How to make a cheap and easy trellis for hops

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The trellises in commercial hopyards (and the backyards of serious homebrewing geeks) tend to be around 18 feet tall. I imagine my neighbors might have something to say about a structure of that size, so I’m attempting to train my hops horizontally, along the length of the fence. I’m told that this should work, but that the hops will keep trying to grow straight up, so I’ll need to come out once in a while and gently twine each bine along its designated string.

How to make a cheap and easy trellis for hops

1. Consider building a beautiful freestanding wooden trellis like  the ones on the homebrewing sites. Think about how much digging, leveling, and pouring of concrete footings it would take to make a freestanding trellis stable and safe. Decide that the half-height wooden fence running along the edge of the yard already has sturdy posts set in concrete, and that it’s much more practical and sensible to simply attach a lightweight trellis to the fence.

2. Make sure that your house was once owned by people too cheap or lazy to deal with the old water pipes when they re-plumbed things. Find the crusty old water pipes left under the house, along with the remains of the old furnace, assorted beer cans, and some truly questionable foundation engineering. Instead of disposing of the pipes, keep them in the back yard for two years, just in case they come in handy someday.

Note: if you don’t have old water pipes lying around…

  • You can get 1/2″ or 3/4″ EMT conduit (the pipe that you run electrical wires through) for $3-$5 per 10′ pole at larger hardware stores — it’s a little flexible, so go with the thicker ones if you have a long unsupported length. 
  • People with bamboo (and their neighbors) may be happy to give you all the bamboo poles you want. Green ones can pop apart at the joints, so be a little gentle until they dry out.  
  • Head to your lumberyard and pick up some 2x2s, or rip 2x4s in half. 
  • Talk to plumbers or homeowners who are having their homes re-plumbed, and see if they have crusty old pipes you can have.

Salvaged pipes on the lawn

3. Get a bag of conduit straps and some outdoor-rated screws. Ignore the fact that the conduit straps are not outdoor-rated, and will probably fall apart before the screws do. Decide that by then, you’ll have mastered the art of hop growing and be ready to construct that beautiful permanent pergola-style hops trellis. Or maybe the one with the hinges, for simpler harvesting.

4. Attach the pipes to the fence supports.

Salvaged trellis vertical supports

5. Spend a while researching knots on the internet. Decide that a round turn with two half hitches is your best bet for keeping the strings taut and preventing them from slipping down the pipe. While tying up the strings, keep forgetting if the hitches are supposed to go over or under. End up with a bunch of triple-turns with two to four half hitches, plus a couple of granny knots for good measure.

Note: I have been told that my jute twine is too thin and will stretch, rot, break, and cause a huge problem later in the season when I have to untangle and replace everything. In this case, it’s supported every 8 feet, which I’m hoping is enough, but if you’re more sensible, use something thicker and stronger. If you’re building a permanent structure, you might want to use metal cable (used in vineyards; I don’t actually know whether hops vines will climb it) with turnbuckles to adjust the tension. But if you’re building a permanent structure, you probably shouldn’t be making it out of trash you found under your house. 

Knotted twine on salvaged pipe

Humulus lupulus bine macro

See those things that look like miniature thorns? Next time you’re over, come back and feel the stems. Running your finger top-to-bottom is fine, but if you try to run your finger up the stem, the little thorn-hairs dig in — it feels a little bit sticky, or like velcro.

The thorn-hairs help the hops cling to the supports — particularly if you’re using a nice textured twine. This is nice, because it means you don’t need to bother tying the plants to the trellis. All you have to do is give your hops bines a few twists around a sturdy piece of twine, and they’ll climb (and climb and climb) on their own.

Humulus lupulus "Chinook" plant, 3 weeks old

6. Run the end of each piece of twine down from the last support to one of the hops plants. Gently, twist the longest bine clockwise (counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere) around the string.

7. Have a beer.

Click to see the trellis reveal…