1. Divide and conquer. One thing you will probably find, if you haven’t already, is that your hops will spread out. They grow from a rhizome, stretching out horizontally just below the surface of the ground, sending down rootlets and sending up shoots.
I have one “patch “ of Cascade, which I planted five years ago (three four-inch rhizomes in a triangle 12 inches on a side), that now comes up in a circle better than eight feet across. And I have divided the rhizomes twice. My brother got some and a neighbor got some. I train about 15 shoots up my trellises and mow the rest.
Hops do need to be divided just to remain manageable, so in the fall I note which plantings are getting too thick and far spread. In the spring (as soon as the ground is workable) I dig the rhizomes up and cut them into smaller pieces.
I like to replant no more than four- to six-inch pieces. You can expect about 75 percent of healthy cuttings to take root, according to my experience.
2. Fertilizer and mulch. Hops, like all plants, need nutrients. The right mix of nutrients in the soil is needed before planting, and these same nutrients must be periodically replaced or supplemented during the growing season as the plants feed.
Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, of course, but other trace minerals such as boron, iron, and manganese are necessary for growth and resistance to disease.
I have always found the best source of all these nutrients to be organic manure. I’ve used sheep, horse, chicken, and cow, but lately I’ve come to prefer rabbit manure. If you don’t actually have rabbits at home (as I do), it’s hard to find. So use what you’ve got. But also, pay attention to what your plants are telling you. If they’re growing well, you’re doing it right. If not, or if they show signs of disease, you need to do something else.
3. Improve your trellising. The first year you put up 10-foot sticks with baling twine from top to ground, and your first-year hops grew six or seven feet tall. This year, if nature is kind, they could double that. You need to rethink your support system, especially because you will probably have more individual shoots to train this year, too.
I have gone more and more with a spread-out formation, with two or three 20-foot poles set firmly in the ground about five feet apart. Each pole has a strand of heavy twine from the top to the center of the vines, and I train up to three shoots per string.
It gives plenty of room for growing vines and plenty of light and air for developing hop cones. It also reduces mildew because the plants dry out better between rains.
I strongly recommend using string rather than wooden lattice or something similar, if only because it makes harvesting much easier.
4. Weeds and pests. I don’t overdo weeding on my hops. A certain amount of ground cover, whether grass or some other native plant, keeps the soil moister and helps it retain nutrients. Be careful not to let anything grow high enough to choke the vines or keep them wet at the bottom, but a couple of inches is not a problem.
During the first couple of years of a vine’s growth, it’s probably a good idea to minimize competition from other plants. So pull out the blackberries and poplar saplings, and mulch well (grass clippings, straw, composted leaves) until the plants are well established.
The worst pests I have encountered, and I haven’t had too many problems yet (knock wood), have been aphids and Japanese beetles. My entire Willamette harvest was wiped out in one week by Japanese beetles a couple of years ago, and I had a plant or two severely damaged by aphids one particularly dry year.
For the beetles I simply installed one of those beetle traps that are advertised in all the garden-supply catalogs. One trap for each planting. For the aphids I broke down and spent the money for ladybugs. Wow. Of course now we have an amazing
number of lady bugs that spend the winter between the storm windows in the dining room, but it’s worth it when I sip my homebrewed, homegrown beers. And it’s organic.
5. Water, water everywhere.
Moderation in all things, as the man said. You can just as easily over-water your hops as under-water them, I’ve found. They need a balance. Keep the soil moist but not sludgy. In the spring, when things are thawing and running anyway, I usually don’t water at all, especially established plants. New plants, cuttings, transplants need to be watered if the spring is at all dry.
Come the warm, dry weather of July, though, I check the hops daily and generally end up watering them three to four times a week, depending on the weather. Obviously, this will vary based on your location. Keep the soil relatively moist, but especially don’t let it bake hard and dry. If your vines droop and begin to yellow, you probably have not been watering them enough.
6. Wilt and mildew. Wilting and yellowing leaves may be the sign of under-watering, but they may also indicate over-watering, disease, mineral nutrient deficiency, or just plain lousy growing conditions. Sometimes leaves get a white or brown powdery coating, a type of mildew that causes damage to the plants. When this happens, I strip off affected leaves (being careful not to compost them or mulch with them) and check my watering and fertilizing.
Many hop growers automatically strip the leaves off the vines, from the ground up to three or four feet high, to prevent excessive ground moisture from damaging the vines. This practice is an easy and effective safeguard.
7. When to pick ’em. More than anything else, choosing the right moment (or finding time when the moment is right) to pick the hops may be the most delicate part of hop growing. Too early and your cones are not ripe, not fully developed, and not much use. Too late and the cones may have begun to brown, dry out, become stale.
So when is the right moment? The cones should be fully developed, green but starting to get papery and yellow on the edges only. You should be able to snap a cone in half cleanly just by bending it. There should be lupulin (a yellow, resiny powder) around the base of the cone. And they should smell like hops. If you can smell hops from a couple of feet away, they are probably ripe.
8. How to pick ’em. Choose a dry, not too windy day when you have a few hours. Lay a large, clean, dry tarp on the ground near the vines, and get a good, strong pair of garden shears. Cut the hop vines to about two feet tall, pull up your trellis poles, and lay the vines down on the tarp. It’s much easier to pick the cones on the ground than from a ladder, and more than one person can work on them at a time.
Gently pull the cones from the vine, taking care not to crush or tear them. The tarp will keep them from getting dirty or moist and will allow you to dispose of the vines and leaves conveniently. Place the cones in a clean paper bag to transport them to your drying area. This will protect them from light and wind in transit.
9. Drying and packaging. Don’t make the mistake I made the first year and package your hops when they are still too moist. There’s nothing like moldy, cheesy-smelling hops in your pale ale!
The most effective method of drying I’ve found uses an old screen from a sliding deck door, seven feet tall by three feet wide. In your attic or barn or garage prop the screen on a couple of saw horses. Then spread the hops as thinly as possible on the screen. It’s important to do this indoors, because hops are sensitive. Wind scatters them and makes a mess, dust makes them dirty tasting.
Stir them a few times a day, allowing the hops underneath to become exposed. All of the hops should dry in three or four days. If you are in more of a hurry, they can be force dried using a dehydrator or slowly baked dry in a warm oven (no more than 150° F or you will crisp them up and make them worthless).
When they are papery and dry to the touch, package the hops in zippered plastic freezer bags. Weigh them, label them (date them, too!), and squeeze as much air out as possible, then store them in the freezer until needed.
10. Putting the plants to bed. At the end of the growing season, you need to prepare your hops for the winter. When I pick the cones, I leave the vines two or three feet high. A few leaves should remain so that the plant continues to grow for a few weeks, putting some energy into the root system.
After a first frost, though, cut the vines to about two inches. Fertilize them and cover them with a thick pile of mulch. And then relax for the winter. I periodically pour fermentation dregs on them as added mulch nutrient during the winter, but otherwise I almost forget their very presence.