The first time I saw a hops bine, I knew I wanted that plant in my garden. If you’re looking for something a bit different and enjoy quizzical looks from visitors, you might, too. While most people know hops as an ingredient in beer, they have likely never seen a hops plant.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) are an easy-to-grow perennial. The plant uses the coarse hairs on the bine (the twining stem of a climbing plant) to help attach itself to a support as it climbs. Hops grow quickly, a foot or two each week and 20 or more feet over the course of the growing season. But what makes hops an interesting plant for the home garden are the hops flowers –huge numbers of cute little green cones.
To grow hops in your garden, selecting an appropriate planting site is a must. Hops grow best in full sun (6-8 hours a day) in well-draining soil and, most importantly, with some type of support. Uncontrolled, hops can become a bully in the garden, weaving among other plants and wrapping around them.
You may have seen commercially grown hops climbing lines attached to very tall poles. While that’s one option, there are many possibilities when growing hops at home. Support could be a sturdy grape arbor or an unused clothes line. You could also run a line along the top of a fence where your hops can “climb” horizontally.
Or it could be as simple as a length of heavy, coarse twine secured to a stake driven into the ground near the base of the plant and at the other end to an existing structure, offering both stability and height. One year I ran a line from a second-story window to the ground. The hops did very well in that location, reaching the window and continuing to grow out and back down toward the ground.
Hops can be grown from a root division if you’re lucky enough to know someone who grows hops, or hops rhizomes (roots) are readily available through online nurseries. In late April or early May, plant the rhizome about 2-inches deep, and water well.
A mulch of wood chips will help retain moisture in the soil. Don’t let the soil completely dry out, particularly during the first year. You can feed your hops with a fertilizer for flowering perennials after planting and again midway through the summer.
Set up your hops support system no later than when new growth reaches a foot or so in height. Direct the bines toward the support as needed. They will quickly grow along the line. As spring and summer progress, buds will appear among the leaves, the flowers will open and develop into attractive 1-2-inch long, soft, green cones.
Hops cones mature in late summer when they begin to yellow and turn crepe paper crisp. If you choose to harvest hops cones for beer making, brewing herbal tea or some other use, they are ready at that time. You can cut the bine and hand pick the cones. If you’re growing hops simply as an ornamental plant, you can leave the bines in place until they complete their annual cycle.
When the plant dies back in the fall, cut it off a few inches from the ground. In the spring new growth will once again appear.
Even if you have no interest in brewing beer, hops make an attractive and interesting addition to the home garden.
Deborah J. Benoit is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from North Adams, Mass., who is part of the Bennington County Chapter.