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Roger's Pick: hop gardening

As a lifetime gardener and landscape designer, I had never grown that intriguing and mysterious plant called Humulus lupulus (hops) before this year.

The hop plant is a hardy, perennial which produces annual vines from a permanent root stock known as a rhizome. Vines may grow up to 25 feet in a single season but will die back to the crown each fall and live off the energy stored in the woody roots.

Hops are dioecious, which means they have separate male and female plants. Only the female produces the flowers that are used for beer brewing or medicinal purposes.

Hops are found wild in Western Europe, Asia and certain parts of North America. Under good conditions, hops are a prolific vine and will produce from one-half to two pounds of dried flowers per plant, usually harvested the end of summer or early fall.

Then the female hop rhizome lies dormant throughout the winter, waiting for the right time in spring to break bud and emerge from the earthen crust to growing on the support system which you need to have in place.

For the past five months, I have been in awe watching my hop plants grow up my bamboo trellis system. I wrapped a very unique fibrous twine that is used in hop growing around the poles and the vines took off in a clockwise rotation, encircling the poles like a bean stalk shooting for the sky.

All through the warm summer months the vines ran like a rabbit up the poles and by midsummer chartreuse-colored flowers (called cones) started to emerge and fatten up on the vine. I watched this process with amazement at the seven different types of varieties that I purchased from a hop farmer in Oregon.

I found some differences from one clone to another with the number of twines, the abundance of flowers and length that they grew in the short six months after planting. Some of those clones that performed well for me here in Fallbrook were Nugget, Cascade, Chinook and Willamette.

I did not harvest the cone flowers this year and after they go dormant I will cut some of the vines down to the ground and leave others twined around the supportive poles to see what difference next season brings as the roots increase in size and health.

Commercially the vines are cut to the ground, brought into the drying barns, thrashed and flowers removed and then dried and baled for transport to the brewery for the making of many types of beer or ale.

Hops, like any crop, are subject to disease, bugs and market fluctuations. It has been said that there is a global hop shortage due to the many new microbreweries that have come into production in recent years.

Experimentation with new beer recipes includes coffee, herbs and fruits, creating some very nontraditional flavors. The home brewing movement is also creating a new demand for the hops and other natural ingredients for the “do-it-yourselfer” down in his basement, out in the barn or in a corner of the garage.

The vines are also cut, dried, preserved, dyed and used in the floral industry as ornamental and decorative garlands for parties or other festive events.

So if your curiosity has been peaked and you are anxious to try something new in the garden, give hops a chance. You can go online and gather bushels of information on Humulus lupulus. Consider using hops to climb up an arbor, trellis or patio cover and you’ll be amazed at this horticultural novelty.

Roger Boddaert is a landscape designer and ornamental horticultural entrepreneur. He can be reached at (760) 728-4297.

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