Save money by growing your own hops!
Hops are a unique plant, and grow easily throughout most of the continental US. While they do prefer the more northern parts of the US, there are varieties that grow pretty much everywhere.
Hops aren't planted from a seed, but start from a rhizome. These rhizomes are purchased in the springtime, and must be put in the ground as quickly as possible. It is possible to store the rhizome for a few days in the fridge.
Many hops growers recommend planting at least two rhizomes of the same type in the same mound. This helps with the success rate of growing your own hops!
Preparing the site
Since hops grow very tall (15'-20' on average) you should pick a spot that allows for the hops to climb. They also need 'full sun' which means that you should plant them where they are will get at least seven hours of direct sunlight a day. While they will grow with less sun, your crop will be diminished.
Once you have selected where you are going to plant your hops, dig a nice hole about twelve inches across, and twelve inches deep. Line the hole with compost or gardening soil with manure to provide the necessary nutrients needed for your little hops to grow and thrive. Then fill the soil with good friable dirt. You don't want to pack the soil, for the roots will need room to grow to establish themselves.
Planting the rhizome
Before planting the rhizome, soak it in warm water for about an hour before planting. If you have nutrients, or Hops Starter, add it to the water to help 'wake-up' the little rhizome.
Plant the rhizome vertical with the shoots pointing towards the sky, A rhizome looks like a root clipping or a stick, so you should be able to determine which way is 'up.' Take and lightly press the soil with your fingers around the rhizome, and water it daily with warm water until it begins to sprout. Consider covering the site with mulch to help trap the water in the ground.
When to Train the BineOnce the plant has sprung out of the ground, it will start to grow 'bines' which is the term used for hop vines. It'll grow quite quickly, so monitor it daily until it is about a foot tall. At this point, you will need to train it to the twine. Your first year, select one or two of the hardiest and longest bines, and train those. The rest just cut off all the way to the ground. This will encourage the hops to establish roots and to focus its efforts on growth.
Care and Feeding of your Hops
Hops should always be watered from the bottom, and not sprayed from a sprinkler. The moisture will collect on the leaves and lead to all kinds of rot and other issues, therefore either hand water the base of the plant, or establish a drip system style of irrigation. The first year it is CRITICAL that you do not let the soil dry out completely, for that will be devastating to the plant.
Some compost sprinkled on the ground around the base (under the mulch) will ensure that a constant stream of nutrients makes it's way into the plants hungry little system.
Once the bine(s) have produced buds, monitor them a couple of times a week until they start to turn golden in color. This is a sign that you are ready for harvesting. Take some time and carefully pinch each bud off the bine, and place them in a shallow tray or bucket.
Drying and storing
Drying your hops in the sun works well, and is the most economical method. If you have a food dryer, then by all means use that! If using the sun method, then lay the buds out on a screen and set someplace in the sun for a day or two. Once the buds are dried out, then carefully transfer them to good solid freezer bags, and try to get as much air out of the bag as possible. Then freeze them.
Prepping the Hops for Winter
Once the plant is beginning to wilt and starts to go dormant, you can trim the bines off all the way back down to the ground. In fact, this is what you should do! Be careful to not pull them out of the ground, but instead use a good pair of scissors, shears, or a knife to cut the bines off right at ground level. Compost the old bines, and cover the ground.
Ground cover for the winter can be as simple as more mulch, or straw. There is no reason to get fancy here. Make sure to keep watering the site a couple of times a week until the winter weather prohibits this activity. The little rhizome will go to sleep for the winter, and show up next spring stronger and better for the experience!