big belle farm

Farm News

Note to self
Posted on October 2, 2013 @ 08:29:06 PM by Paul Meagher

They have started harvesting grapes today in the Annapolis Valley wineries. My understanding is that harvesting takes place later in Cape Breton because we need more time to get the sugar levels (brix) up. Wanted to record the time of year when grape harvesting begins in Nova Scotia. Update:: It appears that harvesting in my vineyard could take place around the same time or a week later. No clusters on the vines on Oct 12 - either dropped or birds ate them. So harvest can disappear in a hurry if you wait too late.

Busy summer
Posted on September 26, 2013 @ 09:49:56 AM by Paul Meagher

It was a busy summer with planting grape vines, apple trees, potatoes, and gardens. The hay was made and stored in the barn for the first time with the help of Ryan MacInnis and other helpers. Alot of trellising, weeding, and mulching work was done on the 1 and 2 year old vines in my vineyard. There are not many grape clusters on my 2 year olds (don't really expect significant growth until next year) but when I do see the odd grape cluster, they tend to be only located near the base of the plant. Nevertheless, there are some hopeful signs:

The gardens still have tomatoes, squash, corn, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts to harvest. Quite a bit of squash was planted so it will be interesting to see what that ultimately produces. The garden was put in fairly late this year, July 6th, so it is late maturing. Hopefully it will mature before the front arrives.

I'm looking forward to having less to do when I come down to the farmstead. It felt like there was always something to be done on the farm. This was partly my own doing for having too many projects on the go, but it is also in part of what is required to manage and maintain a 61 acre property with lots of buildings and hay fields.

I do have one more major project on my plate before the summer season winds down and that is bush-hogging the grass around the vines and apple trees, scything around the apple trees (to prevent rodents from nesting too near the base), doing one last weeding around the vines, and tying up my 1 year olds to the stake beside them (will do this when I'm weeding). Then it is cross your fingers and hope they make it through the winter. There will be some pruning to do when the vines go dormant but that is a ways off.

I uploaded some new farm photos taken Sept 20 to the 22nd.

Composting Toilet Basics
Posted on August 15, 2013 @ 11:06:45 AM by Paul Meagher

There are alot of misconceptions surrounding what a compost toilet is and how it works. In this blog, I will discuss how the composting toilet system for the Mill House works and maybe this will help clear up some misunderstandings. Here is a photo of the toilet facilities in the Mill House.

The inside of the toilet is simply a bucket with a plastic bag liner inside of it to retain liquids. To the left of the toilet is a garbage container that contains peat moss and a 1 liter scoop. Two scoops of peat moss are added to the toilet before first use and after each use you add 1/2 scoop or more to diffuse smells and liquids. The more you add the more you diffuse. The smells are also diffused through the vent piping. There is a screen window near to the toilet as well. This combination of diffusing factors helps to eliminate any odors that you might think attends the use of such a toilet. Instead, you are creating a mix of fertilizer and texturizing material that, if aged for a year, could be used as a soil amendment for a flower bed, shrub, or fruit tree.

When emptying the compost toilet, I take the bucket with me to the solar composting bin below where I empty the contents. The purpose of this bin is to heat up the contents of the bin to a temperature that kills any pathogenic organisms. If you achieve these temps then you can rest assured that your compost in not harboring e-coli or other nasties.

When I empty the bucket, I eject the contents of the bag liner into the bin. The supposedly "compostable" bag liners haven't degraded much after a year so I now remove the bag liner and store it in a separate garbage bin. It is a bit better for the environment to use compostable bags but the fate of the bags is probably a landfill site so you could use cheaper bag liner options if the compostable bag route is too costly (e.g., 25 liter black garbage bags). Also, you could use other materials than peat moss such as sawdust, leaves, straw, lawn clippings, organics, or lime. I have found it more convenient to purchase bags of peat moss for ready use and for its absorption capacity. I should, however, experiment with other options alone and in combination.

Once you have ejected the contents of the compost bag, you should then wash out the bucket and let it sit out in the sun and wind for awhile to help remove any lingering odors that might be on it.

After you have let it set outside for awhile, you can then put a new bag liner into the toilet and tie it to the bucket with a piece of baler twine or whatever you have at hand. I reuse the baler twine but could change it out every so often for new baler twine.

