Growing Hops: Tips from the Pros

If you’ve been eyeing the side of your house for planting some hops, this should be the year to finally do it. Two hop growers advise on planting some hop hills in your backyard brewing garden.


Pro: Dave Wills, Freshops in Philomath, OR

Hops grow pretty well across most of the United States, but not so well in the south. They prefer to grow above the 35° latitude, and really prefer 45°. That’s not to say that they won’t grow in other parts of the country and the world, but that’s where they’re more native. Historically hops were first cultivated in Western European countries like Germany, and those latitudes are where they tend to do really well.

Will hops grow otherwise? Yes and no. I get calls from people in places like southern Florida and where it doesn’t freeze in the winter, and the fact is they’re probably not going to do well. Hops like to get frozen in the winter. They are also photoperiodic, which means that they need longer days during the growing season in order to flower. In southern locales, closer to the equator, where the days and nights are more equal, the hops won’t get enough light long enough to encourage them to flower. You can overcome this by supplementing light with a floodlight to try and match the days in a 45°-like latitude (like ours in Corvallis, Oregon).

If you are planting hops in the right zone and wanted to plant a few rhizomes, I’d say try planting an aroma and a higher alpha hop and see how it goes. For example, an aroma hop like Cascade and a Nugget or Galena for higher alphas. Both of those varieties are fairly vigorous and disease resistant and if you did well you could probably get perhaps a pound or up to two pounds of hops from one plant.

The problems that come up for home hop growers stem from the thinking that they don’t think they need to pay attention to the bines. People think you can plant these things and let them go. They won’t water them, the bines get mildew, aphids, Japanese beetles and so on and they don’t spray. I don’t care where you’re growing hops, they can all get pests or disease. Commercial growers have a very vigorous spray program to combat powdery mildew, hop aphids and spider mites, the problems just depend on where you grow. Dry climates can have more problems with spider mites, for instance.

Regardless of where you grow, watch the underside of the leaf — that’s where the aphids and the mites like to hang out. Check out my website for pictures of pests and molds to look out for. If you find yourself with a problem it is better to nip it in the bud early. You can spray your bines with a small backpack blower. I use a that kind of blower sprayer with a tank on it to get the leaves really blowing — whatever you spray it’s got to touch the leaves and the insects. You have to decide if you’re going to go organic or not, too. I try and stay as organic as possible, but sometimes I have to break out the big guns.

Hops also need to be watered a lot in the first year. The first year is spent establishing roots, so give them frequent shallow waterings. Once they get mature, the roots go three or four feet down and you can give them less frequent deep waterings with drip irrigation.

You should also fertilize — anything that grows as big as a hop bine in three months needs nitrogen. Try an all purpose fertilizer like Miracle Grow, or just add lots of compost and manure to the soil when you plant. If you want to be sure of what you need, look at your local soil and talk to local nursery staff in your area.

Pro: Rick Pedersen, Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, NY

Anybody can grow hops on a small scale. They are fairly easy to grow and fairly manageable. In fact some people grow hops just for the look of them — they make patterns on their house — shape of a heart, cross. You don’t need a trellis. You can put them on the side of a house, barn, flagpole — anything at least 12 feet high (16 feet is better, but 12 is about the minimum).

After you plant the first year you shouldn’t expect anything — you may get a few handfuls of cones. The first year the plant is just trying to get started and healthy. Leave it up after harvest, and harvest by hand. The second year, if everything goes right, expect about 80% of the crop potential, and third year a full crop.

When planting, mulching doesn’t hurt and helps conserve the water. The plants need to be in full sun — anything less and you won’t get a full crop. They also need good air movement rather than tucked into a corner or you will have more disease problems. They need well-drained soil as they don’t like wet feet — don’t plant them in a spot with a lot of clay or place where water stands anytime of the year or they will have a short life.

When you choose what to plant, do your research. There’s plenty of information on the Internet to help you match something to where you live. Oregon State has produced a couple of really good publications for free with charts with varieties, yield and disease resistance. Your choice really depends on the climate. The wetter the location the more you have to worry about the molds, etc.

One of the things to keep in mind is harvesting. Harvesting five or six hills is fun; harvesting 100 hills is not so much fun. It takes about an hour to pick a vine, so keep that in mind when you plan your rhizome purchases.

If you do try growing your own hops, go on the Internet and talk to other people who are doing it — there are no end to the number of people and ideas out there for growing hops.

Issue: May-June 2012