Hop To It
Hops in the Landscape
The last couple of decades have seen an explosion in craft beer, all stemming from the popularity of home brewing and vice-versa. The beauty of home brewing is in how far you want to take the hobby. Purists, like myself, have embraced the idea of going further and continually strive to learn more about the history of beer and the techniques, (both old and new), used to create this ancient beverage. It didn’t take me long to venture in to all-grain brewing and from there I wondered about growing my own hops…hmm…
The hop plant is a vine that grows about 12’-15’ high by about 3’ wide. The female plant has a cone-like flower which produces aromatic and bitter oil. This oil has been implemented in a number of different uses; medicinal, culinary, and functional. Since I am both a landscape designer and a home brewer, the focus will stick to the obvious.
Hops have a number of uses in brewing. They affect the aroma, flavor, and bitterness of beer, and since beer is in itself very sweet, it is generally complimented by the offsetting bitterness of hops. This, however, is not the most important reason hops have become such a staple ingredient in the brewing process. The flower (which blooms mid-summer) contains a couple of chemicals known as humulone and lupulin, which can kill bacteria. Because of this, hops are an excellent preservative. The British, back in the day, found that by adding an excessive amount of hops to their beer, it could last the months-long voyage to the far reaches of the empire – namely India – without spoiling. Thus was born one of the most popular beer styles in the world: India Pale Ale (or IPA for short).
As a designer, I can utilize hops in the landscape a number of ways, both for function and aesthetics. The vine can be used to block eyesores, as a pergola covering, a privacy screen, or even a ground cover. The flowers can be a nice accent, creating a unique aroma while aiding to fun conversation!
To begin with, you will need to purchase some rhizomes (root parts). These can be acquired from a brew store like Northern Brewer or Midwest Supplies here in the Twin Cities. Cascade, Centennial, or Columbus hops are good starting varieties and can be used in beers such as pale ales or IPA’s. Plant varieties such as Nugget may also be acquired from garden centers. Just remember when buying rhizomes that you need to refrigerate them until you are ready to plant.
Find a sunny site in your yard with good air movement. Make sure the soil is weed-free with good drainage. Keep in mind that the roots need plenty of room to spread, so places near trees and other plants should be avoided. Plants should be spaced about 3’ apart, making sure to keep differing varieties at least 5’ from the each other. Place the rhizome about 4” below the surface and provide some sort of structure for which the vine to climb. The first year is critical for the roots to establish, so water often at the base of the plant. Allow for some drying since these roots can be susceptible to rot. The use of mulch is advisable, as is a small amount of fertilizer. Just give your hop plants every chance to get going!
Harvesting is usually done around August and September. There are a few ways to tell if the hop flowers are ripe for the picking. Generally, the hop cone should be springy, dry, and papery on the tips, and the lupulin should be thick, yellow, and sticky. Pick by hand the first year and cut down the vine there on. Your first-year yield will be small since most of the energy used by the plant will have been spent establishing roots instead of flowers. Just bear in mind that year two will be better and year three – even more bountiful!
From this point you have a couple of options. The flowers can be thrown directly into a brewing or fermenting batch of beer. They can also be dried, sealed, and frozen for future use. Keep in mind that oxygen, heat, and time are big enemies to hops when it comes to producing beer. Act fast and prepare efficiently!
Need a little help selecting a place in your landscape for some hops? Barrett Lawn Care has some pretty knowledgeable folks who can both point you in the right direction and get you going on the right path! There are actually a few of us here with some brewing knowledge to boot!
By Chad Bischoff, Landscape Designer at Barrett Lawn Care