With bag tied into place, I can now re-insert my bucket into the toilet, charge it up with a couple of scoops of peat moss, and, voila, it is ready to be used again for a few days. How long you want to use it before changing it up is up to you. You could experiment with adding your kitchen organics to the compost toilet in which case you might be emptying the contents more frequently. You can fill the toilet quite full with compost and manure without there being much or any stink involved so you don't have to change things up after only a few uses. We haven't had any problems with flies hanging around the compost toilet but they can be a problem. If you do develop that problem, get a shop vac out and suck up the any flies around the area and keep doing it until you get rid of the problem. One application of a shop vac can do wonders.

So that is how my compost toilet system works. The design is a simple bucket in an enclosure that is vented to the outside by a pipe. People all over the world use such toilets. They are easy on water supplies and human waste can be used as a soil amendment instead of being dealt with as sewage.

A composting toilet does not have to cost you thousands of dollars to purchase and install. You can make one up out of ready-to-hand materials and you can install them anywhere. There are, however, many other ways to design a composting toilet system that could cost you thousands of dollars if, for example, you wanted to handle all the waste for an apartment building using a central composting area in the basement. Or, maybe you have a concert planned and want to build larger volume composting toilet systems to handle it all. The simple compost bucket system, however, sets the standard for what these systems should strive to accomplish.

I uploaded more photos of the compost toilet system if you want more details.

Bale Gardens
Posted on August 14, 2013 @ 07:48:03 AM by Paul Meagher

On tuesday, myself and Andrew Beaton moved the remaining square bales off the front fields. The bales were in the field for the last 2 weeks. I wanted move the bales off the field and find uses for the hay.

One use was to mulch around my 2 yr old vines (see my last few blogs). Another use I had for them was for a bale garden. Bale gardens are becoming more popular and usually the recommendation is to use straw. I have no straw bales, but plenty of hay bales, so hay bales will have to do. Here is a photo of my bale garden next to my main dirt garden.

Here is another bale garden we put in.

The second bale garden will also be used as a source of patch-up hay mulch for my 2 yr old vines. It may all get used for this purpose so I'm not committed to the second bale garden being a bale garden for next spring.

The bale garden would be left to rot over the winter and in the spring I would add a compost layer to the top of the bale to get it ready for planting into. In the case of potatoes, I would just insert the potato between a sheaf of hay a bit above the midway point. Tomatoes can be planted into a bale with a compost layer as well as other vegetables, shrubs, flowers, etc...

The farm is starting to get back to normal after all the activity with hay making and trellissing this year. I was also able to get rid of alot of junk around the farm and recently mowed the lawn. The farm is looking nice and I am looking forward to enjoying walks around the farm during the later summer and autumn.

I uploaded more photos of yesterday's activities around the farm.

Mulching the 2 yr old vines
Posted on August 13, 2013 @ 06:48:56 AM by Paul Meagher

Yesterday we tended to the 2 year old vines after finishing the job of trellising our first year vines. We tied the vines to the various parts of the trellis system and made sure the taller vines were positioned between the new upper guide wires we installed (4 lines of page wire on either side of the post positioned at two different heights).

I had to make the decision of whether to mulch around my 2 yr olds with hay or not. I finally opted to do it mostly because I don't want to have to weed as much as I will have to if I didn't put a hay mulch down. The other option would have been to use a herbicide and I felt that I would rather keep things organic and fail in the effort (if the hay mulch causes problems) rather than go the herbicide route. We applied at least a sheaf of hay around vines and between the vines. Before we applied the hay mulch we weeded around the base of the vine. We kept the base free of hay mulch. I didn't want rodents to have easy access to the base of the vine when they overwinter in the hay. I also didn't want the slugs to have easy access to higher parts of the vine. Finally, a few of the vines are producing modest grape clusters this year (expect more production in the 3rd year) and they tend to be producing them fairly close to the ground so hay right up to the base of the vine would tend to cover over these clusters. So here is what the hay mulched 2 year olds look like.

The source of our hay mulch are bales that have been weathering in the field for around 2 weeks now. The hay we baled was not of high quality in this part of the field because rain got to the hay a couple of times before we could get it in and also because I had some of my rotting windrows (for my potato experiment) in this field and this was adding some material to the bales that animals probably would not like to eat. I'm glad I have this supply of easy to move hay mulch available as I'll need it to apply hay mulch to a few more rows of vines and as a store that I can use to cover over any weeds that will eventually emerge from the thick hay mulch we put down. I'll need to apply hay mulch each year to the windrows from now on. This is preferable to me than weeding and might also act as a yearly organic fertilizer for the vines.

There are not many grape clusters on the vines this year but there are a few. I'll be able to use these to test if my vines get enough seasonal sun units to ripen well.

