Photo credit: Lois Miklas
The International Herb Association chose hops (Humulus lupulus) as their 2018 Herb of the Year™. Beer drinkers are familiar with the heart-shaped, lobed leaf and bright green cones, or strobiles, of the hop plant pictured on countless beer labels. The cones of this plant lend the pleasantly bitter taste to many beers, most noticeable in the IPA variety (India Pale Ale). In fact, the addition of hops as a preservative was necessitated by the long voyage of beers brewed in England and shipped to India in the 1700s. Hops are native to North America, Europe and southwest Asia. They are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are on separate plants. Only the cones of unfertilized female plants are used in brewing.
Though seemingly exotic, hops are not difficult to grow in the home garden. Here are a few facts and tips, based on my own experience the proud grower of Cascade hops.
Many garden centers and mail-order suppliers now offer hop plants. Hops are propagated through rhizomes, or runners, spreading from a mature plant. Since only female plants are used commercially, you will be purchasing a clone of these plants—also female. Cascade is the most common variety offered, and, unless you are a brewer with a need for a specialty type of hops, this is probably the best variety to try. Hops can really take hold of a spot in your garden, so pick a location where they can stay. One plant is probably enough for your home garden, since they are very prolific. (If you choose to grow more than one plant, plan on spacing them about five feet apart.) Plant in average, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.
Hops are not technically vines, but bines—they do not send out tendrils, like grape vines, but their entire stem encircles a support. The strong, somewhat sticky hairs on their stems can cling to almost anything, and they will quickly provide a lush, green backdrop on a fence or trellis. If you are more concerned about production of cones and less about the ornamental factor, secure a strong, thick rope or a sturdy pole near them and allow for 16 to 20 feet of growth. You will have to think about how you will harvest hops growing at that height. You may have to cut the bines down at harvest time, as professional growers do. I have heard of gardeners using a hinged pole, so that they can bend it down to reach the top of the bines.
Growing and Harvesting
Your newly planted hops should have one growing season before you harvest cones. When the bines appear the second year and thereafter, cut back all but four to eight of the strongest bines and train those on your support. In fact, you can cut the first growth back completely, as the next flush of growth will be stronger than the first. Fertilize your hops several times during the growing season, and water deeply twice a week if the weather is dry.
Small, fuzzy green cones will begin to appear in early summer and grow to about one-and-a-half inches by late August. Wait until the cones are dry and papery to harvest. At this point, you should be able to smell and feel the sticky, yellow lupulin when you squeeze the cones. Lupulin is what imparts the distinctive flavor to beer.
Hops have the added benefit of being the host plant for eastern comma and question mark butterfly larvae. Your hops will probably be a curiosity to passersby, and you can use the opportunity to show your neighbors where beer comes from. Enjoy growing this beautiful plant; what you do with the harvest is up to you!