Tapping Our One Sugar Maple

How to tap one maple tree for funsies:

This is an enjoyable project for kids or someone interested in the experience of tapping a maple to collect sap and make a little bit (less than a gallon) of maple syrup.  It will be easiest if you have a maple tree in your yard or a place you can easily check a couple times a day.  Ideally, the tree would be a sugar maple.  You can also tap red or silver maples, walnuts, hickory and birch. Although these trees have less sugar concentration and it will take more work and fuel to reduce the sap to syrup.  

We have a large sugar maple in our front yard.  It's probably close to the age of the housel: 120-ish years old.  We purchased a metal spile (aka tap or spout) from the internet. You might luck out and get supplies from your local hardware or farm store. The rest of the equipment we had on hand or we could improvise.

When to Tap

When the nights are below freezing, but the days are above freezing the sap flows. This year those days started in mid-January here in Northern Indiana.  We didn't' get our tap inserted until late February because the spile was my Valentine's Day present. (It was an excellent present!) The season usually ends in mid-March.

The March full moon is known as the Maple Sugar Moon or Sugaring Moon.

Where to Tap

The best placement of your tap is on the north side of the tree where the winter sun will warm the trunk and help the sap flow.  Choose a place above a large root or under a large branch.  Then, 2-5 feet from the ground place your spile.  If you are using a tube attached to the spile consider the distance the spile is from where the collection bucket will sit.  We wanted to be able to see the spile from our window kitchen window so we situated the tap on the southeast side of the tree.

How to Tap

Use a drill with a 7/16 or 5/16 inch bit and make a hole that angles slightly up into the tree about two inches deep.  Use a rubber mallet or hammer to tap the spile securely into the tree. Don't get carried away hammering or you could break your spile and damage the tree.  Then attach the collecting container and you're ready to go.  You may or may not see sap immediately depending on the day.

Collecting Sap

The first run we had lasted about a week and we got about 20 gallons of sap from our one tap.  At first, we tried using a plastic gallon jug (the bottle white vinegar came in), but it fell off overnight with the weight of all the sap.  We considered putting a nail in the tree above the tap and tying a string between the nail and the handle of the jug.  Instead, Jeff made a catch with a cleaned-out hummus container and some of his beer siphoning hose and a bucket.  This allowed us to catch up to five gallons of sap at a time, and there were some days we needed that much of a reservoir.

In hind sight, I wish we had bought the plastic spile that comes with a couple feet of tubing, but our metal spile with hummus container rigged worked too.  And it was fun to watch the sap drip.  We know the neighbors driving by also enjoyed it as we have wheel tracks in the mud next to the tree.  Since it tends to rain/snow/wintery mix during the tapping season, covering the collection bucket is a must.  A hole in the lid of the bucket to insert the tube, is an easy way to keep your sap covered.  If you want to buy a complete kit something like this will have all you need.


Evaporating Sap

When the sap was running, I poured it into the evaporating pot twice a day.  I used our biggest pot, which we use for making stock and beer.  I kept it on the stove, and when we were home (and awake) it was on at a medium heat (just under a simmer) and evaporated the water.

Sugar maple sap is two percent sugar.  That means for every forty cups (two and a half gallons) of sap you will cook down one cup of syrup.  For the eight cups of finished syrup we made, I evaporated 20 gallons of water into our house.  There were days the windows were streaming with moisture. We kept the hood fan running, the fan on our furnace running and the ceiling fan in the kitchen whirling to help keep the moisture from condensing on the ceiling creating indoor rain.  And this is why folks who make a lot of syrup have outdoor evaporator set-ups or a sugar shack.

As we collected sap, I continued to top off the evaporating pot.  I've been told to expect a sticky residue around the stove, but I haven't noticed that yet.  I would guess that keeping the temperature below boiling so the action of bubbling doesn't throw sugar water into the air helped.  

