I first met urban gardener and beekeeper Katy Murphy during the Sugar Beet Co-op’s Edible Garden Tour, 2014.
That day, her “urban farm” in southeast Oak Park was the second stop on a day designed to fill up my head with all sorts of new gardening ideas and approaches.
Katy’s must-see sustainable landscape – which included edible veggies, fruit trees, and bees hives, plus a couple of  angora rabbits she raises to gather their fur for knitting — became a means for me to cross off one more to-do on my very long bucket list. 
Why I loved lingering in her yard and gardens is a no-brainer, I suppose:  Since my college days in southern Illinois, when I spent a lot of time in the Shawnee National Forest, it has been my aim to learn how to tap sap from a Maple tree, then make maple syrup and candy and more from it,  tree to table.

That’s what I learned Katy, and her spouse Jan Weinstein, do in the Spring in Oak Park, using the big ‘ole Silver Maple in their front yard.  It is large enough, Katy says, to support two taps at once.

Last week, when I met up with Katy to see it in action, she mentioned that this year, as an experiment, she will use the sap to brew beer.
But finding one Oak Park tree enthusiast who was doing this wasn’t good enough for me.   I soon discovered, then reached out to veteran Maple tree tapper Margot McMahon.  She is the local sculptor and art educator who recently  turned me on to, especially after she demoed what she had been doing with her Silver Maple trees for over a decade now.
So last week, on March 11, I spent time in her kitchen, and all around her property, to talk with her about a little tree tapping history, the nutritional benefits of maple sugar over cane sugar, and to see her boil down some tree sap into syrup, then fill a few jars to put up in the pantry, as one does with jam, for instance.
One of her favorite things to do with her freshly made, and steaming syrup is make maple taffy in the snow.
I tasted some.  It was good.
Anyway, on my way out, Margot mentioned how she is among the sculptors whose environmental art is on display in The Chicago Tree Project, and how her avian-themed tree “Flock” featuring large blue song birds in flight is installed in a grand old Elm in Jackson Park.
Margot also explained that Chicago Sculpture International has partnered with the City of Chicago and it’s Park District to transform dead and dying elm, ash and locust trees into works of art.
“Trees have always been important cultural symbols – symbols of life, death, sustainability, support and protection. The ecological devastation occurring in our city, the death and removal of more than 100,000 of these cultural symbols, creates a sense of loss in our communities,” she said.  “The Chicago Tree Project is an innovative model for a type of site-specific public art project highlighting the effects of climate change that provides opportunities for sculptors to pay tribute to the decades old life trees have offered, creating new symbols, often in an artistic desert, thereby creating The Fifth Season.”
For $28 a person, anyone interested in joining in with a bunch of art enthusiasts can purchase a ticket to take a bus tour of the public art on Sunday, March 22, from 1PM to 5 PM, thanks to the Oak Park Art League.  On the tour, Margot will be providing the narrative.
However, if you can’t make that event, head on over to the “Ask a Master Gardener” booth at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, where on the last two days of it I will be chatting up attendees about how this weekend I sowed my first cool weather crop of early Spring.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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