big belle farm

Farm News

The Spring Flush
Posted on June 12, 2014 @ 09:39:57 AM by Paul Meagher

Those raising beef on pasture grass talk about the "spring flush", a period of rapid growth as pasture plants come out of dormancy and start getting a good dose of sunshine and moisture. The spring flush arrived a couple of weeks ago and I spent a week on the farm from May 30th to June 6th dealing with the spring flush. In an organic vineyard the spring flush means that certain weed species (most notably dandelion) are also taking off which can threaten the existence of 2 yr old grape vines that were just established the year before, experienced a hard winter, and now have dandelions and other weeds crowding them out for nutrients, moisture, and sunlight. The weeds also provide a highway that takes slugs and snails to higher parts of the vine where they can do damage to the buds. Moles and voles also have a place to hide under thick weed canopies. For this reason, I had to spend a few days mowing around the 2 yr old vines, hand weeding around the base, and finishing the job with my Stihl whipper snipper.

Another existential threat is from moles/voles to apple trees. I have collared most of my trees but there are still a few not yet collared. Even with protective plastic collars around the base of my young apple trees, I don't feel they are fool proof. If there is a high rodent population around the trees, then there is a good chance they will find a way around the defenses. To make the habitat less hospitable to the rodents involved alot of mowing and whipper snippering around the trees so that there is not alot of tall grass for them to live and move around in. Birds of prey like the Osprey and Crows can see them easier in short grass and perhaps reduce populations early in the season. I let the trees survive in taller grass last year and got quite a bit of nibbling by rodents on the trees resulting in the death of the tree. I didn't have tree collars on the older trees last year.

Once an apple tree is better established I may start to allow taller grass to build up around it. Also when the temps are hotter it is good to leave the ground covered with more grass to retain moisture. When pollination starts to be required (trees are not expected to produce fruit this year but are getting close) then letting weeds and flowers populate parts of fields may not be a bad strategy. For now, however, I thought everything had to be mowed down in the orchards to get ready for the season ahead and deal with the spring flush. An Osprey is flying above a part of the apple orchards in the photo below.

I also did some rototilling of the vine beds and the main garden to get them ready for the weekend of June 13-15 when I plan to plant out around 400 hundred new grape vines that I am rooting in my green house in Truro. These are the grape vines that will be ready to plant out as some can still use more time in the green house. I'm hoping to have around 700 to 800 new vines to plant out this year.

I will also be adding more rotted hay mulch to my 3 yr old grape vines to suppress weeds and ramp up the soil biology as Quebec micro-farmer Jean-Martin Fortier likes to say in his new book The Market Gardener (2014). The book explains in practical detail how he is able to generate $140,000 in revenue from 1.5 acres of land producing and selling vegetables. Jean-Martin Fortier was featured in a recent podcast with Peak Prosperity in which he explains his system of farming and its potential. Worth a listen if you are interested in farming or gardening.

Springtime projects around the farm
Posted on May 26, 2014 @ 09:54:19 PM by Paul Meagher

I came down on the May long weekend to work on a few projects around the farm. One of the projects was to fix the trellises that we installed last year. They looked ok in the fall of last year, but over the winter many of them heaved sideways and a few heaved out of the ground. Here is my brother surveying the crooked line of trellises.

We went down each line of trellises that we put in last year and repounded or fixed each post as we encountered it. The trellises I installed 2 years ago had no issues, it was only the ones we put in last year. Could have been due to the fact that we installed the trellis in summer when the ground is harder to work with, or that we relied too much on a front end loader to push the posts in, or that I did not have my brother helping me like I did 2 years ago. Here is a video of him straightening and repounding a few trellis posts while I drive the truck beside the posts.

I also spent time cleaning up the loose hay that had accumulated around the big sliding barn door as a result of taking loads of hay out of the barn over the winter. Here is a load of hay on my handy farm truck that I am taking to one of the gardens that I will be resting this year. I'm just covering the ground with loose hay instead of letting the weeds overtake it or leaving it bare.

Another project I worked on was planting a small but productive garden we have in the middle of the yard. I planted a bunch of cold hardy veggies in it as I expect there might be a frost or two still.

The final major project I worked on was removing some of the foam collars I had on the apple trees over the winter and putting plastic collars around them instead. We had higher than normal levels of mole/vole activity in the fields last year. The foam collars helped protect the young apple trees but I'm hoping the plastic will be a bit more effective. Time will tell.

Overall it was a productive weekend of farming. It was one of the first times I came down in a while and worked in pleasant conditions. It was a long hard winter but it appears we are turning the corner into spring now.

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.

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.

About Us

891 Southwest Ridge Rd.
Mabou, Cape Breton.

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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