Thursday, May 1, 2014

Adventures in Hop Growing

It’s springtime in Kansas City to which you may find your mind wandering to growing season… and what could be better for a beer geek to grow than hops?!  They thrive in our climate so, with the proper setup, you can find yourself with beautiful vines that produce a few pounds of hops come Fall. Even if you’re not a home brewer, hops can be a pretty interesting addition to your garden because of their fast rate of growth and density (think privacy fence).

Hop plants are grown from ‘rhizomes’ which are small roots cut from a main root system of a mature plant much like a rose plant. Hops are perennial plants so each year around April they start to sprout. We grow Cascade, Columbus and Nugget rhizomes which we ordered from Midwest Supplies (about $5 each), but there are many good suppliers out there.

Getting Started:
If you put a little work in the proper setup, you can grow hops with relative ease. The right spot is crucial. Select a place in full sun, with a place to climb and with access to water daily.  We placed ours on the South-side of the house which gets full sun all day, used screw eyes and twine to create a trellis on the side of the house and put a drip hose with a timer (a $25.00 total investment) to make a ‘set-it and forget-it’ system.  The first year, our hops reached about 8 feet tall. Last year, they reached about 18 feet and this year, I’ll be attempting to set up a 24 foot tall trellis… ummm, maybe! It’s easy to say when you’re standing on the ground.

Hops prefer a well-drained soil so if you have a prevalence of clay, as we do, you will need to amend the soil with potting mix and some sand for drainage. Plan to plant in May when the chance of frost is gone. I am told by master gardeners that it is safe to plant in our area on or after Mother’s Day.  You can also grow hops in a 55 gallon barrel. A wine or whiskey barrel would work and would look pretty cool, too! However, keep in mind that this leaves the roots exposed to heat unlike if they were under the ground.

One important side note is hops are poisonous to dogs.  While dogs aren't necessarily attracted to eating them, it’s best to keep them away.

Once they start growing, select three of the strongest vines and cut the rest back to the ground. By doing this, you are forcing the plant to focus its energy on specific vines which will increase the yield. Wind the vines clockwise up the twine and they will continue climbing.  Just water them each day and let them grow.  Ours grow about 2 feet each week and top out at about 20 feet tall, which is average. The flowers begin sprouting in late July and we get mature cones in early September.

Perhaps THIS is the year I will remember to wear long-sleeves when harvesting.  The vines have tiny barbs which will leave your arms scratched up and itchy. You’ll definitely want to wear gloves, as well. We tend to cut down the twine and lay the vines on the ground to harvest.  Leave about 2 feet of vine from the ground for next year.  Last year, we ended up with around 2 pounds of hops from each plant. Considering between 4-6 ounces of whole leaf hops is equivalent to 1 ounce of dry hops, we ended up with a lot of dried hops in our freezer.

I realize after reading about the set-up work, vine barbs and dog poisoning you might be thinking growing hops sounds awful but once you get these guys growing, it’s very little work for great reward.  Each year we plan a harvest brew day where within two hours of harvesting our hops we make a fresh hop IPA.  It feels a little cool and artisanal to brew something you've grown.

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