Our first five-gallons of sap, we reduced and then forgot about it on the stove until it started to smell like caramel and had become a dark maple taffy.  We poured the bubbling stuff out onto silicone mats and let it cool in long pools of thick sugar which turned grainy a couple days later.  

After that we go smarter and 
A. Did a larger batch, reducing 15-gallons of sap to yield  six-cups of syrup, which is easier to keep track of temperature-wise and
B. Paid closer attention once the boiled down sap was near done
To make maple syrup on your stove, take out your biggest, widest, heavy-bottomed pot.  If you aren't a beer maker or canner this might be your Dutch oven, roaster or a soup pot.  You want it large to hold the volume, wide for the greatest surface area for evaporation, and heavy-bottomed to evenly distribute the heat, so hot spots don't form and scorch your syrup before it is syrup.  Then turn on all your fans, and patiently evaporate.

We were having a good run of syrup, getting more than five gallons a day from our tree and with the stove on most of the day, we could keep up evaporating.

Storing Sap

If you have more sap than you can keep up with, store it covered, somewhere cool, like the back of your unheated garage or in the shade with snow packed around it.

If any ice forms in your container, use a clean hand to break it our and remove it, because the ice has almost no sugar in it.  Alternatively, you could pour the sap through a sieve to remove the ice.  Native Americans hollowed out birch trees and poured the sap into the long troughs to increase the surface area and freeze the water out of sap, reducing the amount of heating required to make syrup.

We also enjoyed drinking the sap.  It is delightfully cold when just collected.  I tried using it to make coffee and tea as well.  Ginger sap tea was my favorite.  

Finishing the Syrup

Once we could see the color of the sap change to amber in the evaporating pot, we knew we were close to syrup.  I sterilized my funnel, a rubber scraper, glass jars and canning lids by running them through the high-heat setting on my dishwasher, (you could also dip them in boiling water).  Once I had my jarring stuff prepped, I moved the almost finished sap to a smaller deep pot (a Calphalon 8-Quart Multi Pot).

It helps to have a tall pot when the sugar starts frothing, and the higher walls can support the thermometer.  The serious sugarers use a hydrometer to measure when all the water is out of the syrup.  For the amateur, just-for-fun sugarer, an instant read thermometer or candy thermometer works fine.  You want to heat your syrup 6-7 degrees above boiling. For most of us below 1000 ft sea level, that is 218-219 degrees Fahrenheit.

Filtering the Syrup

As the season went on, our finished syrup would be cloudy at the bottom.  It tastes fine, but isn't a beautiful transparent amber that we think of maple syrup being.  To make the syrup clearer we filtered it.  I first tried a coffee filter, but it was so slow.  Using hot syrup does help it move through quicker, but eventually the filter gets gummed up and even hot syrup moves slowly and then cools in the funnel further elongating the process.

For our second attempt, I used some unbleached muslin fabric to line a larger sieve.  Any tight weave cotton or natural fiber would probably be effective.  My sister told me the old-timers in her part of Minnesota remember using wool filters.  The fabric with a larger, surface area sieve, was more efficient.  I dipped hot syrup off the stove and poured it into the filter where it drained into a large measuring cup.  Once it was all filtered.  I scraped out the empty pot (lots of froth was left around the walls) and then returned the now beautiful clear syrup to the pot to heat it for hot packing.

How to Hot-pack Your Syrup

When the syrup has reached 218 degrees, take it off the boil and pour it quickly into your jars through a funnel and cap them. You don't want the temperature of the syrup to fall below 180 degrees so that the jar will self-seal and be sterile.  This finished syrup will keep at room temperature. After you open the jar store it in the refrigerator.

Alternatively, you could pour your syrup into a clean container and freeze it or keep it in if the refrigerator to use immediately.  Also, note if you freeze syrup, leave a little head space (half to one inch) for it to expand.

Here are the six pints pint jars of syrup ready to go down to the basement pantry.  The bottle will go in our refrigerator for immediate use on pancakes.

