now, the baldness doesn’t really matter because seeing it would require me to go out in The Nature, to fume over that which some suburbanites would find an atrocity, but I really don’t understand why grass won’t grow very well, even for a green-thumbed Practical Man, when you want it to.
Except if it’s in the flowerbed.
The flowerbed, which has only been “awake” (that’s probably not an official, garden-y term) for a little over two weeks, is full. Full, I tell you, of evil, extremely healthy and prolific G-R-A-S-S. Several, virulent country types, no less.
All that green stuff? GRASS!
All that straw-looking stuff? More GRASS!
And not the male pattern baldness kind either. This is full-head-of-hair-and-lots-coming-out-the-ears grass. Clever, clever grass that sneaks its way up the middle of a single iris stalk, barely out of the ground. If I didn’t hate it so much, I would admire its sneaky tenacity. To remove the grass root means digging up the entire bulb and painstakingly teasing away the grass. Painstaking is not in my vocabulary (unless it’s painstakingly licking every last drop of chocolate off the tinfoil it arrived in) and I can’t deal with more plant murders on my record, so I’m not doing that.
This weekend, while Practical Man installed the mower deck on the tractor in preparation for acres of lawn mowing over our male pattern baldness areas, I decapitated grass shoots in approximately 3% of a square foot in our front flowerbed and tried not to get all fainty (from the bending over and standing up) or spinny (from the turning my head recklessly looking for sneaky grass shoots) or fall down, weeping hysterically, every time my eyes accidentally swayed to the right or left of my “section”.
It was like doing hard time. Like I was on a chain gang, except with grass and fainting and spinning.
Okay fine, there may have been some Feels Like Jagger music to help me cling to my sunny disposition. A girl can only take so much murderous intent from a flowerbed before she has to find her flowerbed anthem–What Doesn’t Kill You (Makes You Stronger)–and sing along with Ms. Kelly C.
It was at some point during this torture with a peppy soundtrack, that I remembered something.
Something wise and scientific and mostly, probably, almost certainly true. I recalled what my former colleague and (this is an official and garden-y designation) Master Gardener friend used to say:
“Perennial gardens are meant to be looked at from a distance.”
That means: keep far, far away from the flowerbed that is trying to kill me.
If you do, I might just get out alive.
Last week, I traded maple syrup for mold.
What, what, what?
Yep. You see, around these parts, it’s maple syrup season. I wrote about the details of this rural Canadian pastime last year. Basically, it means a whole lotta:
- gathering of sap
- obsessively clicking The Weather Network’s website to see if the conditions will be right for sap flow
- collecting sap into barrels and piling snow from around the yard against them so the sap won’t spoil
- obsessively clicking The Weather Network’s website to see if the conditions will be right for sap boiling
- spending from early morning until evening standing over a giant, homemade, sap-boiling extravaganza while sticky steam gives you a sort of reverse facial and, if you’re me, you somehow get a sunburn on your legs, even though you’re not really an outdoor girl and you probably only helped for a grand total of 15 minutes AND you were wearing two layers of clothing
- skimming and scooping and skimming and scooping and thwacking the thing that you used for skimming to get the sludge off and then some more skimming and scooping
- and so on and so on…for about 4-6 weeks
Practical Man l-o-o-oves this time of year. He is in his element. That is, out in The Nature, that I love not quite so much, and making something out of mostly nothing.
What could be better?
He looks cute in his lumberjack shirt and he smells of yummy wood smoke after a day of boiling sap, so I go along with it.
What can I say? I am weak for wood smoke and plaid clothing.
Anyway, the whole maple syrup thing, while quaint and stereotypical for some of us rural Canucks, is a LOT of work. There are many more bullet points I left out of my list above, because I thought you’d get tired of reading them (and I know I get tired just writing them) and I definitely get tired doing more than a few of them, so I am pretty much only a sporadic cheerleader, inept and inconsistent skimmer, lunch runner and such.
I’m basically maple syrup middle management.
Luckily, Practical Man is not a complainer by nature. Even though he’s married to a person who is a complainer about The Nature.
