DIY Maple Syrup: Caring For Your Sugarwoods

June 18, 2020

This summer is the perfect time to start actively caring for your sugarwoods. Here’s how!

Morning in our sugarwoods comes with dappled sunlight, ferns and plenty of birdsong.

The garden is in and you’ve become the master of your lawn. Maybe you’ve even stacked all of next winter’s firewood. It’s not that there are no projects left to do, but all this time at home means you are ahead of the game this year. What a perfect time to augment your maple sugaring hobby by actively caring for your sugarwoods!

What does that mean? Well, every ecosystem requires balance, including the ecosystem that supports your maple trees. Due to human activity, balance is a bit harder to come by now than it used to be. But there are things we humans can do to soften our imprint on the world, and caring for our woods is one of them!
According to at least one expert, there are three main things each of us can do to help our sugarwoods remain healthy: (1) identify and remove invasive plant species, (2) ensure an ideal suite of tree species, and (3) protect riparian buffers and other critter habitat by leaving waterfronts wooded and woods “messy.” Let’s take those three in turn!
Removing Invasive Plants From Your Sugarwoods
An invasive plant is a non-native plant that does damage to it’s adopted ecosystem by thriving there. The three invasive plants that do the most damage in sugar country are buckthorn, honeysuckle and barberry. Removing them by cutting, pulling or burning them will go a long way in protecting the forest habitat. While big maple producers may have too much land to eradicate these species, someone with a ten-acre plot, for example, can totally handle the task!
Buckthorn tree

buckthorn

Honeysuckle tree

honeysuckle

Barberry tree

barberry

The first step to removal, of course, is identification. The Nature Conservancy has prepared handy information sheets on buckthorn, honeysuckle, and barberry that you can use to distinguish these harmful plants from native flora. Whether you make color copies of these sheets or bring a device into the woods for reference, it’s also a great idea to sketch a map of your plot and/or bring some marking tape with you to mark the location of invasives for future reference. For a more detailed plan, see our previous post on how to identify these invasives in your sugar woods. More tips for identification can be found here as well.
After you’ve identified your invasives, it’s time for removal. It is best to remove invasive plants from the ground in their entirety – roots and all – as long as the infestation covers a modest surface area. (Root removal of infestations that cover a large surface area can leave bare ground ripe for other invasives to take root. Such removal on steep slopes can lead to soil erosion.) For mature plants, however, cutting and covering with black plastic or a double layer of burlap is a respectable, next-best method. When pulling, it is important to get the entire root system as these plants propagate from the roots. Complete covering of all above-ground parts of the plant is necessary for the same reason. Either way, pause to pat yourself on the back for punctuality! Early detection and removal is key to controlling invasives!
What to do with the invasives once you’ve removed them? First of all, think twice about bringing the invasives off site – in Vermont, for example, it is actually illegal to do so unless you really know what you are doing.  Also note that composting invasives can result in more infestations if not done according to certain best practices. Bagging your invasives and bringing them to the dump is an option of last-resort. But destroying these woody weeds in a bonfire is probably fine, and you also have the option of simply hanging the invasive on a tree by its roots on site to dry and die. For more on invasive species removal, read our previous post about our experience weeding our sugarwoods.
Ensuring an Ideal Suite of Tree Species
Every kind of woods has an ideal suite of tree species that helps the ecosystem thrive. When you are a forester, you sweat the details. But homeowners can make an impact simply by focusing on variability. To begin, walk in your woods and catalog all of the species of trees you find there – including the understory (young trees). If what you find there is reasonably diverse – say around eight species – that’s great. You can care for your woods by just not cutting all or most of any single species down. If what you find is not monocultural (sugar maple only) but is non-diverse (only a few species of trees) consider planting, or clearing around an existing, oak or two.  Oaks are great companion plants in northern hardwood forest; they are great habitat for moths, butterflies and song birds and provide a food source for bear, turkey and deer. They are also projected to do well in a warming climate. If you do have a sugar maple monoculture, planting hemlocks and red maples can help diminish the virulence of tent caterpillar invasions. Just take a couple of hours to look around, find out how diverse your woods are, and act accordingly. You can read about our experience cataloging our own sugarwoods here.
Protecting Riparian Buffers and Other Habitats
While the first two steps in caring for your sugar woods are active, the last is passive. You can protect or create the potential for diversity for other species, including wildlife, by leaving standing dead trees [called “snags”], leaving dead logs on the ground, and, where bodies of water exist, ensuring that riparian buffers [forested area providing shade] are in place. Leaving waterfronts wooded and woods “messy” is enough. If you have an exceedingly neat woods already, don’t be afraid to leave a few brush piles in the forest to encourage critters to come, stay and contribute to the balance!

A healthy forest floor with native ferns, wildflowers and, in the foreground, some very young maple.