A few years ago we ended up in a house that had hops already planted and ready to go. But, we bought the house in the winter and I had no idea what was lurking a few inches under the soil.

The next spring the vines started creeping up the fence and I still had no idea what bounty I had inherited. Only when the hop buds started showing their face did I know for sure what I had.

While it may not be for everyone, hops plants not only are very pretty to look at, they also produce a fine preservative and bittering agent used in beer. If you take the time to harvest them, dry them, package them and use them in your own home brews — nothing is more rewarding than drinking a fine beer on a summer day from hops you grew feet away.

After I had done the itchy job of harvesting them, tons of people were interested in them for their craft value. Apparently if you try them they make perfect materials for garlands and reefs.

If you want to get into growing hops there are a few tips you should consider.

Because Wyoming has such a short growing season and is hearty Zone 4, near the bottom, you want hops that will shoot up fast in spring and start producing quick. You should be on the look for Northern Brewer, Yakima Cluster and Fuggle varieties.

How you do that is looking online for rhizomes. They are pretty much bits of root from a mature plant that will take hold in your yard. Once you have those picked out and ordered its time to find a place to plant them.

 

How to plant

The basic requirements for growing hops are plenty of space, lots of direct sunlight and easy access to water. To prevent rot, hops should be planted after any chance of frost has passed, typically early spring but no later than May. Rhizomes and fully developed crowns should be planted 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface, in well-draining soil with any buds pointing up. Ideally, the soil will have a pH of 6.5 to 8.0 and will be rich in potassium, nitrogen, and phosphates. Organic fertilizer and manure can provide any nutrients you’re lacking. If you have a fish pond, I found draining it twice a year to clean it directly into my hops gave it a boost like none other. Fish poop is nature’s miracle grow.

Be sure not to overwater the first year. The soil should be moist but not wet. Too much moisture promotes diseases like downy mildew. Water your hops as you would tomatoes, only a little more conservatively. If hops are improperly watered or if the soil is lacking nutrients, the plants will display hermaphroditic qualities, growing both male and female flowers. Don’t worry if that happens; the plant will still produce cones. The main drawback is a lower yield, since the male flowers are sterile; only the females produce cones.

 

When to harvest

Hop vines typically grow until around mid-July, but your harvest time will vary by location and could occur in August or September. You’ll most likely be able to harvest multiple times, as cones at the top of the plant often mature faster than the ones down below that get less sunlight. So, when is a hop cone ready to harvest? A cone is harvestable when it feels dry and light—much drier than a damp green cone. You’ll also smell the ripe cones, and they may feel slightly sticky. Once the hop cones are harvested, it is important to dry and store them properly so they don’t mold or go rancid. You can use a food dehydrator or oven, but make sure to dry them at a low temperature: below 135 F.

When the powder inside the cone falls out readily and the cone springs back when touched, it’s dry. Store dried cones in a zip-top bag, well compressed with any excess air squeezed out, and place them in the freezer. I used a food saver and it worked great.

Whether you grow them for beer or decorations, hops can be a great looking plant that matures year after year.