During one of the sap boils this season, I realized I had a bonafide excuse for getting out of maple syrup work and I gleefully embarked on it.
Dressed to kill, as you can see:
We have recently met some new Boler Buddies–people who are in love with the cute, vintage, marshmallow-shaped trailers known as Bolers in Canada and Scamps in the US–and we have offered to fix up their trailer a little, so they could try camping in it this summer.
Having two Bolers on our property made me as giddy as a Practical Man, boiling sap.
So giddy, that I didn’t mind at all the first job involved with the little jewel: scraping the un-adhered interior paint, applied by a previous owner, where it had been disguising some fairly extensive surface mold.
And you thought my breathing apparatus getup was just for fun.
I was scraping with a cool, rounded scraper thingy that only a Practical Man would own. It didn’t damage any of the interior insulation (called Ensolite) but it niftily scraped off the loose paint.
From outside the little Boler, it sounded as if a very large rodent was trying to claw its way out. But really, it was just a very large rodent who was not helping with the sap boil, whatsoever.
Inside the Boler, there was lots of flaking paint. Lots of surface mold. But, the definite bonus was that I could pretend I was Darth Vader with a sunburn.
I do recall he was pasty like me, when they took his mask off.
Anyway, my arms jiggly from the scraping (yep, that’s why they’re jiggly), I then got to use one of my favourite tools: the shop vac.
Wee-whoo! I love me a shop vac.
Lady Gaga and I shop vac’d the flaking paint up a storm (and chipmunk droppings accumulated during the Boler’s 14 years bravely surviving The Nature). There may have been some gyrating hips, I do confess.
What happens in the Boler, stays in the Boler.
Tra la la. It’s finally happening: the heady days of March in southern Ontario.
Oh sure, there have been blizzard warnings (and worse–actual blizzards!) the last three Wednesdays in a row, but that can’t drag me down because I know, with a cheesy song in my heart, that Spring is just around the corner.
That mythical, magical time that we collectively fool ourselves into thinking is in March–when actually, let’s face it people, it’s really May–but no matter, it’s time to start psyching ourselves up for it. Watching for any sign, no matter how teensy-weensy.
Is that an above zero Celcius breeze I feel tickling my neck?
Is that the asphalt/gravel on my driveway peeking through already?
How time flies (when one is pretending one is on vacation with the rest of the country, in the Caribbean)!
This is how we Canadians survive the winter: we pretend we live in Victoria, BC. We pretend winter only lasts from after Christmas until late February, unless of course that pesky rodent–friend to no one but The Weather Network (I mean, how can they lose?) on February 2–dooms us to what we all know is inevitable anyway:
that is, It’s Still Winter.
But, let’s not go there.
Surely, Spring is on its way. Just around the corner. Past that eight-foot high pile of dirty snow in the parking lot.
I can tell that Spring is nearly here by the way the complaining from my fellow Ontarians gets louder around this time in March. Even though we’ve barely had three weeks of real winter this year, it’s already begun with a vengeance. Yes indeedy, we love us some complaining about the weather.
It’s too CO-O-O-O-L-D! (Only Rolling Up The Rim appears to provoke any joy when it’s cold outside.)
Too much S-N-O-W-W-W-W-W!
Then, a few short months later:
It’s too HO-T-T-T-T!
It’s so H-U-U-U-U-MID!
No wonder Mother Nature is confused.
I can also tell it’s nearly Spring by the way the light changes. The changing light signals my urge to compulsively start sewing things for our vintage Boler travel trailer and our vintage, Fiat 500.
Useful things, like bunting and flowery pillow head rests.
I’m like a pregnant woman in her third trimester (or a Canadian on the brink of March).
I’m nesting, yep. God knows there are no birds doing that yet, even though, it’s practically (insert hysterical giggle here) Spring!
And, lest you think this is some sort of vintage-inspired female hysteria, men are not immune, either. Practical Man has been sniffing the air for weeks now. Air sniffing and more recently, hole drilling. Nary a maple tree in these parts is safe from his scrutiny.