Hooray we have made our own maple syrup from our own tree!

How do you stop tapping a tree?  When do you stop tapping maples?  

After much googling and questioning of more accomplished maple syrup makers, I have learned to look for these signs:
  • The sap slows down or stops
  • The nights are no longer below freezing or the days are above 60 degrees F
  • The buds break on the tree (flowers or leaves)
  • The sap becomes milky
If you don't stop tapping when you should the resulting syrup could taste "buddy" or "green".  Maple syrup also turns a darker color the longer the season goes.  

To untap the tree, pull the spile out without wiggling it around, and creating a larger wound.  Then leave it be.  Do not plug or fill the hole.  The tree's ability to heal itself is better than anything we humans can do.  

Next year, place the tap at least six inches away from last year's hole.


Mushroom Risotto with a Green Salad & Balsamic Vinaigrette - Recipe

Mushroom risotto is a hug in a bowl: warm, earthy and comforting. Add a vibrant salad of mixed greens, shredded carrots with a balsamic vinaigrette and there's a complete meal. This combination has been a regular on our table for the last three years, especially through the colder months. Everyone likes it, even the three and five year old.  For their plates instead of salad, we offer carrot sticks and peas.

I have the recipe for the balsamic vinaigrette in with my everyday salad recipe post. This dressing keeps for weeks in the refrigerator, and gets better after the garlic has had time to infuse. Make it in advance, or at the very least, mix it together before you start the risotto and let it sit out on the counter to meld. This tangy dressing is a balance to the creamy, rich rice dish.

On days I am making stock and have a big pot simmering on the stove, risotto is an easy dinner. I hang a sieve on the lip of the stock pot and use a measuring cup to dip out the strained broth as needed for the recipe.

On days I want a glass of wine, this recipe also creates a viable excuse to open a bottle of Chardonnay; a glass to deglaze the pan and a glass to drink. Serve the remainder with dinner. The wine pairs beautifully since there's already a little flavor of it in the risotto. Feel free to use whichever dry white you prefer; Pino Grigio and Sauignon blanc are also lovely choices.

In the spring, when the first shoots of asparagus are ready to harvest, replacing half of the mushrooms with asparagus is delightful. Add a cup and a half of one inch shoots to the pan in the last minutes of the mushrooms and onions sauteing. You want the asparagus to just turn bright green. It will finish cooking while the risotto stands for five minutes at the end of the recipe.

Mushroom Risotto

1 quart (4 cups) of chicken stock (unsalted)
2 bay leaves

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 pound portable mushrooms or half a pound of shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups), divided
2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 cloves of garlic, minced

Up to a quart of water

2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon salt

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (plus more for topping)
Ground black pepper

1.  In a sauce pan, heat the chicken stock with bay leaves and hold it just under a simmer.  Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Then add the mushrooms, soy sauce, and half of the minced onions (1 cup). Cook, stirring periodically until the mushrooms and onions have released their liquid, and started to brown, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic, stir until fragrant, and then remove mushroom mixture from the pot into a bowl. Set aside. 

2.  Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in the now empty pot. Add the remaining 1 cup of onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook until glassy, about 9 minutes. Add the rice and cook stirring frequently until the sides are transparent, another 5 minutes. Add the wine and continue stirring until it has absorbed or cooked off.

3.  Remove the bay leaves from the chicken stock and pour all four cups of the hot liquid into the pot of rice and stir it together. Decrease the heat to medium, when the pot starts bubbling put the lid on it and drop the heat to medium-low. Allow the pot to cook for 9-12 minutes stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, to the empty pot the stock was in, add about a quart of water and heat it to just below a simmer.

