Growing Hops in Your Garden

Growing hops in your garden is very easy to do.  Last October I posted an article titled, “Grow Your Own Beer” where I considered all the ingredients that go into a pint of beer and then looked at the practicality of growing each ingredient.  Hops won out for a number of reasons.

Hops Flower

Hops Flower

Around February, I grew antsy and began looking through catalogs containing hops rhizomes.  If you don’t know what a rhizome is, Wikipedia sums it up nicely as, “a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes.”  Think of how grasses send runners as they spread across your yard.  That underground root-like runner?  That’s a rhizome.

Cascade Hops

My New Cascade Hops

In mid-March planted them in a few key spots around our house and to my surprise, they are doing very well.  No special skill was required on my part.  You simply dig a hole, stick them in there with the nodes pointing up and cover them with about an inch of dirt.  Given that we’re in Portland, Oregon, I didn’t water because of our spring days that alternate between wet rainy and warm sunny (the weather make weeding fun, too). If you live in a drier climate, consider giving your new hops regular drinks.  About 2 weeks later, signs of life appeared and 3 weeks later, I now have a 4 inch vine poking up (see above).

If you are considering planting hops, here are a few tips on planing your cascade hops rhizomes from my earlier article:

  1. Find some space!  Although not quite as much space is needed as with barley, these vines grow vertically so you’ll need some sort of a pole/twine system.  One site even showed an old swing set re-purposed for – and engulfed by – hops.
  2. Pick a spot.  Direct sunlight and well drained soil is key.
  3. Plant them.  If you are reading this article now in October, you will need to wait (with me) until the spring before May.  However, you can begin conditioning your soil now with lime and other key ingredients.
  4. Prune the runners.  Only the strong should survive.

Out of the numerous varieties, I selected Cascades because they are easy, grow relatively quickly and are very versatile in brewing.   They are commonly used in both bittering and flavoring a wort or beer and act as a natural preservative.  John Palmer, in his landmark book (a.k.a. bible), “How to Brew” describes their flavor profile as having a “strong spicy, floral, citrus (i.e., grapefruit) aroma.”  The desirable characteristics come from the lupulin glands (range from yellow, orange or gold in color) found at the base of the flower petals.

Anatomy of a Hops Flower (Courtesy Wikipedia)

When they really get growing, you’ll need to train them using some structure or bailing twine.  We are using them to line the top of our front porch as they grow.  You can even grown them in halved wine barrels or large buckets if you are concerned they will run.

If you aren’t into brewing, you can still join in the fun of planting these fast growing vines.  As the vine grows, the flower cones hang from the vine and put off an amazing aroma.  However, don’t expect too much from them in their first year – it is a critical time where they are establishing their root systems and they may not produce flowers.

Are there non-brewing uses for hops?  You bet.  Apparently they can be used as an herbal remedy for as a treatment for anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia.  Wikipedia goes on to state:

“A pillow filled with hops is a popular folk remedy for sleeplessness, and animal research has shown a sedative effect. The relaxing effect of hops may be due, in part, to the specific chemical component dimethylvinyl carbinol. “

Be careful, though.  The oils in the lupulin glands can go rancid quickly and what was once a fresh smelling pillow will begin to have a cheese scent.  Not exactly what you want to smell while falling asleep.  Hops can be preserved in a cold, dark place for short periods of time.  Long term storage requires drying the flowers and then storing them in an oxygen barrier bag.

There are many, many varieties, each with their own particular characteristics and fragrances.  Pick some up today to add great accents and greenery to your garden soon – planting season ends in May!

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