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By Lisa Olson, RNV Enterprises, L.L.C.
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What are hop rhizomes? Hop rhizomes are small roots that are cut from the main root system of a mature female hop plant. And a hop plant is a perennial plant that produces little cones or flowers called hops, which are one of the main ingredients in brewing beer. In the springtime, after the rhizomes are planted, the bines (hop vines) of a new hop plant begin to grow. Hop vines are capable of growing up to 12 inches a day under ideal conditions. However, most grow approximately 2 feet per week. The bines grow vertically winding around their support system in a clockwise direction following the sun. In June as the plant reaches its maximum height, which could be anywhere from 15-25 feet, it will begin to grow sidearms. The sidearms will then bear the hop cones. When this happens, it is known as flowering. In order for flowering to occur, the weather must be frost free for about 120 days, the plant must have ample moisture, and there must be plenty of long length sunlight.
The first year you plant your rhizomes, it is wise to plant 2 rhizomes of the same variety together. This gives your plant a better chance of surviving. Plan to plant in the spring after the frost is gone, but no later than May. Create an area that is free of weeds and close to a support system, such as a fence or pole. Keep in mind; hops grow the best in between the latitudes of 34-50 degrees, and a sandy well-drained soil with a PH of 6-7.5 is ideal for growing hops, should you want to test your soil. You can apply a fertilizer in the springtime, like in May, one that is rich in phosphate, nitrogen, and potassium. Then apply again in July.
Plant the rhizomes vertical with the buds pointing upwards. If you can?t tell which way the buds are pointing, you can place the rhizome horizontally. You will need to plant so that 1 inch of soil is covering the top of the rhizome, whichever way you do plant it. If you are planting several plants, you can space them 3 feet apart on all sides if they are the same cultivar, 5-7 feet a part if they are different cultivars. Make sure to keep some kind of marking, like variety pegs, on which cultivar is which. Keep the new plants watered frequently, but don?t over water. Over watering is one of the biggest and most common problems when growing new hops. Too much water can cause the roots to rot. So water real heavily one day, let the water soak in, hold off on watering for a couple days, then give it frequent light waterings. Even though hops are pretty resilient, keep the area clear of other foliage and weeds to reduce the risk of disease.
The first bines that begin to grow may be subject to frost bite. Commercially, all new bines if they come up too early, like in February, will be cut. Then new ones that come up later will be used instead. Don?t be afraid to cut the first bines that come up, if they are at risk for getting frost bite. When your plant reaches about 1 foot tall, you will need to begin training the vines on some kind of a coarse cord like baling twine. Begin with training 2-3 bines, leaving the other bines left down. Should something happen to the ones you train, you will then have these to use as a backup. The bines will grow upward and clockwise around the cord. Remember hop plants grow quickly, so be prepared. As the season progresses, you can then cut off the extra bines.
If you are planting in a pot, you can use a 55 gallon barrel, like a wine or whisky barrel. Remember though that planting in a barrel leaves the roots more exposed, as opposed to them being protected underground. Use your judgment. If it is too hot outside, move the plant into the shade before the roots get too hot. If it is too cold, move the plant indoors before the roots freeze.
As your hop plant grows to its ultimate height, typically at the end of June, the beginning decrease in sunlight will cause the sidearms to shoot out from the vines, and the plant will stop its vegetative stage (vertical growth stage). The sidearms will then begin to produce hop cones. This is known as the flowering stage, when horizontal growth begins. Make sure to keep the sidearms from tangling up during this time and clear away foliage, weeds, and branches from the bottom 2-3 feet of the plant. Weeds promote moisture, a cover for insects, and fungal disease, so by removing this, chance of disease is reduced and also will improve air circulation for the plant.
As the hop cones grow bigger, keep a close eye on their color and texture. They should be a yellowish green to light green and should feel light and dry, if they are ready to be picked. You can also compress some of the hop cones in your hands. If they stay compressed, they are still not ready. The lupulin, which is the yellow powder in the center of the cone, should make your hands feel sticky, and if your hops are ready, your hands will take up the aroma from the lupulin. If the hops are not yet ready to be harvested, the cones will appear too green and will feel damp in your hand. But keep watch, because harvesting too early or too late will affect the quality of your hops. Low alpha hops, or aroma hops, will typically be ready to harvest sooner than bittering hops, ones with higher alphas. However, if you are using the plant for decorative purposes, cut it down a little earlier while the cones are more green.