Spring: Bring it on? or Hold off, not so fast!

The mantle of snow is slipping and there’s a softness to the air. “I just want it to be over,” a visitor said, navigating the lake of snowmelt that impedes access to my driveway.

But this is sugar maple country. “We could use some frost,” a neighbouring producer told me yesterday, when I dropped by the sugar shack, alerted to the intense activity inside by the smoke and steam rising above the treeline.

The trees are running, have been going well for five days. It wasn’t the plus 14 daytime high that had him bothered as much as the failure of the thermometer to drop below zero the night before.

It’s a balanced temperature cycle that keeps the sap flowing. Ideally, a range of plus 4 Celsius in the day and minus 4 at night. But plus or minus 10 degrees here or there will work; the important thing is to get some freezing action in. Time was when producers could count on the trees running for most of March. Not any more.

We watched the sap pouring in from tubes linked to 20 acres of maple trees. The volume is about half of what it could be at this stage. But the scent of freshly boiled syrup pervades the sugar shack and prospects are pretty good for this year – with cooler temperatures predicted for later this week.

Maple trees are fussy creatures. For a good run, they like a sunny day, but not too hot. A light breeze from the west, enough to rustle the bare branches against the blue sky, but not too chilly. Snow on the ground (it lasts a lot longer in the bush), but beginning to pull away from around the trunks. Also needed: a good growing season the previous year with plenty of precipitation to help build up a good store of carbohydrates that will be converted to sugar the following spring.

Last year was terrible. Record-breaking temperatures from March 11 onwards turned the sugar in the sap to starch and started the trees budding out – that gives the syrup an unpleasant “buddy” flavor. Syrup production ended around March 16 around here.

Then it turned cold again, freezing new growth, which is stressful for all trees, but was disastrous for the county’s apple producers who lost a year when the flower buds were killed. And then we had a drought – not so bad here as elsewhere in Ontario, but yet another stress for trees. 

This year’s syrup harvest will be better, with cooler temperatures predicted for later this week. We like spring to arrive slow and steady in sugar maple country, with no surprises. So, hold off everyone, don’t wish too hard for warmer temperatures. They will come, soon enough.

See you at the Elmvale Maple Syrup Festival on Saturday, April 20– and be sure to visit our local producers, Greenlaw Maples and Lalonde’s Sugar Shack.
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