In honor of March Maple Magic, and inspired by the many Vermont sugaring operations I had been reading about, my dad and I decided to tap one of our sugar maple trees in Loveland, Ohio! We detailed our process in the Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Maple Tapping video linked below for your viewing pleasure: feel free to look at this as a how-to, or how-not-to, guide… we’re not really quite sure, ourselves.
After reading up on the process, I ordered a spile and found detailed instructions, and on March 7th we set out to tap a moderately sized sugar maple in the backyard, about 16in in diameter, identified with about 80% certainty with our beginner plant species knowledge. It was about 50°F and sunny, with the prediction of below freezing temperatures overnight and there no buds on the tree yet. Our local nature centers had been sharing their high sap flows on social media just the week before, so we were feeling optimistic about our chances. We followed the instructions to a T, using a 7/16th bit, drilling to 2.5 inches depth at an upward angle, about 3ft above a large root. The wood shavings looked healthy, so we gently tapped the spile into the hole and finagled a nectar bottle to the tree to catch the sap since we hadn’t yet invested in a bucket. We stared for about 3 minutes, took some pictures to document the event, and stared some more. There was no sign of flow what-so-ever. We had read that sap might begin to flow immediately, so we were a bit confused but decided to leave the bottle and check the tree again the next day after temperatures fell overnight.
We returned to the tree, hopeful but skeptical after yesterday’s damaged expectations. We were met with a bone-dry bottle and no sign of sap anywhere near the spile. We decided to leave the bottle there and abandon the efforts until I could talk with Debbie Archer about the backyard tapping conundrum. Debbie was equally confused about this absence of sap and hypothesized that perhaps Ohio’s season was over, reasoning that even if we tapped a different kind of maple, which was 100% possible, we should still see sap if the conditions were right. After explaining that neighboring operations had high flows just the week before and the temperature window still seemed reasonable, Debbie suggested that maybe we tapped a damaged part of the tree. This was an idea that neither my dad nor I had considered, and it seemed like a highly probable explanation.
The next day, my dad and I went out to check the tree and sure enough, there seemed to be an absence of branches on this side of the tree, perhaps because they had broken off, but it was difficult to tell. We removed the spile and reinstalled it up and to the right, where some larger branches swayed above, crossing our fingers that we’d successfully tap this time. We did our routine stare-for-sap and there were no promising signs. It was a bit warmer that day and temperatures were expected to fall in the evening, but not quite below freezing. We came back to check the next day and, you guessed it, we stared into a Sad. Sapless. Spile.
Needless to say, our beginner tapping experience was less than successful but an educational adventure nonetheless. We will be trying again next year and intend to be prepared with a few more spiles, an authentic metal bucket, filter bags, and glass bottles for packaging. We are going to shoot for the stars and try tapping one of the two black walnut trees, along with the maples in an effort to achieve our sap-seeking dreams. We really are puzzled by our sapless sugaring attempt and welcome any insight or suggestions from sugaring pros or hobbyists for next season’s attempt, and you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.