During my university years I spent a happy internship working at a garden store in Portland, Oregon. Lucky me – quite by chance I had stumbled upon the American beer capital, where today more than 50 craft breweries produce world-class beer rivalling the best Belgian and German beers (though there’s still some way to go to match our English beers – sorry guys!).
England and the Pacific Northwest of America have a proud hops-growing heritage and brewing pedigree to match. Oregon’s stunning Willamette Valley offers ideal conditions for hop growing, while back in England the Southeast and Herefordshire are favoured spots. These locations hint at the hops vine’s preference for moist, mild summers followed by cool winters. The top growth dies back in winter but the crown and roots are surprisingly hardy, surviving temperatures down to -20°C (-4°F) and thriving from USDA zones 3 to 8.
How to Plant Hops
Choose a sunny spot in your garden for strong growth and flowers, or cones, of the fullest flavour. Autumn or early winter is a good time to plant hops, or wait till early spring if your soil freezes solid for weeks on end over winter. Hops are sold as pot-grown plants or rhizomes. Buy from a reputable supplier and opt for varieties described as disease or mildew-resistant. Plant at least 1.2m (4ft) apart into well-drained soil that’s had lots of lovely rich compost or well-rotted manure incorporated into it. Add more of the same as a thick mulch immediately after planting.
Hops reach lofty heights of 6m (20ft) or more in a timespan measuring weeks, not months. Commercially grown hops are grown up strings suspended onto a post-and-wire support system. In a garden setting single poles, stringlines or trellis will suffice, so long as they’re tall enough! Growing against the side of a house is one way to get the height you’re after, or plant a dwarf variety extending to just half the height.
Training Hops Bines
Spring is the crucial stage when training your hops. Once the new shoots have grown about 30cm (1ft) tall, select two to three of the most vigorous shoots per plant and encourage them onto their support. Other shoots should be snipped off to give you the first delicate greens of the season.
As the vines accelerate help them to twine up their supports, working with their naturally clockwise growing habit. If necessary, space stems out to ensure good air circulation, which minimises the risk of mildew while ensuring masses of flowers. Watch out for aphids and spider mites and promptly manage any outbreaks.
The flowers are ready to harvest from late summer to early autumn when the cones have filled out and become papery. They should leave an aromatic yellow powder on your fingers when touched. Use fresh hops immediately or dry them away from direct sunlight then store in airtight containers, in the freezer if there’s room.
Hops really get going from their second year and once established you can expect up to a kilo (2lbs) of dried cones per plant.
The first frost will stop vines dead and initiate leaf fall. Stems should now be cut right back down to the crown at ground level. Compost all the prodigious growth then lay a thick mulch of organic matter over the crown to protect the roots from severe cold and feed them for the following season.
Other Uses for Hops
You don’t have to be a beer aficionado to justify growing this charismatic climber. Hops provide food for the caterpillars of many types of moth and butterfly. These rambunctious vines easily grow through any cosmetic damage to their leaves.
Freshly dried hops have a pungent-yet-pleasant, soothing smell. Barbara Pleasant makes the most of their distinctive waft by combining them with lavender to make soothing ‘sleep pillows’. The hop bines look superb displayed as seasonal swags or garlands – a fitting celebration of the harvest that can often be seen hugging the wooden beams of the more bucolic British pub.
The young spring shoots, of which there are plenty, can also be eaten. Barbara suggests poaching them in lemon water to serve like asparagus. Or swap out spinach for hop shoots to give a green hue to home-made fettuccini then serve up with morels, wild garlic (ramps or ramsons) and a handful of fresh hop shoots.
Have you grown hops before? We’d love to know how you got on and, most importantly, how you use all those wonderful cones. Let us know below.