4.  Once the rice has absorbed most of the stock check the thickness of your mixture by scraping the bottom of the Dutch oven with a wooden spoon. If you can see the bottom of the pan for a couple seconds before the rice covers it again, add a 3/4 cups of hot water. Once the consistency is right, stir continuously and fairly vigorously for three minutes to break down the starches in the rice and create the creamy risotto texture. While stirring add more hot water, a half cup at a time, as needed to keep the rice moving, 2-3 cups total is usually enough.

5.  Take the Dutch oven off the heat and fold in the mushroom and onion mixture. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and Parmesan cheese. Stir to combine. Put the lid back on and let the risotto stand for five minutes. Before serving, adjust salt and stir in a half cup of hot water to loosen the rice if needed.  The ideal texture for risotto should pour slowly from a spoon. Serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan and a generous grind of black pepper.

Risotto also makes delicious leftovers. Mix in a tablespoon or so of water to return it to the correct texture when reheating. 


Greening Our Kitchens

Greening Our Kitchens Title Image
In my kitchen (left to right): compost bucket, silicone bowl covers, drying washed zip-top bags, cloth towels, reusable stainless steal straw

Here are three things we can do to make our kitchens more earth friendly by reducing waste, specifically plastic.  Our kitchens are the rooms in our houses that have the biggest trash can because we produce the most waste there.  Let's look at how we can throw away fewer things by composting, buying wisely, and actively recycle.


Hands down the biggest difference you can make towards greening your kitchen is to compost your organics.  Even folks in high-rise apartments can compost.   Hear me out if you are skeptical.  One of the biggest problems with our modern kitchens is we buy food, then we prepare and eat it (or not) and the peels, scraps and spoiled food gets thrown out with the garbage.  This linear progression has long term consequences.  As much as possible, we should be looking for a circle.  Composting takes the organic portion of trash and gives it back to the earth where it can be used by soil microbes and then by plants  (aka carbon sequestering!).  Instead of sitting in a landfill where food scraps barely break down because dumps have almost no life in them.

Composting bucket
I use a wooden ice-bucket I picked up thrifting as a compost bowl.  We keep it next to the sink, along with the kids' reusable drink bottles and the brewing kombucha.  

If you live in an apartment, find your local community garden, and ask if you can contribute to their compost.  Or find a friend with a compost pile.  Or get a worm box.  When we lived in an apartment, I took our food scraps to the chickens at a local farm.  The kids loved watching the hens greet us and excitedly start pecking the bits. And after feeding the chickens we'd stop in the farm store and buy their eggs. What a nice circle.

It does take some mindfulness to compost, but it's not labor intensive.  You don't even have to empty your compost that often.  Put a container in the freezer and add your food scraps as they accumulate.   Conveniently the freezing will reduce any odor and burst plant cells which will jump-start decomposition so your container won't fill up so fast.  If you don't have enough freezer space you can keep your container under the sink or where ever and empty as needed.

If you have land, start a compost pile.  It doesn't have to be fancy.  Ours is a pile on the grass behind the garage.  It is amazing how little is left after a couple of weeks of warm weather.  It would take five years or more for the pile to get too big.  Then start a second pile and when the first has finished breaking down move the finished compost soil to your garden or spread long the house or under a bush or tree.  And there are many bin composters you can find on the market if you want something more contained. 

Reducing Your Food's Footprint

Buying groceries with less packaging, that has traveled fewer miles, and grown without industrial fertilizers and pesticides will go a long way towards reducing your food's ecological effects.  This is a admittedly a lot of asks.  Sometimes I can't find a food that meets all these requirements.  An easy way to set your priorities is to first grow your own food.  What you can't grow, buy from your local farmer's market or farm stores.  Here's a handy link to find farmers and markets near you.  This is how we get all our greens, most of our veggies, and some of our fruit.  CSAs are another option. Bonus - the farm stores and CSAs, will often take back the egg crates, berry boxes/produce baskets and grocery bags (both their own and from other vendors to reuse).

