Planting the hopyard

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Box of hops rhizomes (humulus lupulus)

On Wednesday, I came home with fourteen hops rhizomes, most just starting to send out shoots. Half are going into my backyard, the rest into the garden at the San Benito Brewing Co.

In the absence of strong preference or reliable information about which varieties do well around here, I decided to use my typical shotgun approach — plant a bunch of different kinds and see which ones live. Of the eight varieties of hops available at my local supply shop, I bought seven, electing to skip Goldings, which my borrowed copy of “The Homebrewer’s Garden” warned was prone to downy mildew.

The 2013 Plant & Plate Hopyard Line-up:

(listed here because otherwise I’ll have no idea what’s what by harvest time)

Along the back fence, N-S: Willamette, Centennial, Cascade

Along the sidewalk fence, E-W: Northern Brewer, Chinook, Nugget

In a pot on the front porch, because why not: Columbus

Hops rhizomes in refrigerator

Advised to keep the rhizomes chilled until I was ready to plant them, I put them into the produce drawer in my fridge, setting the humidity slider to “vegetable” (more humid) and nestling a mug of water in alongside the bags.

Chinook hops rhizome, sprouting

Hops are enthusiastic plants, growing up to 30 feet in a single season, preferably straight up. The trellises built by serious hops gardeners are impressive feats of engineering, but rather taller than I feel like putting in my backyard right now. Fortunately, I’m told that horizontal trellising is possible, as long as the general direction is towards the sun and you’re willing to come out whenever they decide to launch themselves skyward and wind them back onto the trellis by hand. Yield may be a bit reduced, but I’m willing to take that chance.

The "hopyard"

After much debate, I decided to plant my hops in the southeast corner of the backyard, following the fence around the corner. Those on the eastern arm of the L will grow vertically, up the tall fence between our yard and the neighboring building, while those on the southern arm will be encouraged to grow horizontally in a westward direction, along the sweep of the lower fence between the back yard and the sidewalk.

One potential issue: ivy grows along the eastern property line and regularly sends runners through the fence. Short of salting the earth there probably isn’t a way to stop the invasion, but I’m hoping occasional trimming will keep it in check. I ripped out as much as I could and dutifully stuffed it into the green bin (yard waste and food scraps). The municipal composting facility may be hot enough to kill it; my compost pile is not.

While weeding, I kept thinking of the section of Anathem where the characters re-enact a historical war by planting invasive weeds in locations reflecting the starting positions of each army and leaving them to fight it out. The battle of ivy versus hops has begun.

Cascade hops rhizome

Planting hops (Humulus lupulus)

Hops prefer rich, well-drained soil, but will apparently make do in a pretty wide range of conditions. No indication yet of whether forcing them to struggle for survival under harsh conditions will give hops the depth of character that such treatment apparently imparts to grapes. I’m certainly not going to coddle them, but I did losen the soil a spade-depth down, and mixed in a bag of organic soil amendment, just to be safe.

Nugget hops (Humulus lupulus) rhizome, sprouting

Rain was scheduled for planting day, but it held off while we shaped small mounds of soil and nestled each rhizome into place. I marked the exact location of each one with a stick, so I’ll know which emerging shoots are ivy (to be ripped out and thrown in the green bin) and which are hops (to be photographed and celebrated with barbecue and beer).


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