Growing hops for beer, décor and more

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Mary Menz, gardener and outdoor educator for the Teller-Park Conservation District
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Growing hops is not just a beer-brewer’s hobby. More and more, gardeners nationwide are growing hops simply because they are attractive and interesting plants. Brewers use only the cone-shaped flowers that grow on the vines—or “bines” as they are commonly referred to—to add bitterness and aroma to their beers. Gardeners use both the flowers and the vines for garden décor projects as well as home remedies. The bines make a gorgeous back-yard teepee or trellis cover as well.

Hops bines are grown from rhizomes and can be purchased at some beer supply stores and gardening centers. However, the best varieties can be found from numerous sources on the internet. Wild hops (Humulus lupulus) are abundant all over the United States. But commercial hops varieties like Cascade, Mt Hood, and Willamette—named for the geographic areas in which they were developed—are the most commonly grown. Hops rhizomes have become very popular and some years are not as plentiful as others, so hurry if you plan to order rhizomes and grow them this year!

Getting to the root of the matter

Like irises, hops have a knobby rootstalk that should be planted horizontally 4-6 inches beneath the surface of the soil. For best results, dig a big hole (at least 2 x 2 x 2 feet), amend with compost material and plant with the rooting—or more pointed—edge down. If you plant more than one rhizome, make sure they are spaced three feet apart. If you’re planting more than one variety of hops, plant them at least six feet apart to avoid cross-pollination.

If you live in a high-altitude area like I do, plant the rhizomes this month in large, compostable pots and transfer them to your garden in mid-June or after the last frost. While the hops bine may not produce flowers the first season, it can grow very tall and leafy the first year.

After the planted rhizome has sprouted from the soil and grown about a foot tall, train the plant to grow up an 8-foot pole or trellis. Using a U-hook or six-inch spike, attach a twining rope to the ground where the plant emerges from the soil and wrap the twine loosely in a clockwise direction around the pole. Then staple the end of the rope to the top of the pole. As the bine grows, gently encourage it to attach itself to the rope. The bine will naturally grow in a clockwise fashion and, after a little bit of help getting started, will flourish and climb on its own.

Protecting hop bines from wildlife

Hungry or curious wildlife may attempt to eat the plant. Elk, deer, and rabbits often taste any greenery within reach. Over time wildlife typically will leave the bines alone, but those first samplings may damage or destroy the plant. Birds are commonly the biggest threat to the hop flowers. You may want to wait and see what kinds of animals are interested in your plants before trying to protect them. In the case of elk or deer, seven foot fencing material available from gardening or home improvement centers can protect the bines. The bines and their flowers can be protected from birds, if necessary, using inexpensive bird netting. It’ smart to enclose at least the bottom two feet of the bines in chicken wire or other protective caging. This makes it easy to add straw or mulch to the plant at the end of the growing season for over-wintering. It also prevents rabbits from treating the bines as part of your perennial buffet.

Harvesting the cone flowers

Gathering the green cone-shaped flowers is one of the most satisfying parts of growing hops. One bine, at peak production, can produce more than enough cone flowers to flavor a five-gallon batch of beer during the boil and add aroma to the brew at the end of the process. If you’re using the entire bine with flowers for a home décor project, you’ll have an adequate length of footage to create a full and aromatic wreath for the garden gate or front door. Other uses include stuffing the dried flowers in a pillow or steeping the dried flowers in boiling water for a tea. Both are said to be soothing remedies for sleepless nights.

Regardless of their final purpose, the cone flowers must be picked at their peak to prevent rancidness—generally in late September. The flower cones will be green and slightly firm and the papery skins will be dry to the touch. This ensures that the beneficial resin inside the cone, called lupulin, is still intact.

To harvest the cone flowers, cut the bine at the top of the pole, which will allow it to fall to the ground where it’s easiest to gently pick the cones from the vines. Gather them in a box or other deep container to prevent them from blowing away during harvest and then take them to a sheltered area to be dried. Cone flowers can be dried using a commercial dehydrator or a low-temperature oven, but a fan on low setting in an enclosed garage works just as well. Place the cones on an old window screen over the box near the fan and let it run for a few days. After the cones are dried, use them immediately, or vacuum seal them in bags and freeze for later use.

Make a promise to yourself to plant something new this spring. Consider hops. They’re not just for beer anymore!