It’s March after all. The season of joy, the season of nature’s bounty, the season of MAPLE SYRUP!
Oh sure, you need an ideal temperature of 3-4 degrees above zero during the day and 3-4 degrees below zero at night to produce the sap flow necessary for nature’s bounty.
No matter that it’s still -9 plus a windchill.
That doesn’t stop Practical Man from obsessively clicking over to The Weather Network and wielding his trusty tools until there is a tidy sap line just poised for a thaw.
Tra la la Spring: we are READY for you.
See you in May.
It’s easy to live a vintage life in the country. For example, our house comes with some property and on it, a little forest.
And having a forest, as we do, Practical Man likes to meander through it daily. He communes with The Nature in a way that I will never understand.
I love him, anyway.
You may recall that The Nature is my fair-weathered friend. Or rather, my only-in-weather-where-it’s-not-too-too-shivery-and-not-too-sweaty-and-there-definitely-can’t-be-any-bugs friend.
That is, approximately 3.6 days per year.
And, any of you who are sympathetic to The Nature and shocked at my cantankerous relationship with it, you can just calm down. The Nature is not all sweetness and innocence. The Nature has its moods, lemme tell ya. Just ask anyone who lives in the Canadian Maritime provinces right about now.
Up to their wazoos in snow, for the umpteenth time, they are.
And, if you don’t know where your wazoo is, well, if you ask a Maritimer, it’s approximately 3 feet above the average bungalow’s roof.
But, Practical Man doesn’t share my suspicion and distrust of The Nature. He’s a frolicker in rain or shine, snow or bugs. It’s weird, I say, from my perch safely indoors, where I am quite content to look outside through a window (in the manner of wise Canadians before me.)
Being a frolicker and fan of The Nature as he is, Practical Man’s favourite time all year is here: maple syrup season.
Very vintage activity.
Did you know that you can make that stuff you put on pancakes out of TREE JUICE?
The Nature is so weird.
In February, Practical Man starts to feverishly check the weather network…I mean, his Farmer’s Almanac…several times a day and then, proceeds to tap any sugar maple trees at the first sign that the temperature is going a few degrees above zero (Celcius) during the day and a few degrees below zero (Celcius) at night.
This year, we are nearly a month late.
The Nature likes to toy with us humans in this way.
We usually have around 30 sugar maple trees tapped, give or take. Some trees are thick enough around, that they can handle two taps:
I feel an affinity with these trees. Being thick enough around, I think I’m a two tap tree, myself.
Hook me up. I can take it!
But, I still say an extra little thank you under my breath when I pass these guys.
Practical Man came up with this ingenious sap collection system, using old (cleaned) water bottles, some sap tubing, a spigot (the part that goes into the tree) and ta-da! plastic wine glasses from the dollar store. The wine glasses have their bases removed and the sap tubing is threaded through their necks so that the glasses hang upside down over each bottle neck. The sap then drip, drip, drips down into the bottle.
This upside-down-wine glass system prevents rain and when it’s warmer, moths, from getting into the sap. The big bottles also mean that on days when the sap is really flowing, there will be no tragic overflows, as can sometimes happen when you use the old system of buckets like these:
There has been enough sap in one day some years that these buckets fill completely and then…shock, disaster! They overflow, losing precious sap on the ground.
Have you ever seen a Practical Man weep?
I blame The Nature.
Now, we leave one “demonstration tree” with its old-fashioned bucket so that kids and visitors can see how it used to be done.
Don’t let that lid fool ya. It’s cool and vintage but, it doesn’t keep out much rain or moths.
Then, depending on The Nature and the speed of sap flow, Practical Man collects sap for a week or so before he boils it off into syrup. You can’t store sap for too long without it spoiling and you can’t keep a Practical Man cooped up in the house, when the smell of Spring is in the air.
Early in the morning, on boil day, Practical Man goes to the stove he built for maple syruping (maple syrup turns into a verb in Ontario in the Spring). He gets some logs and kindling…
And then, he starts a fire in the stove…
It burns at approximately 3 trillion degrees.
