Beer Lovers: Grow Your Own Hops
Best known for their role in flavoring beer, hops are a large, attractive perennial plant that also has some applications in herbal health care.
Hops are a vigorous perennial plant that grows well in many temperate climates including ours in Chicago. While not a particularly low maintenance plant, it has to be wrestled into submission sometimes, hops can easily be grown as long as you can set aside space for them.
Choosing Your Location
Hop plants are TALL! Hop bines can climb 18 to 25 feet in ideal conditions. [And yes, you read that right, hops have BINES, not vines. The difference is bines have shoots that grow in a helix pattern and rough hairs along the stem to help them climb, vines use tendrils or suckers to climb and will grow in whatever direction they can attach best.] Makeing sure that you choose a space where you can trellis or use support ropes for the bines as they grow is an important part of hop growing success. A rope or tall trellis attached to the edge of a balcony, roof, or second story porch works well.
Additionally, hop plants can spread aggressively, these enthusiastic plants can get out of control in just one season! When planning where to grow your hops you may want to think about containing the plant. A large buried or half buried container (with drainage holes) may be a good solution. Alternatively, you can just set aside extra time in the spring for hop wrestling, I mean, maintenance. Either way, know that the plant needs about 6+ square feet of real estate.
Hop plants need good sun and good drainage. Make sure their home gets at least eight hours of sunlight each day in the growing months and that the area doesn’t stay too wet after rain.
Lastly, one other beneficial use of this overachieving plant is that it creates a great living privacy screen between you and whomever you don’t want to see...
Planting Hops Plants
Once you’ve chosen your location, planting your hops is a snap. Pop them in the ground just after the average last frost date (around April 20th in Chicago). Dig a hole large enough to set the whole plant in after gently loosening up the bottom of the root ball, cover it up no higher than the original soil in the pot, water it in and mulch with burlap, straw or wood chips. Easy!
To order your hops plants, click HERE.
Care while Growing
Hop plants prefer consistent moisture and do not like to sit with their feet too wet. The first year, as they are getting established, water a little bit every day or every other day to keep moisture consistent.
Hop bines grow quickly, you can expect several inches of growth a day! Yes, you read that right. And those bines need to be trained. Choose your strongest two or three bines and train them clockwise around your trellis or support rope. If you have more than two or three strong bines that emerge you should cut the extras back. Two or three bines will be plenty. I promise! And pro tip, you can eat any extra shoots, yum! They’re great pickled or in a frittata or risotto.
Hops don’t have very many pests typically, but keep an eye out for aphids and mildew. Cutting back extra bines and removing any yellow leaves should help with both.
Hops don’t require much fertilizer, typically a spring top dress of compost is all that they’ll need to be happy.
Hops will be ready to harvest in late summer/early fall. Harvest when your hop “cones” have lightened in color and started to look a little dry. They should also feel springy when you give them a gentle squeeze and have a strong, hoppy smell.
The best way to harvest hops is to cut down the plant. Cut the bines a few inches above the soil and remove the plants from their support. You can then lay them down and pull off the fully mature hop cones to dry. A long sleeve shirt and gloves are highly recommended for harvest day!
Once the hops are off the bines they are ready for use if you’d like to wet hop a beer or make a fresh tea. You can also dry hops before using them by setting them out to dry as you would any other herb. They can also be safely dried in a dehydrator.
Off Season Maintenance
Hops are easy in fall and winter. Make sure they are mulched and that’s about it.
But in the spring you will need to dig up excess rhizomes from around your main crown. This is especially important if you are growing in-ground, although should be done for containers as well. Choose a spot about 18 inches from your main plant. Dig around that spot and clip any hop rhizomes you find. You can use these to plant hops in other places, share with “hops curious” friends or can discard them. Now is also the time to top dress the soil with compost to keep your plants healthy.
It can be really tempting to skip this step in the Spring. It may look like your plant didn’t spread very much. Take it from me, someone who learned the hard way, do NOT skip spring maintenance. Guaranteed it makes the rest of the year with your hops a breeze!