When I go to the grocery store, I look for organic produce that is package free.  This also means I don't use the produce bags offered at the grocery.  I bring my own canvas bag of bags, which includes the totes to carry my groceries home, as well as, some simple bulk bags and produce bags.  If I buy ten apples, I either let them be loose in the cart or put them in my cloth produce bag.

I also prioritize the store's bulk options if I can bring my own bag.  Our Kroger/Owens stores offer some bulk nuts, beans and dried fruit.  Check out this online locator to find out if there is a store with bulk store near you.  If there is no bulk option, buying the bigger package also reduces the amount of trash generated.  For example, buying yogurt in the big tub instead of individual serving cups.

For dry-goods I can't find in bulk, I research the brand options and chose the product with best practices.  For pasta, I buy Einkorn wheat spaghetti and fusilli from the company Jovial by the case.  I like that their plastic-free packaging is compostable, and the pasta is made from organic whole wheat.  Plus buying by the case cuts down on the energy used for shipping.

Kitchen Trash
This is my kitchen trash.  

Reduce Disposable/Single-use Things

Let's take a moment together and decide to purchase less disposable stuff.  Avoid plastic silverware, water bottles, solo cups, individually packaged convenience food, and takeout/fast food.  Plastic takes 500-1000 years to decompose.  Why use a plastic straw for three minutes that won't degrade for twenty generations?  We can do better.   It takes a little planning to bring our bags and our reusable coffee cups from home. And a little more time to make food from scratch.  We can do that.

When we do eat out and buy convenience foods, look for the no plastic, less waste options.  For instance, order an ice-cream cone that comes with a small, paper wrapper verses an ice-cream Sunday that comes with a plastic spoon in a plastic bowl.  Choose places that use real dishes or paper/cardboard containers over plastic and Styrofoam.  It's an easy upgrade.  If your favorite place is an offender, encourage them to consider more sustainable options or bring your own reusable containers.

We also need to talk about freezer baggies and plastic wrap.  My relationship with zip-top bags is complicated.  We buy from a local farm that sells their greens in zip-top bags so I have a steady stream coming into the house.   They are useful for freezing garden produce and for when my kindergartner wants to take crackers in her bento box for lunch and not have them get soggy from her apple slices.  I have made peace with baggies by washing and reusing them until they aren't functional.  When they are beyond use, they go in the film plastic recycling bag.

Plastic wrap however, can be all but eliminated by using containers with lids.  If you have bowls without lids you can place a plate on top or there are reusable lid covers that you can invest in.  I use silicone lid cover and baking mats, but after reading this article I hesitate to recommend them.

Recycling Food Packaging 

Recycling bin
Here's our single-stream, curb-side recycling bin. 

If you can't find the kind of food you want package free, look for something with recyclable containers.  Then make sure to clean them out and get them to the recycling bins.   I prefer glass bottles for things like mayonnaise, mustard and juices.  Some of those jars can be reused for buying bulk too. Many co-op grocery stores have bulk honey, syrup, oils and even soaps that you can bring your own jar or bottle to refill.

Here it is also important to know what you can recycle.  With single-stream curbside recycling being more common, a list of what the company actually sorts and recycles is important.  Check with your recycling company to make sure you are only putting in the things they recycle, otherwise those non-recyclables gets thrown away at their sorting facility.  You may have to save somethings and take them to be recycled separately.  In my house hold, the thing we have the most of, that the curbside recycling doesn't take, are plastic bags like what cereal, bread, newspapers come in as well as ziptop bags.  We save that plastic separately and take it to a grocery store that has a recycling bin when we are in the area.  Here's how to find a place to recycle film plastic near you: www.plasticfilmrecycling.org. Look in your trash can, how can you reduce or recycle what's in there?

A friend on my FaceBook Page, shared a website called Terra Cycle that has some free programs for recycling packaging from specific companies: such as Tom's of Maine, Britta, and Bear Naked.  However, after making an account, I tried to sign up for several of the programs and got a message that I had been added to a wait list.  Terra Cycle does have options where we can pay between $80-$150 to get a box to fill and send back to them for specific things like plastic bottle caps.   Anyone have leads on other ways to recycle those difficult things?