Our stove is an old household oil tank, turned on its side. Holes were cut in the (now) top to hold six pans over the fire. A door was cut in the (now) end so that he can load the logs (and chewing gum). He’s got draft holes with tubes running through the firebox so he can control the burn. A chimney off the (now) top/back of the tank draws the smoke up and out.
Those things up against the tank are paving stones. They insulate the tank somewhat so that you can get near it without singeing off parts of your skin (important for when I come out to play, since I come from long line of klutzes, including one person who cut herself on an onion bun.)
To keep the sap until he boils, Practical Man stores it in (new) clean garbage buckets. If it’s getting warm, he packs snow around them to keep the sap cool until boil day.
Yep, that’s sap ice in there. It hasn’t warmed up yet, but I won’t complain (see earlier note about The Nature and the maritime provinces) because that would just be rude to our PEI, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick friends.
On boil day, the sap is gradually put in the 6 pans over the fire. It begins to evaporate off the water and leave the sugar behind. We keep adding more sap as the steam boils off and the remaining sap keeps concentrating and so on and so on. It’s kind of a steamy miracle, really. Or, as I like to call it:
A maple syrup facial.
Then, all day, there is a lovely little dance that involves moving sap from one pan to another. Adding sap from the buckets to the coffee cans around the boil pans so that the new sap can warm up a bit before it’s ladled into the hot pans. Skimming the froth off the top of the sap in the pans, as it boils. Slowly, slowly, over hours and hours, the water evaporates and the remaining sap gets more and more concentrated in sugar.
(Or something like that. Honestly, I’m mostly the photographer, lunch fixer and product tester.)
All I know is, it takes a long time, a lot of work and a lot of patience. At the end of which, you get 40x less syrup than you had sap.
That is…40 litres of sap yields approximately 1 litre of sugar.
I know: all that time, work and patience and we get…what, what, what?!
And how’s this for a little more math: today, we boiled 190 litres of sap and we’ll get around 5 litres of syrup (that luxurious excess is because the first boil of the season is usually sweetest).
This is the part where I confess that I would (might) have boiled sap into syrup once and thought, “Wow, that was really neat (and boy, was it a LOT of time, work and patience.)”
I would never, ever have felt the need to do it again. Nope.
But then, I tend to the indoors and am a die-hard chocolate girl. If you ever find trees that yield sap that turns into chocolate, sign me up! I will boil that baby until the cows come home.
And, I am afraid of cows.
This is maple syrup season #11 for us and Practical Man still loves it.
He looks cute in his lumberjack ensemble too.
What can I say? It keeps me coming back year after year.
The sap is getting syrup-y now. And bubbly. All the better for the maple syrup facial.
Not sure why my eyelashes are sticking to my face.
The fire gets stoked some more:
Slowly, slowly, the pans boil off enough water that the remaining, concentrate sap gets moved to the centre pans. It sounds simple – oh, yes – just move that hot, steaming, scalding pan full of hot, steaming, scalding sap!
Well okay, then.
I’ll stand over here because I am a documented fraidy-cat.
The centre pans contain the most concentrated of all the sap and will become syrup. There is a magic formula that involves a full moon, barometric pressure, the boiling point of water and whether you’re facing east and standing on your left foot (just kidding – you need both feet on the ground when you’re dealing with hot, steamy, scalding sap.)
Anyhoo, today, the super secret special maple magic thermometer had to reach 7 degrees Celcius (that’s hot, steaming, scalding to us lay people) above the boiling point of water before the sap would be the right consistency:
That is to say, it wasn’t SAP anymore.
It was SYRUP!
(I think applause is warranted. It’s taken us hours to get to this point, honestly, I can’t believe you don’t think this deserves a standing ovation).
Finally, it’s time for another treacherous journey: from the last hot, steaming, scalding pan into the first of the filters; a paper one inside a wool one:
Drip, drip, drip.
Yep, it’s definitely syrup.
And, that means that no matter what The Nature has up its sleeve from here on out:
it’s definitely Spring.