Growing hops at home is fun and easy. Here are some tips for those of you just getting started.
Hops thrive in good soil just like any other plant. They need a well draining soil. Also, lots of sunshine, nutrients, and water are needed to maximize production. Plant hop rhizomes in an area of full sun one to two inches deep. Individual plants should be at least 4 to 5 feet apart (it’s especially important to keep different varieties adequately spaced so their root systems don’t cross) . Vines can get up to 25 feet long, so plant them somewhere where you can put up a pole or trellis to climp on. Another possibility is to plant them in a flower bed next to your house on the south side and tie a string up to the roof. Hops can be planted in early April. Occasional fertilizing will help get hops off to a faster start. Miracle Gro, fish emulsion, or compost can be used. Water every few days if it doesn’t rain.
Once you get a few vines popping up and growing, pick out the most vigorous vine and cut the rest away. I know it looks so beautiful and you won’t want to cut them, but if you don’t, you’ll have lots of pretty foliage and no hops! When the vine reaches 6 inches or so, they will want to climb up something in a spiraling pattern. Looking down on a hop plant, the vine will grow in a clockwise direction, curling around whatever they can find. Twine, string, pole, or a fence are all options for hops to grow on. Hops will grow vertically without help. If you want the vine to grow horizontally, you will have to manually help the vine along.
By the middle of June, the hop vine will be growing very fast – several inches a day! It is important to continue watering often, especially if there is a dry spell. Additional fertilizer can be added also. You may get more vines popping up from the root crown. Trim these off too, so the plants’ energy goes into just one vine. This will increase your chance of getting a crop the first year. When the vine reaches ten feet tall, trim off lower leaves (below 3 feet). This helps reduce the risk of mildew problems. If you find a leaf with mildew or rot, trim off to avoid spreading to other leaves.
By August, tiny little hop cones will form on the upper half of the plant. They will continue to develop and get larger. Length of the cones will be around one inch or smaller the first year. One of the biggest questions everyone asks is, “How do I know when to pick my hops?” When getting close to harvest time (usually the end of August and into September) you will need to feel the hop cones every two days. You will notice a change in the way they feel. Early on, they will feel soft and green-like. At peak time for picking, they will feel drier and paper-like. There will also be a bit of a color change. They will turn from soft green to a light green with a hint of yellowing. If you see the tips start to turn brown, then they need to be picked asap. Hop cones, at their peak, will have a nice aroma when pinched between your fingers and will feel sticky from the yellow lupulin glands inside the cones.
Hops may be picked directed off the vine. Often times you will need a ladder to reach the hops, so be careful. You can choose to cut the whole vine down and then pick off the hops. As soon as the hops are picked, they should be spread out on screens to dry. If they are left in buckets for a period of time, they will heat up and spoil. I like to dry my hops on window screens up in my attic for 2 to 3 days. When dry, hops will feel much lighter and brittle.
Package hops as soon as they are dried to avoid loss of bitterness. Two rules to follow for best storage results: eliminate oxygen and keep cold. The best way to store hops is in a vaccum-sealed plastic bag. Vaccum sealers can be purchased at food stores or outdoor hunting stores. I use quart size bags and pack in enough to weigh 1 or 2 ounces. Zip loc bags are OK for short term storage only. Store bags in the freezer.
If you don’t have a good way to store them, you can make your favorite homebrew and throw your freshly picked hops right in the pot! If you don’t dry them, don’t forget to account for water weight of fresh hops.
Care of hop plant after harvest:
Add compost in the fall and put a layer of mulch down to protect the root crown for the winter. Cut off the old vine if you didn’t do it at harvest time. If any new shoots popped up in the fall, let them grow. This helps prepare itself for the winter. A killer frost will kill off new growth for the rest of the year. The plant will then go dormant for the winter.
Care of Hop Plant in Preceding Years:
Each Spring (mid March) you will need to cultivate around the root crowns and cut away new rhizome growth. If this is not done, you will get a huge entangled root mass and new hop plants everywhere, which will hurt long term production. Hop plants must be contained to the original root crowns. New rhizome growth will be found in the top 3 inches of soil surrounding the plant. It will be a long slender root with tiny nodules on it. These nodules are what develop into new vines. Dig them up and give them to your friends, start a new plant in a new location, or discard them. If you are going to save them to replant, the rhizomes can be cut into 4 to 6 inch segments. Add fresh compost or fertilizer.
New runners will come up a little earlier after the first year, usually in early April. As much as you will hate to do this, cut off the vines that have begun to grow the first few days in May. This allows for more vigorous vines to start and improve your yields. (Also, I have found that the hops I picked from the earliest vines had less bitterness than the hops I picked from vines that grew up a few weeks later.)
By the end of May you will have several nice runners coming along. For the second year you can allow two vines to grow and produce. Pick out the two that look the best and trim away any others. By the third year, you can allow 3 to 4 vines to grow from each crown.