Maybe we won't get it right 100% of the time, but if we stick with it, and are aware of the trash we generate, we can put less trash out into the world.  Let's lead by example and encourage our friends and children to take up the cause.

What other suggestions do you have?  I'm always looking for ways to create closed loop systems in my kitchen.  Less waste, less worries!



Reducing Your Food's Foot Print

Reduce Disposable/Single-use Things

Recycling Food Packaging


Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread Cookies - Recipe

I found this recipe when I went looking for the most pinned cookie recipe on Pinterest. This walnut cream cheese cookie came up in several different lists.  It's a Martha Stewart recipe - surprising - I tend to think of her recipes on par with Betty Crocker.  They are easy and straightforward, but not special.  Well, this one is special. Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread Cookies are going in the permanent rotation.

These shortbread cookies have a simple classic appearance and elegant flavor.  They are an icebox type where the dough is frozen in a log and then sliced into rounds.  The cream cheese lends a nice tang to the dough, and the sugar becomes crisp and caramelized on the bottom without being too sweet, which complements the crunchy, slightly bitter flavor of the walnuts.  These are an excellent served with tea or coffee.

Every December I make cookies to give to friends and neighbors.  There are several recipes that always make an appearance: Grandma Jone's sugar cookies, and the best ever chocolate chip cookies, then there is a rotating recipe or two that I try out for the year.  This December, I had one dud recipe,  a mint chocolate cookie.  I was hoping would resemble a Girl Scout Thin Mint, but did not.  The real winner this year was Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread!  I have been complimented and ask for the recipe enough times I decided to write it up for the blog.

The ingredients are straight forward.

I have tried this recipe both with English walnuts (Juglans regia), the kind you'll find at the grocery store and black walnuts (Juglans nigra) which are the kind we can forage and are native to the United States.  The black walnuts have a richer, earthier flavor and I prefer them in this recipe and for baking in general.

I found silicone baking mats useful for both shaping the dough logs and freezing them.  They are much more functional than parchment paper, because the baking mats have more structure and the dough easily releases from the silicone after freezing.  I also used the mats for baking the cookies because short breads are easy to burn and silicone mats do a nice job of distributing and dissipating heat.  Plus silicone baking mats are reusable!  In my journey to reducing my family's garbage this felt like a real win.

Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread Cookies
                               via Martha Stewart Living, December 2004 issue

4 cups unbleached flour
1 1/4 teaspoons course salt
2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks), room temperature
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups walnut halves (1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped, 1 cup finely crushed)

Whisk the flour and salt together and set aside.  In a stand mixer with beater attachment, cream the butter and cream cheese until lightened and fluffy - approximately 2 min on medium-high.  Beat in sugar and vanilla.  On a slow speed mix in the flour/salt mixture until just combined - do not over mix.  Remove the bowl and stir in 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts by hand.

Divide the dough in half and make two logs of dough about 2" in diameter.    Then freeze the logs for 30 minutes or up to 2 weeks.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Remove the dough log and roll it in half of crushed walnut pieces.  If you have trouble getting the walnut pieces to stick, either crush them smaller or wait for the dough to soften slightly and the bits will stick better.  Slice the log into cookie rounds 1/4 inch thick.  Place them on a baking sheet with silicone mat leaving one inch between each cookie.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, rotating half way through until the bottom and edges are browned.


How I Plan My Vegetable Garden

How I Plan My Vegetable Garden

In the winter I sit down with my box of seeds, the garden plan from the year before, and a notebook to get ready for the growing season ahead.  Here are the steps I take to make sure we have a full pantry next year.

