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How To Grow Hops

Humulus lupulus

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Hops, or hop cones, are the female flowers of the perennial herbaceous hop species Humulus lupulus, and are used first and foremost in beer brewing for their antibacterial effect that promotes the activity of brewer's yeast. In addition, hops help to balance the natural sweetness of malt with bitterness and add stability to beer, but they are also used for other types of beverages as well as herbal medicines. The young, tender leaves and shoots can also be cooked.

Medicinally, hops have been used as a sleeping aid, for tension relief, and to improve digestion. Some varieties are used for ornamental purposes in the garden and for use in dried floral arrangements and garlands. Surprisingly, Humulus lupulus is closely related to the cannabis, or hemp plant, and has both.

Growing the Hop Bine

Humulus, or hop, is frequently referred to as a hop vine. This is technically incorrect as the species H. lupulus of Humulus is technically a "bine". Bines have significant stems with stiff hairs that aid in their ability to climb while vines use suckers or tendrils to attach themselves to surfaces. Hop bines grow from rhizomes, which are also known as rootstocks or creeping rootstocks. A rhizome is essentially a stem of a plant that most commonly grows underground, along which roots and stems sprout along its length. When a rhizome is cut into individual pieces, each of those pieces, properly cared for, should grow into a new plant in a process called vegetative reproduction.

Hop rhizomes are only available during a short period of time each year, most usually during March and April, which is when hop farms dig up the rhizomes, package them, and ship them to retailers. There are a multitude of varieties, and you are often encouraged to pre-order them due to fluctuating availability and demand. Keep hop rhizomes refrigerated and well ventilated, but not frozen, until you are ready to plant them outside.

Hop bines are best planted with a southern exposure, but an east or west facing area will do as well in a pinch, except that your hop cones will probably not grow as large. A light, well draining soil is best with a soil pH in the 6.0 to 8.0 range will work best. Hop bines like organic nutrients including composted manures or blends of slow release nutrients including cottonseed meal, bone meal, rock phosphate, greenhsand, etc. mixed into the planting hole when planting.

If you are growing a mix of varieties, plant them at least 5 feet apart from each other to prevent them from getting tangled up with each other. Alternatively, if you are growing a single variety, you can plant them closer to 3 feet apart. It is also important to factor how you will support your vines when choosing a planting site.

Since hops prefer to climb, you should plant your hop bines close to a fence or wall, or rig posts, along the tops of which you can run line, which will enable you to support multiple vines (see image below).

Harvesting Hop Vines by Hand

The rhizome can be planted in the ground in either a vertical or horizontal configuration. If the rhizome has already begun to bud, be sure to plant it so that the buds are pointing skyward. Cover the rhizome with approximately one inch of soil when planting.

Consistent watering is imperative for the first season of your hop bines as the root system has not fully developed in the first year. However, you do want the soil to dry out as continual overwatering can result in the rhizome rotting. The best way to water is to soak them thoroughly, allow the ground to go completely dry, then soaking the area again, repeating this cycle during the first full growing season. Minor additions of organic nutrients throughout the season will ensure the healthy growth of your bines.

Hop cones will be ready for harvesting in late August or September. As you get closer to this time, you should be regularly testing your cones for readiness. If the cone seems damp, extremely green and stays compressed after you squeeze one in your fingers, they are not ready for harvesting yet. As they ripen, they will begin to lose their moisture. When compressed they should expand back pretty much to their original shape. You will also probably observe more lupulin, which is the yellow powder of the hop cone. If you end up with sticky fingers after handling your cones, that is a good indicator that harvest time is near. You will also clearly notice a more pronounced aroma from the cones as well.

To harvest, cut down your bines and lay them on the ground. As the bine dries, sap will travel back into the rootstock for sustenance over the winter months. Pick the cones and prepare them for drying, which is best done using a food dehydrator over a period of several hours. Alternatively, you can dry them slowly in an oven set to a very low temperature or dry them outdoors in the sun while laying on a screen for adequate aeration around the cones. After drying, store your hops in an airtight container in the freezer or refrigerator.

Growing Cultures

Most commonly grown in "hop yards", but can easily be grown in backyards and containers as well.

Plant Height

Hop bines can typically grow to heights of 25 feet (7.6 meters) or more, although some shorter vining cultivars are available.

Plant Spacing

Space hop bines 24 to 36 inches (60-90 cm) apart in rows that are spaced every 10 to 15 feet.

Preferred pH Range

Hop bines will grow in a pH range between 6.0 (mildly acidic) and 8.0 (mildly alkaline) with a preferred range between 6.5 and 7.5.

Propagation

Hop bines are most commonly propagated by rhizomes or softwood cuttings. Established plants can be divided after 3 years time. They are less commonly grown from their crowns.

Seed Germination Period

N/A

Number of Seeds per Gram

N/A

Soil Requirements

Hop bines grow well in virtually all types of well draining soils, but prefer soils with a lighter structure.

Alternative Growing Media

Soilless potting mixes (Pro-Mix, Sunshine Mix, etc.), coco peat.

Sun & Lighting Requirements

Hop bines should be planted outdoors in an area that receives southern exposure for optimum cone formation. An eastern or western exposure is acceptable, however, hop crown development won't be as robust.

USDA Hardiness

Hardy in Zones 3-9, depending on variety.

Water Requirements

Hop bines have a very small root system during their beginning year, which factors into watering patterns during that time. Due to the minimal root system, you don't want the soil to remain dry for extended periods, but you don't want the soil constantly wet, either, lest the rhizome rot. Best to soak the ground where planted, then allow soil to go bone dry, followed by an immediate soaking... and repeating this pattern as necessary. As the plant gets more established over the years, watering attention is less critical. Mulching helps retain water especially during the first years growth.

Potential Plant Pests and Diseases

Hop varieties vary widely in their susceptibility to major pests and diseases, which may include spider mites, leafhoppers, powdery and downy mildews, beetles, and others. Cultural practices encouraging adequate air circulation in the hop yard is critical to managing many potential pests.

Companion Planting

Since hops tend to crowd out most other plants growing nearby, there are no recommended companion plants.

Special Notes

Do not over dry hops. You do not want them to dry to the point where they turn brown or are extremely fragile. Overdrying results in a loss of Alpha Acid content. In subsequent growing years, earliest shoots should be pruned away as the subsequent shoots to appear will be more sturdy in their growth habit. Pick the 3 or 4 best bines from the secondary growth and prune back any vines that appear later.

Buy Hops for Brewing

Hops for Home Beer Brewing
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