I uploaded a few farm photos from yesterday.

Putting hay into the barn
Posted on August 8, 2013 @ 05:50:38 AM by Paul Meagher

On Wednesday we baled around 350 square bales and stored them in the mow of the barn. We didn't need a big crew for this amount of bales. Myself, Ryan MacInnis, Nick Graham and Andrew Beaton picked the bales of the field and moved them into the barn. I took a short video of the unloading process.

Today we will finish baling the remainder of the hay. Only about 200 bales left so won't be too much work.

We will also be continuing to work on trellising the grape vines. We will be adding the anchor wire and bottom guide wire for 8 rows of posts today and moving towards the goal having the vineyard fully trellissed and weeded.

Posts and Hay
Posted on August 7, 2013 @ 06:28:32 AM by Paul Meagher

On tuesday we focused our vineyard work on finishing the job of putting all the trellis posts in place. We assembled at 8 am, got the gear together for cutting down and hauling posts, cut around 40 posts, took them back to the vineyard.

Back at the vineyard, we sharpened the posts, then drilled all the holes with an auger mounted on the back of my father-in-laws tractor (nice new 60 hp Kioti tractor). After that my helper, Nick Graham, proceeded to pound in all the posts which involves alot of physical strenght to do which he fortunately has. We now have 8 rows of posts with which to trellis the 8 rows of new grape vines me and Adele planted this year.

Today I'll be getting the achors in for the end posts, drilling all the posts to install the wire, and then installing the wire. We may intersperse this work with weeding around the new vines or after the trellises are wired up.

Around 2 pm yesterday I had to leave the vineyard work for the haymaking work. This involved hooking my bush hog onto my tractor and getting the fields ready ahead of Ryan MacInnis who was cutting the hay with a 7 ft sickle mower. I was also bush-hogging some of the pastures where the grass was more weedy as we won't be using this for hay. We may bale it to get the fields in better shape for next year. It is bright and sunny today so there may be haymaking today if we get a nice breeze to help dry the hay faster.

Can't wait to try out the baler again that I picked up through Kijijji. It has worked very well so far. I'll be greasing it up and getting it ready for round 2 of baling.

I quite enjoy the stage of haymaking where bales are being made and stored in the barn. Last time we had 10 people involved in this process. Lots of joking and challenging physical work.

Hay making and vineyard work this week
Posted on August 6, 2013 @ 06:53:44 AM by Paul Meagher

This week my focus on making the remainder of my hay into square bales:

I have around 1100 square bales stored in the barn so far. Could be around 2500 by the end of it. May be mowing today in the late afternoon evening if it doesn't rain anymore today (rained during the night). Wednesday and thursday are looking like nice sunny days so will be good drying weather to get ready for baling on thursday.

My other major project is completing the trellising for the grape vines I planted this spring. Here are 4 new trellises that we laid the posts for yesterday.

I have 4 more rows of posts to go up and then wire them all up. After I wire them up I weed around the plants, whipper snipper between the rows, and get them looking good. I may apply hay mulch this year to the vines using bales that I left to weather in the field.

Vineyard Work
Posted on July 17, 2013 @ 09:00:35 AM by Paul Meagher

There is always something to do on the farm this time of year. My latest focus has been on taking care of the vines I planted last year. That means weeding round their base, whipper snippering the rows, tying vines to the bamboo post guides, replanting vines that died over the winter, and trellising the vines. In the photo below I'm anchoring in a trellis end post. You can see the 2 new trellis lines that I installed this weekend.

There is alot of work to do in the first year of a vine's life. You have to get your root stock ready for planting, get your soil ready for planting, plant the vines, keep them weeded during the season, and setup a trellis system for them. Setting up a trellis system is the most labor intensive part. I put up 2 short trellis lines this weekend. I still have 3 short trellis lines to put up, and 8 long ones. The vines look quite nice once you start getting them trained to the trellis.

You can check out my July 14th farm album for photographs of the trellising work I was doing last weekend.

Potatoes planted
Posted on May 25, 2013 @ 08:05:57 AM by Paul Meagher

Over the Victoria Day long weekend (May 17th to 21st) I finished planting 800 lbs of potatoes into the hay windrows that I prepared last fall for planting into this spring. The picture below shows some stakes I setup in the field to identify where different varieties of potatoes begin and end.

The grass is starting to take off now so the battle to stay ahead of it is on. The farmstead looks nicer in the context of the green hayfields.

