Spring is approaching soon, so it’s almost time to plant hops! I’ve been growing hops for two years now, and I thought I’d write a little bit on how to grow them. Hops are easy to grow, make a nice decoration, and will produce more cones than you can probably use after the first year of growth. Hops are mostly grown in the Pacific northwest, but they will grow pretty well anywhere above zone 8, although it can still be done further south. (Curious to see what zone you are in? Check by zipcode) In northern Virginia, we are zone 7a.
Hops are planted by rhizomes rather than seeds to ensure that all plants will be female and produce cones. The unfertilized cone of the plant is what is used to make beer. Rhizomes are cuttings from underground runners which will grow into a full-sized plant. For donating to my Kickstarter project, you can get a Cascade or East Kent Goldings rhizome from my garden. You can also order them online; order early because they sell out fast.
Hops are pretty simple to grow because they are very hardy plants, as long as you select the right hops for your area. I currently grow Cascade, East Kent Golding, Sterling, Columbus, Nugget, Centennial, and Chinook hops. All of these hops do well in American soil. Some of the German and Czech noble hops are considerably harder to grow, so I make life easier and stick to robust varieties. These hops give me the ability to brew pretty much any type of beer. Sterling is a Saaz-Cascade hybrid that does very well here, and allows me to grow a noble hop substitute for use in Belgian and German beers. East Kent Golding is a British variety that is very strong. The rest of my hops are American varieties, all good growers.
After you’ve selected your hops and obtained your rhizomes, keep them in the refrigerator until it’s time to plant. You want to plant in Spring after the last frost. You can check the average frost dates here. The dates listed are for light frosts which will not kill your hops, so you can actually plant before them. In Virginia, I stick with April 1st.
The single most important requirement for hops is full sun. You can plant in partial sun, but your growth and yields will not be as great, so select a site with the most amount of southern exposure possible. If you don’t have a space that gets full sun, don’t dismay; hops are extremely strong and will still do well. Select your site and clear a bed. You can create a bed the traditional way, or you can use the no-till method. I have used both successfully and my hops have faired equally well. You want to create a good mound so that water drains away from the bed. Edge the sides to promote drainage. Do not use any fertilizer initially. You can and should use compost. If you are a brewer, you have easy access to great compost. Mix spent grains at a ratio of 3:1 with coffee grounds. You can obtain big bags of grounds from your area Starbucks. Let this compost break down first before adding it to beds; it is very acidic initially, but the PH will balance out over time.
You want a 3×3 foot square for each hop plant of the same variety. Plant different varieties further apart in separate beds if possible; your hops will send out runners in a year or two and can become entangled. You can and should trim them back, but this will make things easier. Make sure you write down which varieties are planted where, because it is very hard to tell them apart. Place the rhizomes a couple inches under, with the white buds facing up.
The next part is creating a hop trellis. Hops can grow 30+ vertical feet. The higher they climb, the more cones they will produce, as cones are mostly produced by horizontal side-arms that grow out from the plant above a certain height. Just remember that you need a way of picking the hops from their lofty height, either by lowering or using a ladder. A trellis can follow many different designs, from a single pole, to a clothesline-like structure, to the beautiful and complex form of the hopsail. My first little hops garden used the simplest and most effective bamboo design imaginable. Take a 2×2 and cut the end into a sharp point with a hacksaw or other cutting tool. Then, soak the ground at your site with water, and drive the 2×2 into the ground with a sledgehammer or axe butt, standing on a step ladder, until it is secure. Cut the longest piece of bamboo you can find and tie a string or two to the top for each of your plants, with enough length to reach the ground. Lash the bamboo to the 2×2, and tie the strings to the ground for your plants to climb. This design is extremely effective because it is very tall but extremely sturdy. Bamboo is flexible and strong. The 2×2 keeps it securely upright. You can use a heat gun to cure the piece of bamboo first which will improve its lifespan, or just replace it in a year or two. When you are ready to harvest, simply untie the bamboo and lower your hops to the ground. Here is a picture of my very forlorn-looking simple bamboo trellis in the dead of winter:
After planting, you should see shoots within a month or so. Some rhizomes take over a month to sprout, but about one in ten are defective. Hopefully all of yours take off! Once the shoots have grown about a foot, wrap them around the strings of your trellis. They will naturally climb. Normally, you would trim all but one or two of the shoots from each plant, but in the first year, you want to let all of them grow. In Virginia, spring rains take care of all the watering during the first month or so of growth. Once the plants begin to establish themselves, regular watering will ensure rapid growth. I usually water once every two days. Hops grow at an incredibly fast rate, sometimes a visible amount each day, so they need plenty of water. About mid-season, you want to use some fertilizer. I use Dr. Earth 10-10-10. You can also keep adding compost.
In Virginia, the most significant threat to your hops is Japanese beetles. If they begin to congregate in your garden, your hops are in trouble. First year hops can’t withstand a Japanese beetle assault. Japanese beetles will rip them apart and are impervious to most pesticides. Your choices are either to use a very strong pesticide such as Sevin, or hope that your plants survive. I opted to use Sevin on my first hops garden, and even so, the beetles still did a significant amount of damage. The Waterford garden is free of beetles, so this hasn’t been an issue, and my hops there remain organic.
In the next installment, I will show you how to harvest and store your hops and care for your garden into the second and third year!