This spring has brought a new level of anticipation to the garden, one that has me impatient for fall. No, it’s not the delectable tomatoes or sweet melons from the vegetable garden – though I’m looking forward to them, too.
This year, the adventure lies in growing hops. Cascade beer hops to be exact; not the ornamental Golden or native vines. My garden is a working one, where few plants are allowed to just sit and look pretty. Food, flowers for vases, shade for the seating area, or keeping beneficial insects around – everyone has a job in this landscape.
So do these vines. Early on they help screen the neighbors, rambling along fence tops and sides. Later they’ll be picked, dried, and taken down to the local brewery where my buddy Mari has arranged to trade them for beer.
Mari, a gardener, beekeeper, and dynamite photographer, connected with the local brewpub a few years ago when hops prices started soaring world-wide. Having hops as a novelty in her garden, she hatched a brilliant plan. The result is a few frosty bottles of brew after a summer of beauty in the yard.
Gardeners swap all the time, so this barter of hops for beer fits perfectly with our lifestyle; Mari also shares cutting from her plant to get others started for low cost. Yes, hops need water the first season to get established, but not in huge gulps. Instead, frequent light watering and mulch to keep their roots consistently moist the first year is best.
After that, a dripline to provide deep, infrequent water is all you need. Mine are planted behind the roses and perennials they seem happy enough with no extra fuss.
But you have to trellis them or they’ll quickly run over the ground, wind around plants and start snatching small pets from the street – put a trellis (in my case a folded tomato cage) behind them and firmly direct them in their growth. You need to thin them too, taking off weaker vines and keeping only the three most vigorous ones. This pushes energy into the development of the best vines and a much better crop.
Watch out for aphids, a chronic problem on hops, but don’t worry about using more than a spritz or two of soapy water to control them. You’ll soon find lady bugs and other predators working the plants to keep the aphids in check.
Pick your hops from the top of the plant down; those growing highest ripen first. You’ll know when they’re ripe by feel and smell. Green cones feel a little moist and soft, and stay compressed if you squeeze it. Ripe cones feel light and dry, and may look a little lighter in color.
Dry the hops on a mesh screen in the shade and out of wind for several days, turning the cones daily to keep drying even. They’re perfect when the stem breaks easily if bent. Then trot them down to your local brewpub to bargain for beer.