I mowed the lawn for the first time over the long weekend. You can see the mowed grass in this picture of the barn.

I uploaded a couple of new farm albums since my last blog. The May 7th album shows photos of the baler I purchased and hauled down to the farm, the rototiller I took out of storage, the rototilling I did, the plowing I did, and some of the hay windrows I did my first round of planting into (my Norland potatoes). The May 19th album shows photos of my potato planting work, a Texas Holdem game we had at the Mill House, farm machinery, and mowed lawns. It is interesting to compare this album to the album of what I was doing last year during the May 19th long weekend. Over time I hope the photos provide me with a better sense of how the growing season progresses and when I might start planting different things on the farm.

Spring Planting and Pruning
Posted on April 26, 2013 @ 10:15:43 AM by Paul Meagher

I had the pleasure of working in the orchards and vineyards this week (Apr 23-25). On Tuesday and Wednesday, I planted new apple trees, pear trees, and high bush blueberry bushes. I loaded compost from our compost pile (rotted hay, rotted manure, some old gypsum board) into the bucket of my tractor and loaded all my planting gear as well.

The most difficult part of planting the trees was getting the grid measurements marked off. This is difficult to do when you are a one-man operation. Involves alot of walking around the field making measurements as best you can. My temporary fence poles were useful for securing the tape to when making measurements and for defining the lines to plant on. In the photo below, a field measurement tape (200 ft long) is secured between two temporary fence poles about 60 feet apart and I am planting apple trees on 20 foot spacings.

Although it was a bit windy at times, and there was some misty rain, it was generally pleasant to be doing outdoor work. I got a nice photo of the farmstead in the later evening as I finished up my days work:

On Thursday I focused on pruning the vines. I was not planning on pruning my vines as I thought I would leave well enough alone. However, when I inspected the vines closely I noticed a pattern of dead growth at the tops of the vines. The vines die back a bit over the winter. I decided I would prune the tops back to a viable bud and also prune the vines back to 1 to 3 main shoots. Year 2 for the vines will be mostly about getting better rooted and getting them trained to hang off my trellis wires properly. Usually want 2 main shoots with one shoot going left and one shoot going right on your guide wire.

Pruned vine

Took about 3 and a half hours to prune all my vineyard plants. Ideally you would do this during winter months when the plants are dormant, however, that is not a very pleasant job at that time of year. Bob Osborne at Cornhill Nursury where I purchased my apple/pear/blueberry stock talked about the last two weeks of April as being an ideal time to do grafting work so I assumed that the same timeframe applies to vine pruning as well.

2 yr old pruned vineyard.

Overall it was a very pleasant and productive visit to the farm. This was a good time of year to be planting trees and shrubs and pruning vines.

Posted some new photos in the farm album under April 24, 2013 and April 25, 2013.

Easter at the farm
Posted on April 3, 2013 @ 02:17:45 PM by Paul Meagher

I spent time at the farm for the Easter long weekend (Mar 29 to Apr 1). My main projects were to get the trailer up and running again and examining my trees and vines.

Getting the trailer up and running again involves making sure the electrical, water, appliances, and internet are working and doing some cleaning. I don't think I properly winterized the pipes leading to the washer and the washer itself and there were issues with both (proper winterization would have involved making sure they were free of water). My brother Blaise helped me repair a 3 foot section of copper pipe leading up to the washer. It broke loose from the copper collar at the bottom that held it in place. He took out the torches and resoldered the joint. Tested and water is no longer leaking. Blaise also diagnosed the cause of a leak in the washer - a leak in the filler valve. Could have been that water stayed in this valve, expanded, and caused a seam to rupture in it. So, in future years I will need to take more care in how I winterize the washer lines and the washer itself.

I examined my apple trees and vines to see how they were doing. The apple trees appear to be doing ok so far. A couple need to be replaced. The trees planted first are starting to get a bit bigger and bushier so I'm hoping they will put some good growth on this year. My younger trees aren't very bushy which is a bit worrysome. I hope they will shoot out some branches this year. Deer could be browsing them so that is a concern.

The vines also appear to be doing ok - at least the ones I could see above the snow. At the bottom of the till towards the tree line, the snow tends to accumulate more and about 30 plants are completely submerged in snow. Will be interesting to see how they do in the spring. Spring is later coming to these parts than down in the Valley area of Nova Scotia where alot of grape growing occurs. We will be later getting going with the grape growing season at this vineyard, hopefully we have enough sun units at this ridge top location to compensate for latitude factors.

