Here's an interesting plant you might enjoy growing, whether you brew your own beer as a hobby or whether you just like to try your hand at growing something unusual in your garden. Growing hops has become more popular in recent years as the interest in homebrewing as a hobby has increased. Besides that, hops is just a really neat plant.
Fast-growing hops plants are very easy to grow. If you are not interested in growing hops for brewing, you may still want to include hops in your garden. The plant attracts butterflies, and the long vines can be grown to quickly hide an unsightly structure.
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Hops is hardy in zones 3-8, and commercial plantings are mainly found in the Pacific Northwest. A field of hops is referred to as a hop yard and it is a sight to behold. Hop vines are known as bines, and they can grow to impressive lengths of 25 feet or more. When growing hops commercially, the plants are trained to climb up tall poles. But you don't need to erect a field of tall poles in your backyard to grow your own hops.
When growing hops, a minimum of 120 frost-free days are necessary for flower production. It is the green flower of the female hops plant that is a key ingredient in beer, and these flowers are called cones. Each cone is an inch or two long with papery green scales, and when mature the cones produce a yellow powder called lupulin. It is the lupulin that give hops their flavor.
Once you've decided to start growing hops, choose a good location for your plants. Hops are sun worshipping plants. The more sun they receive, the taller the bines will grow and the more cones they will produce. Grow hops in a location where the plants will receive at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day. A southern exposure is ideal.
A growing hops plant will also need something to climb on. If you're growing hops as a decorative plant, a trellis will be sufficient for supporting the plant. But if you're growing hops for cone production, you'll get more cones if the plants are allowed to grow as tall as they want.
If you don't wish to erect a tall pole for the hops, you could use heavy twine or rope to support the plants. Secure one end of the rope to a stake next to the plant, and secure the other end to your roof.
If you are growing several hops plants, you might install one tall pole in the center of the grouping of plants and attach twine for each plant to the center pole, creating a sort of hops teepee. Be sure to use a heavy twine as a mature hops plant can weigh twenty pounds or more.
Hops plants grow best in loose, well-draining, rich soil with a pH between 6.5 and 8.0. Plant hops in the Spring once all danger of frost has passed. Create a good bed for the hops rhizomes with a blend of peat moss and sand, and if you have compost available, add a healthy dose of it to the mix. It is often recommended to plant the rhizomes within a mound of soil roughly a foot deep.
Growing hops begins with planting hops rhizomes. Rhizomes can be purchased from online sources. If the rhizomes are delivered too early for planting, store them in a plastic bag within the refrigerator until they can be planted. Rhizomes can also be started indoors in pots and transplanted outdoors once the weather warms up.
Plant rhizomes either vertically with the little buds pointing upwards, or lay the rhizomes horizontally about two to four inches below the surface of the soil. If you are growing several plants, they should be spaced no less than three feet apart. However, if you are growing more than one variety of hops, each plant should be spaced at least five to seven feet apart.
During their first year, growing hops plants will not yet reach their full potential. It isn't until their second year that hops will be fully grown and will produce a good crop of cones. During the first growing season, hops will not have a fully developed root system and the plants will need frequent, light watering.
After the first season, the plants will require less frequent, deep watering. A good soaking once a week should be sufficient. To avoid fungal diseases that can plague hops, always water the plants, roots, rather than watering with an overhead sprinkling system.
A mature hops plant is a heavy feeder and will require fertilizer to remain healthy and vigorous. Composted manure or commercial fertilizers rich in potassium, nitrogen and phosphates will keep hops growing happily.
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Once the hops plants have grown to about a foot tall, begin training them to grow up your trellis system. Choose two or three of the strongest bines and wrap them clockwise around the twine or trellis. You may need to keep working with the bines for several days before they get the idea, but eventually the plants will follow the sun and wrap themselves around the trellis.
A growing hops plant has a natural tendency to wrap itself around east to west on whatever it can climb on. Do not allow hops plants to sprawl on the ground as this invites insects and fungal diseases and makes harvesting very difficult.
As the plant grows taller, it will begin to send out lateral side shoots. It won't take long to reach this point in the spring, as a hops plant can grow as much as a foot a day. If multiple hops plants are growing near each other, these sidearms can quickly reach the other plants and become a wild tangle.
This becomes a problem if more than one variety is being grown in a hop yard, as it would be difficult to isolate the different varieties as they are being harvested. To avoid tangled bines and a difficult harvest, allow only the strongest shoots to grow and trim off the weaker shoots. Ideally, two or three shoots per bine are allowed on each plant. Expect to give your hops plants a haircut every few weeks to avoid a tangled mess of bines.
Depending on where you are growing hops, the cones will be ready to harvest from mid August through September. Cones near the top of the bines will mature faster than those growing lower because those near the top have had more sun exposure.
Not all of the cones will mature at the same time, so expect to be harvesting hops cones every two weeks or so as they ripen. One mature, healthy hops plant can produce one to two and a half pounds of dried cones each year.
Determine if the cones are ready for harvest by feeling and smelling the cones. A mature cone will feel dry and papery. As you handle mature cones, you will smell their aroma and your hands will become slightly sticky from the yellow lupulin powder in the cones. A cone that isn't yet ready for harvest will still feel a bit damp and it won't yet produce the tell-tale yellow lupulin.
Use a scissors or pruning shears to harvest the cones, to avoid jarring the plant too much and knocking loose the lupulin. Touching a hops plant causes skin irritation in some people, so you may want to wear gloves and long sleeves when working with growing hops plants.
Hops cones must be properly dried and stored. If you are growing vast amounts of hops you will need to invest in a hop dryer, but smaller amounts can be air dried, dried in a food dehydrator or even dried in the oven.
A window screen makes a simple hops dryer. Place the clean screen off the ground in an enclosed area away from wind and insects. Spread out the cones on the screen, and give them a stir daily.
Cones are dried and ready for storage when they feel a bit springy and their lupulin powder falls out easily. When the central stem in a cone breaks rather than bends, the cone is dry enough for storage. This drying process takes anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending on the weather.
If you choose to dry your hops in the oven, the temperature cannot go over 140 degrees, and the oven door should be left open a crack to allow moisture to escape. Keep the oven door ajar by slipping the handle of a wooden spoon between the door and the oven. Watch the drying hops closely to make sure the cones don't become too dry and brittle.
Store cones in the freezer within a tightly sealed plastic bag or within a sealed jar. Fill the container with hops cones until they are slightly compressed, but be careful to not crush them. The use of too much force could break the lupulin sacks on the cones which would release the lupulin, making the cones less valuable for brewing.
Once all of the hops cones have been harvested, the bines may be cut back to about three feet. After a frost kills off the remaining bines, cut the bines at the surface of the soil and apply several inches of mulch and composted manure over the crown of each plant. Hops is a perennial plant that will die back to the hardy crown each year.
Hops is a vigorous plant, and it can easily take over the entire garden if it allowed to grow rampant. To avoid spreading hops around the neighborhood like kudzu, the roots should be trimmed back in the Spring. Sink a spade about a foot away all around the rhizomes in the Spring to trim the roots back and keep the hops from spreading outside of its boundaries.
Growing hops is an easy and fun project. If you're a homebrewer, growing your own hops will add another dimension to your hobby. But even if you don't brew your own beer, hops makes a very interesting plant in your garden.