Evaluating Last Year's Garden

This is our fifth year with this garden plot.  Each year has been different.  Sometimes I try new crops, like last year we grew sweet potatoes for the first time.  We've loved having them in the basement and they have kept even better than the potatoes.  This is probably because our cold storage isn't as cold as potatoes would like.  However, the sweet potatoes and winter squash love it.  I also, had an onion crop failure last year which I'm still frustrated by.    I wrote up an Annual Report on the Vegetable Garden for this blog and at the end there is a list of notes for the coming season.  I read through them to remind myself and then moved on to the next step.

Additions or Changes

I decided to grow sweet potatoes again, we don't have room for more or I would consider expanding.  This coming year I am buying both onion seed and sets to make sure we have a successful harvest.  I also decided to move some of the more water thirsty crops like basil, tomatoes and zucchini to the north end of the garden where they will be nearest the rain barrel and at the front of the soaker hoses.  Other than that, 2018 will be similar to 2017.

List of Seeds, Starts and Sets

This is the step I need to get to sooner rather than later.  I am often slack in ordering and am disappointed when exactly what I wanted is sold out or I have to order from multiple companies.  January is the month to get ordering done.  (Or even earlier - Although, I like to save my garden planning for after Christmas.)

This is an old tissue box (back from before we switched to handkerchiefs) that I cut the top off of and repurposed. 
It is just right for holding seed packets.  

I get out my box of seeds I have saved and the leftover bought seeds (I rarely use a whole packet in a season).  I pull out the packets of seeds for the veggies and herbs I want to grow and make sure there are enough seeds left.  I usually plan for twice as many seeds as I want plants, since not all of the seedlings will make it.  There are certain plants that I have trouble germinating with saved over seed packets, the most notable is basil.  I reorder fresh seeds every year.

I also go check the seed potatoes I have saved in the basement to make sure they are holding on.  So far so good - no rot!

I make a list of what I need to order.  This year that is:

Onion sets
Sweet Potato

Crop Rotation

My Crop Rotation Card

Now that I know what vegetables are going to be in the garden, it's time to figure our where they will be planted.  I have four beds, each thirty by four feet which makes crop rotation easy.  I have a four year plan.  I do grow a lot of nightshades, namely potatoes and tomatoes.  They are roughly half my garden; I make sure they don't get planted in the same place two years in a row.  Allium (onions/garlic) and squash are my other two big crops and they are on a four year rotation.   I have a note card to keep track of crop rotation.  It has a small map of the garden and a grid with the bed number across the top and the year in the left column.  Then I can see which crops are in which beds on any given year.  Looking back over the last four years, I decide the veggies that will go in each bed this year.  Since what I grow changes a little each year, it doesn't work out perfectly.  I just do the best I can.

Draft the Garden Plan

Garden Map

With my crop rotation note card at hand, I print out a map of my garden for the year.  I have a map showing the garden by square feet.  With a pencil and ruler I block out each crop's allotment.  Once that is settled, I go through and make a circle where each plant will go and an X where a hill of multiple seeds will be planted.  This information helps me remember spacing when I go to plant in the spring.  It also helps me know how much to order.  Using pencil in important.  Nothing ever quite goes as planned in a garden.

Place Seed and Plant Order

Now I have all the information, I place my seed and plant order.  I don't have a lot to buy this year.  I will only be ordering from one company to save on shipping and fuss in general.  I don't even look at seed catalogs anymore, they just make me question my plans and want things I don't have space for and aren't suited for my climate.  I get most of my advice on which varieties to try from our local market farmers. My favorite seed companies are Johnny's Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Fedco Seeds.  Don't forget to do a quick search online to see if you can find any money saving coupon codes.

This year I am ordering:

1 'Sunshine' kombocha squash seed packet
1 'Genovese' basil seed packet
1 'Harmonie' cucumber seed packet
25 'Mahon Yam' sweet potato slips
2 'Redwing' onion sets (50 per bunch)
4 'Patterson' onion sets (50 per bunch)

Order completed!

And now I'm ready for April when the onions and potatoes will be ready to put in the ground.