Five of my 20 hop plants appeared to have survived (planted as rhizomes last spring - about 8 took). I'll have to be a bit more attentive to them this year to see if they thrive better now that they are rooted more. My hop trellis blew down over the winter. It doesn't surprise me as we never got good tension on it. Now that I have a wire tensioning tool, I might be able to install a better top guide wire between the telephone posts or between a telephone post and another post I install between them to cover the span where the hop plants are growing.

We had nice sunny weather for 3 or the 4 days were were here. There was some solid snow pack underfoot early on so it was pleasant to walk edges of the fields to see what new trees are growing up in the transitional zone between field and forest. This zone is the natural habitat for apple trees and we have a few that might produce this year.

Put in an order for more apple trees, pear trees, and high bush blueberry plants. I'll be picking up my order on the 20th of April and will hopefully be able to start planting these items out within a week of the pickup date. I also have vine cuttings to grow in my home nursery in Truro. The cuttings are tarped under snow right now and I'm hoping to keep them there as long as I can.

Right now there is not much farm work to be done. This is a time when you can enjoy the farm more without having to worry about farm work that should be done.

Blizzards and snow drifts at the ridge
Posted on March 6, 2013 @ 09:36:05 PM by Paul Meagher

The 225 km drive from Truro, NS to Mabou, NS can be tricky in January and February when we hit the depths of winter. We decided to risk it and drive down on Feb 9th so we could check in on the farm and visit with family and friends in Mabou. That proved to be not such a good idea as we had blizzard conditions for saturday and sunday and the drive back was not pleasant. I took some video around the barn and the trailer to capture the conditions at the time. Because we get higher than normal winds atop the ridge in winter, it creates interesting snow drifts around the property. The two videos below feature a couple of interesting snow drifts around the farm.

The first snow drift is one that accumulated around the large sliding door for the main barn (turn your audio down if you don't want to hear the wind howling into the microphone):

The second interesting snow drift is one that accumulated around the back of the trailer in the alley between the trailer and the woodshed:

I also managed to get stuck three times - once going up the lane near the trailer where the snow drifts thicker, and twice trying to back down the lane (because I couldn't turn around and go forward down the lane). Here is the first time I got stuck because I thought I could plow through the snow to get all the way to the house. I was mistaken.

Luckily my son Seamus was with me (he is in the picture). We shoveled the snow away from the path of the tires and then I pushed and Seamus drove it in reverse out of this snow accumulation. On the second day of the blizzard I drove up alone and stayed for the afternoon at the trailer doing some writing and puttering around the farm. The snow had accumulated on the lane quite a bit when I finally decided to pull out. It was difficult to back out, especially, in sections where the snow was deep. I ended up getting stuck twice and digging myself out twice. Fortunately, the truck was stuck on a downhill section of the lane so gravity could assist me in getting the truck unstuck.

You can see a few other photos during this time in the Feb 9, 2013 farm album.

While the conditions of these pictures might not look very pleasant, I actually enjoy being out in a blizzard experiencing nature's extremes. The farm is a good place to experience extreme winds during the winter months. In summer they are not so bad - it is often nice when you do get winds because they keep mosquitoes and flies at bay.

About Us

In December 2009, we purchased the old Gillis Farm atop Mabou Ridge from the previous owners who were engaged in organic wool production and processing. Since then, we have made many necessary and aesthetic improvements to the farm and are engaged in numerous experiments to determine the farm products that we will eventually focus on as sources of farming income (i.e., apples, grapes, hops, grains, vegetables, and possibly worms if we can find a market :-)

We aim to make the farm ecomonically sustainable in the near term and ecologically sustainable over the long term. Towards these ends, we offer unique vacation accomodations (on a weekly basis) that exemplify and promote a sustainable country lifestyle (i.e., water conservation, passive solar, composting, and food growing).

We are not eco-angels. We rely upon our trusty MF 135 tractor and an ever expanding variety of power tools to ease the burden of physical work because this is a working farm and we need to maximize the time and effort involved in managing our young orchard and vineyard, and our vegetable gardens, fields, and woodlands.

The farm offers a peaceful country vacation spot to enjoy as is, or between nearby trips to the local beaches, restaurants, and entertainment venues. All amenities are provided including kitchen, laundy, high-speed, local tv, shared lounging deck along with orchards, vinelands, fields, gardens, and woodlands to wander through and explore. You can also pick a feed of potatoes when they are ready. What are you waiting for? Contact us today for a unique and memorable vacation stay.

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