Entering my fourth year of growing backyard hops, I don’t consider myself an expert but I’ve produced healthy and happy mature hops (2015 yield: 8lbs of Cascade from one plant). When we started growing hops, I found that it was difficult to find a source with basic information hence, this piece (you’re welcome).
Order your rhizomes early (Feb/Mar) to ensure that you get your desired plants when they’re ready for shipping (usually late April). Consider buying hop twine to support your bines as this will support 100 lbs – mature plants are very heavy. We’ve bought rhizomes from Hops Connect and Prairie GEM Hops. Crannog Ales is another good source.
Depending on your region, your rhizomes should arrive in late April/early May.
- Keep your rhizome moist until ready to plant
- Plant when there is no chance of frost
- Select a spot where you get a lot of sun – southern exposure is preferred by your hoppy little friends
- This area should also have a trellis or hop twine secured for the climbing wonder to reach up to 25 feet. You can organize it to start vertically then move horizontally along your structure, if needed. We have our hop twine secured to the roof.
- Plant approximately 5 feet apart to give the roots ample space to grow
- Prepare the soil by digging a hole about 1 foot deep and in diameter – fill the hole with fresh top soil, compost and peat moss
- Plant your rhizome 1-2” deep horizontally with the root side down and bud(s) pointing up
- Water the area daily to keep the rhizome moist (don’t soak it though)
- Now wait patiently for about two weeks for your new baby to poke through
In the first year, do not cut away any of the bines as you will build a stronger root structure by leaving them intact. Let them grow, clockwise, up the trellis/twine. Once your hops find the twine, they won’t need any help climbing and latching on as they have little hairs that keep them stable.
Years Two onward
Select two or three strong bines and let those climb – cut away the rest of the growth as it comes up. By selecting just a couple of bines, the plant puts its energy into making hop cones for that limited number and will produce larger cones.
When your bines reach the top of the trellis, carefully pull off the bottom 3 feet of leaves. This allows more oxygen flow around the base and there is less likelihood of getting diseases.
After the third year, your hops will be mature plants. It’s the third year for our Cascade, Centennial, Golding and Willamette. This year we planted Saaz and Sterling. Go hops!
You likely don’t have a fancy drip irrigation system so pay attention to your soil and water to keep your hops well hydrated but not water-logged. Your soil composition (sand, clay, dirt) will play into how well the water is absorbed. You figure that part out.
The best time to water is in the morning as your plants will have time to dry out should the leaves get wet. Watering at night can attract pests to your wet leaves.
Use 20-20-20 in the spring when new growth starts. When the burrs appear, use 15-30-15 or similar. Compost is always great to add as well.
Aphids and spider mites are mortal enemies to hops. Inspect your plant regularly to ensure these little creeps aren’t using your hops as a Holiday Inn. If you’re lucky, as we have been for the past two years, lady bugs will stake a claim on your plants and eat the aphids. Word to the wise, if you have lady bugs and you see some weird black bugs on your plants, don’t squish them. Turns out they were lady bug larvae and luckily, we used the googles to figure this out first. The babies hatch and stick around for aphid snacks. You may also encounter lady bug, uh, humping. Give them some privacy and play them a little Barry White.
On the West Coast, harvest is usually the end of September. You will know that your hops are ready for picking when they are the following:
- Springy – doesn’t stay compressed when squeezed
- Dry and sticky to the touch
- Strong hop odour – rub one on your fingers and take a nice, hoppy whiff
- Lupulin – look into the hop and if you see a thick yellow substance, lupulin is present
- No visible yellow powder
Remember those little hairs on the bines I told you about? Well when picking the hops, these same hairs will scratch you. Wear pants, a long-sleeved shirt and gloves for picking unless you like red scratches on your pasty white skin (yes, that was me last year).
Once picked, you can either use them that day to make a fresh hop beer or dry them.
There are three methods you can use – 1) air drying (see below), 2) drying in an oven, and 3) humidifier. I’ve tried all three and the best results I had were from air drying. If you’re using an oven, have it on the lowest setting and keep the door cracked open. Turn often. The humidifier is similar, use it on low and rotate the trays every hour.
For air drying, find a room that is free of wind, light and where bugs won’t get in. You’ll need to lay the hops on a window screen or some other apparatus that allows air flow to the top and bottom. Having a fan in the room, positioned so that it won’t blow your hops across the room, helps as well. Turn them daily. You will know they are dry when they’re springy to touch, lupulin falls off easily and the central stem will break (not bend). This takes 2-3 days. Now weigh, label and freeze them until you’re ready to brew.
Your hops need to rest up so they can come back strong next year. It it’s the first year for your rhizome(s), let the entire plant die back before you cut it a few inches from the ground. The bines will put nutrients back into the soil and make the plant stronger. After year one, after harvesting, cut it at the 3’ mark (where you’ve removed the leaves) and let that die back before reducing it to about 3”.
That’s it. They’re pretty easy to grow and don’t need too much TLC if you follow the basics. Happy growing!