Hops for the Home Garden
With increased popularity of home brewing and a demand for locally grown ingredients, interest in backyard hop production is growing. Primarily used as bittering and aroma agents in beer, hop plants are hardy perennial plants that can be successfully grown in the home garden. Whether you are a home brewer trying out your green thumb or just want to try something different this year, consider planting hops!
What are hops?
Hops (Humulus lupulus) are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. The flowers produced by female plants are called cones and contain the aroma, bittering, and flavoring compounds desired by brewers. Hops are long-lived (10-15 years) perennial plants that produce vines each year from overwintering rootstock. A full-grown vine can be as tall as 25 feet in height, so ample vertical space is required in order to successfully grow hops. Today, commercial production of hops occurs in the Northwestern United States where climates are less conducive to plant disease.
Before planting, first consider the space required by hops. A mature vine can reach heights of 25 feet, but for the home garden, a trellis system of 10 feet is suitable for growing hops. Use what is available to you. A trellis system can be as simple as a backyard fence or arbor, or a more complex tee-pee structure that can be raised and lowered for easy harvest.
Hops are propagated by rhizomes, a type of specialized root, and planted in well-drained soils with a pH of 6-7. Rhizomes should be planted in early spring in mounds, spaced 2-3 feet apart with two rhizomes per mound. Plant rhizomes in areas that receive long periods of full sun, as this is the most important factor for cone production. A single hop plant can produce up to one pound of cones, so 2-3 plants are sufficient for home brewers.
Frequent shallow watering in the first year helps establish a healthy root system; afterwards, less frequent, deep watering will increase root growth and drought tolerance. Drip irrigation is preferable as wet foliage encourages disease formation on leaves. Hops are heavy feeders, requiring as much as 3 lbs/1000 square feet of nitrogen and potassium.
Training your hops
Hop vines grow very rapidly in spring and early summer, and “training” of vines is necessary. This practice helps control the shape, size, and direction of plant growth. Once vines are 1-2 feet in length, bailing twine staked at the base of the vine and tied to the top of the trellis can be used to train hops. Select two to three vigorous vines, and prune away the remainder. Once plants reach the top of the trellis, they will branch horizontally. These horizontal branches are where cones are produced. Hops are harvested in early fall and will produce cones in the first year; however, full maturity is typically reached after the third year.
Disease and insect pests of hops
Hops are susceptible to a number of diseases including powdery and downy mildew. Although these particular strains of fungus are different than the ones that affect vegetable crops, symptoms and control measures are similar. Cultural controls such as pruning lower leaves in mid-season will help slow the upward spread of disease. Fungicides, if applied early enough, will mitigate the spread of foliar diseases. Selection of disease-tolerant varieties will help lower disease pressure. Spider mites, leaf hoppers, and aphids are all pests of hops that can be effectively controlled with horticultural oils or soaps.
What varieties are available?
There are over 100 varieties of hop plants, categorized into two main types: U.S. and “Noble” types. The U.S. varieties ‘Cascade’, ‘Zeus’ (aka ‘Columbus’), and ‘Galena’ are ideal for our region. Consider also that each variety will provide its own unique aroma, flavor, and bitterness. For example, ‘Cascade’ is prized for its citrus and floral notes, while varieties like ‘Sterling’ are herbal and spicy. ‘Cascade’ hops also have a good tolerance to leaf diseases.
I encourage people to try new things in their garden and hops will certainly give you something new and interesting to display. If you home brew, try flexing your green thumb this year and grow your own hops.
For more tips on growing hops and information on where you can purchase rhizomes, visit http://nchops.soil.ncsu.edu/. To contact your local office, visit http://ces.ncsu.edu, where you can post your questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or call 253-2610.