Fall Hops Maintenance

I’m a little late in getting this post up, but it’s always good to get the information out there, right? You'll probably want to do these steps at the beginning of Fall, not in the middle. Without further ado, here’s Fall care and maintenance for your hops.

Fall is here and now is a great time to start or perform maintenance on your hop garden. What? You think Spring is the right time for this? Wrong. Spring is the time many commercial hop yards perform maintenance on their hops producing many leftover rhizomes. This is what ends up in homebrew stores and why you are lead to believe Spring is the best time to plant. When is it recommended to transplant just about every other plant out there? Fall! It allows your rhizome or crown time to establish roots before the winter. You don’t have to worry about the weather getting too hot so as to damage your new plantings. In other words, the perfect conditions for you to have your hop garden ready to go for the next growing season.

From here on out, I’m going to be talking about how I grow hops, which is in a large container. This does not reflect how profession hop yards do it or how you should necessarily do it in your garden. This is what I’ve found to work over the years and allowed me to successfully grow in containers over several growing seasons.

For New Hop Plants

The first thing you’ll need to do is decide what hops to grow. Not all hops will grow well in your area or grow well using the container method. From personal experience, I wouldn’t bother with most of the noble varieties. Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt hops have all grown, but never gave good yields. Willamette has also been a bomb. Things that have done well are Cascade, Magnum, Crystal, and surprisingly, Saaz. I know that last one is a bit of a surprise, but it seems to have been the best and most vigorous grower. I’m currently testing out Neo1 and Southern Brewer for the next grow season, so we’ll see how that goes. When shopping around, make sure you find something that indicates they’ll do well in short trellis or high density hop yards. Instead of taking random rhizomes (which are root cuttings) of variable quality and viability, I’d strongly suggest you shop around for hop crowns. While I’m sure you can find several places that will sell you a hop crown, I recommend Great Lakes Hops. Every crown I have gotten from them has grown and been disease free. They have a great variety and they ship year round.
Secret ingredients to sucessful hops in a container

Once you have that down, you’ll need a pot. I see the 5 gal. bucket at Home Depot recommended time and time again. This is a huge mistake. Hops have a voracious root system that can penetrate up to 15’ deep and have been known to take over whole gardens if left unchecked. How anyone can think it would thrive in the confines of a 5 gal. bucket is beyond me. It might be ok to use such a bucket to propagate a rhizome, but it’ll need to be transplanted to a bigger container the following year. I would recommend a container at least 24” in diameter and equally as deep. The container must have some form of drainage. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to drill in drainage holes. Fill the container with potting mix soil to about ¾ of the way full. Plant your crown or rhizome in the middle of the container and top off with 2” of manure. Manure is a good way to fertilize your hops and it also can help keep downy mildew in check. Water the container thoroughly until you see about 1” of standing water. Stop watering and see how long it takes for the water to vanish. If it takes longer than a minute, you don’t have adequate drainage. You’ll either need to drill more holes in the bottom of your container or amend your soil with perlite. It’s also not a bad idea to use a soil acidifier to bring the soil in the 7.0 to 6.0 range. Most varieties of hops like a bit of acid and it helps inhibit mildew.

For Established Hop Plants

Although it may be too late for this season, make sure when you’re harvesting your hops, you cut the bine just below the first bunch of cones. This should leave 1 - 2 feet of leafy plant. This is important because the additional energy this plant takes in from harvest till first frost will go into building up the root system. This gives you a healthier and more robust plant. Take time to examine your leaves. If you suspect you have a problem with mildew, now is the time to take care of it. First off, if your leaves are discolored, you need to determine if your leaves are discolored from lack of nutrients, mildew, or pests. More often than not, discoloration is a sign that the plant is lacking nutrients or, if it’s late in the season, that’s it’s preparing to enter a dormant phase. If you have discoloration AND your leaves are cupping down AND you notice some black spots on the underside of the leaf, you have downy mildew. If you have the above but instead you notice a white wispy matter, you have powdery mildew. If you have the above symptoms, but you see or did see bugs on your plants, you have a pest problem. Everything else is a nutrient deficiency, which will be the main issue you face while growing in a container. We’re going to take some steps to mitigate that risk in a second. First, I want you to dig a 4” perimeter out from around the outside of the pot as shown:
You will remove all dirt and rhizomes in this zone. You can replant them in another container, give them to friends, or throw them away. The idea here is that you’re ensuring that the plant doesn’t get so big that it gets root bound and it’ll have some space to grow for next season. This also allows for some aeration of the soil, which will help thwart mildew. Examine the roots you can see in the core part of the plant. Make sure they look healthy and show no signs of disease or rot. If they do, you’ll have to decide to trim those roots out or treat them. If you’re going to treat, I’d suggest using a copper based fungicide as directed. If cutting, try to leave as much root material as possible.
Now, fill the trench you’ve made with a 50/50 mix of potting soil and manure. Once filled, take your fingers and lightly sift the top layer of the core planting down to your second knuckle. Try not to disturb or destroy any roots, you just want to get an idea of root density and health. As with the new plantings, you might want to add a touch of soil acidifier to the top as long as your soil reads more than 6 on a pH meter. The hops will like it and the sulfur will be another layer of protection against mildew invasion. Now cover the top with at least 1” of manure. Perform the same drainage test outlined in the new planting section.

If you’re using a drip irrigation system (and you should be using a drip irrigation system) now is the time to do maintenance on it. Flush the system and make sure there’s no sediment obstructions in your emitters or leaks in the line. Perform any necessary repairs, test it to confirm operation, then drain the line. The last thing you want is to have a line freeze and burst without your knowledge in the middle of winter.

There! Your hops are all ready for Winter and will hopefully need very little attention until it’s time to start training them up lines in the Spring.