Last year I decided to give hop growing a try. I did some things right, some things wrong and some things that have yet to shake out one way or the other. I ordered a six rhizome starter kit from a website, I’m not even sure which one anymore, read a lot of forum posts and went to work.
The kit I got came with rhizomes from Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Mount Hood, Nugget and Willamette hop plants along with tags to mark each and some twine to train the hops on. I bought some stakes for the bottom of the twine and stuck a fence post that I had in the basement in the middle of the row of hop plants. I also got some mulch and planting soil. All of this combined to somewhere around a $40-50 investment.
Once I gathered all this stuff, I dug a trench in the backyard. I planted them around the beginning of May, but I think much earlier is okay. I’ve read that the frost shouldn’t even be an issue for the rhizomes, though it may make planting them more of a hassle. Research also told me to plant each rhizome eighteen inches apart. In my small yard, I had to fudge that a little but I got them all to fit with only a little cramping. The trench was about four inches deep. I later realized that this was probably too deep, five of my six rhizomes sprouted, but I wonder if that last one was just too weak to make it through the soil.
After I had the trench, I placed the rhizomes in at even intervals. I put tags with what was what behind each, but to be safe, I also planted them in alphabetical order so it is pretty easy to tell them apart. The rhizomes should have thin, dark roots coming out of one side and thicker white or very light green sprouts coming out of the other. The roots go down, the sprouts go up.
With all the rhizomes in place, I covered them in a thin layer of planting soil. On top of that, I spread some mulch to take the trench back even with the ground. Were I to start over now, I would not dig as deep, skip the mulch and use a lot more soil instead. The hops are very hearty and weeds don’t seem to be a problem. They need a lot of nutrition in the forms of nitrogen, water and sunlight, but with that food they can overtake any pesky weeds, so the mulch is probably not necessary.
A couple weeks after the rhizomes were planted, I put the fence post in the middle. I put it in as shallow as I could because it is shorter than would be ideal. I tried to steady it with rocks as much as possible. With the post in place, I ran twine from stakes at each rhizome into the post, diagonally. This is not a setup that anyone recommended in my research, but it was easy and I figured it would be good enough for the first year, when I was just hoping to get the plants established. I had plenty of time to figure out what to do next year, right?
Well, as I mentioned, five of the six came up. The casualty was Columbus. Early on, Cascade and Willamette were the strongest growers, which matched up with most people’s experience. Amy and I planted our vegetable garden in front of the hops and they already had a fence behind them. The end towards the back half of the alphabet had tomato plants in front.
Once the tomatoes took off, the Nugget and Willamette plants weren’t getting much light and their growth slowed down a lot. Smaller eggplant and pepper plants didn’t seem to bother the C hops. By the end of the season, the Cascade and Centennial plants were the biggest and the only ones with any cones.
I didn’t plan on getting any hops in my first year, but I ended up with about four ounces of those two combined. That is wet hops, which means to compare to the dried ones usually used in brewing, you need to divide by five. So it was not a big yield, but I was happy to get anything. I brewed a small batch with the hops I had and… it wasn’t good, but I’ll get to that another time.
I will write more about harvesting the hops later, as well. There isn’t much else to do in your first year of hop growing. Later seasons will require more attention, but for the initial time you mostly just want the plants to get established, which means keeping them fed and watered and otherwise letting them go.
If you want to try growing hops, and I feel like I end most of my posts this way but, just go for it. The one warning I’ll give is that the first year is the easiest. They will require more attention later if you want to get some production out of them or if you just don’t want them to take over your whole yard. I will write about the steps I’m taking for my second year of hop growing on Friday as well as some additions I’ve made to my crop.