Cultivated for a millennium, hops are an integral component of one of America’s favorite pastimes: beer brewing! An aromatic perennial of the Cannabaceae family, hops are bines, climbing vertical surfaces using stiff hairs and circular stem growth. In the northern hemisphere, hops grow in a clockwise direction.
Hops are grown from rhizomes, a below-ground root mass that anchors the bine and uptakes water and nutrients for photosynthesis. Rhizomes are also an energy reserve for the hop plant.
In addition to harvesting hops for making beer, hop shoots are a great green to add to salads or stir frys – use caution not to harvest too many leaves and inhibit plant production.
Quick Guide: Planting, Growing & Harvesting Hops
- Plant hop rhizomes in full sun
- Plant in well-draining, loose soil with a pH of 6-8
- Plant at least 10-20′ of vertical climbing space with a support, like a trellis
- Plant like cultivars 3′ apart and different cultivars 5′ apart
- Do not overwater; water in early mornings so plant dries during the day
- Prune shoots back in spring to increase hardiness and vigor
- Fertilize with plenty of phosphorous and potassium
- Harvest when first brown and papery; store in a cold, dark place
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How to Plant
Site selection can make or break your hop growth. Hops prefer 6-8 hours of full sun each day; southern exposure is best, but east- and west-facing sites also produce good yields. Choose sites that shelter plants to prevent wind damage.
Plant hops with at least 10 to 20 feet of vertical climbing space and close to a vertical support structure, such as a trellis, fence, or building. Twine or rope can also be used to anchor bines. Plants can be heavy, so make sure twine is securely anchored.
Rhizomes can withstand early spring frosts and should be planted as soon as soil can be worked. Mulching your hop hill provides additional protection for rhizomes against cold spring temperatures. Established rhizomes can tolerate deep winter freezes.
Soil for hops should be loose, porous and well-draining; standing water can result in root rot and molds. To ensure proper drainage for your hops, choose a naturally mounded site or build a “hill” a few inches tall using a sandy soil. Maintain a soil pH of 6 to 8.
Prior to planting, prep a 4-inch deep trench with mixture of compost, cottonseed meal, and bone meal or rock phosphate (read our article Preparing Garden Soil to learn more). Plant rhizomes horizontally in the trench and cover with 1 inch of soil. Refrigerate rhizomes until planting.
To prevent crowding, plant like cultivars 3 feet apart and different cultivars 5 feet apart. Crowded hop plants are more susceptible to pest infestations and mold, are not as productive, and can result in shade damage to the plant. If vines are tangled, they are too close together. Container gardening is not recommended for hops because of the potential for overcrowding.
Overwatering is a primary reason for failing hop bines, especially for first-year plants, which have a minimal root system and require less water than subsequent years’ crops. Allow soil to dry between waterings. Watering in early mornings allows plants to dry during the day, also preventing mold and rot.
Training, Pruning and Fertilizing
Hops can grow upwards of 2 feet a week in late spring and early summer. As they grow, wrap bines on vertical supports to promote vertical growth and proper spacing. Growth will slow in mid-summer, as plants enter the flowering stage.
After the first successful year of plant growth, prune the first set of shoots each subsequent spring, and prune the second set of shoots back to the largest 3-4 bines. These shoots are hardier, resulting in sturdier plant growth. Throughout the growing season, prune all subsequent shoots from the base of the plant to funnel energy into the bine.
Apply organic fertilizers to ensure continued hop quality and production. In addition to nitrogen for green, leafy plant growth, hops need a significant amount of both potassium and phosphorous to produce quality hops. Fertilize with a phosphorous content double that of nitrogen. Trace minerals such as boron, iron and manganese are also beneficial for plant growth. Nitrogen-heavy fertilizers will promote vine growth, but result in low cone alpha acid content, affecting brews.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest hops prior to the first fall frost in late August or September, when aroma is strongest. Hops are ready to harvest when cones are papery, brown and petals begin breaking off. When hops are ready to harvest, the lupulin gland will be yellow and sticky when the cone is broken open. Ensure cones are ripe before harvesting to guarantee full potency and color for brews.
Harvest plants from the end of the bine first, moving towards the rhizome. As hops are harvested and the bine begins to die, sap moves down into the rootstock for winter storage.
Two things are needed for drying hops: air circulation and time. Cones can be dried on a screen outside out of the sun, in a brown paper bag with daily shaking, with a food dehydrator or in the oven at the lowest setting. Hops are dry when the inner stem of the cone is brittle and easy to break. Be careful not to over-dry, which can decrease alpha acid content and affect your brewing.
Store hops away from heat and oxygen to extend shelf life. Cones can be stored in the refrigerator for several months or can be frozen in bags for up to a year.
Insect & Disease Problems
Powdery mildew can affect yield and cone quality. Symptoms of powdery mildew are cultivar-specific. Sulfur and copper-based fungicides organically control powdery mildew. Remove affected leaves and dispose of in the garbage – do not compost or store near or around your yard.
Aphids and spider mites are common hop pests and can be treated with insecticidal soaps and oils and beneficial insects.