Planting hops: how to grow hops at home


For me plants are some of the most exciting living beings, even though they live in slow motion. They have fascinating abilities and just so much potential! That's why I studied organic farming. However, since plants are rather thin on the ground in my city, I often spend time hiking in the nearby mountains at the weekend. In the future I would love to run a farm myself.

Favourite fruit: strawberries and gooseberries
Favourite vegetable: courgettes

Hops are mainly associated with beer and its production. However, many gardeners do not realise that hops can also be grown as a decorative plant! Below, we have summarised everything worth knowing about planting hops in your garden.

Hops flowers in wooden box
Hops was popular with the monks [Photo: Vaclav Mach/]

The common hop (Humulus lupulus) belongs to the hemp family (Cannabaceae), though without a doubt, one word comes to mind when talking about hops: beer. Although the vast majority of hops grown around the world is used for brewing beer, that’s not all there is to this wonderful plant. After all, this perennial, which originates from Central Europe, was not named the 2007 medicinal plant of the year just because of its role in brewing. The common hop has many other valuable qualities. In the following article, we will talk about why beer and hops work so well together and also show you how to grow this medicinal plant in the comfort of your own garden.

Growing hops in the garden

Planting hops: the right location

The common hop loves the sun. While cultivating hops in your own garden, these plants should not be denied sunlight – a location on the southern side of the house is decidedly the best place for hops to grow. This is also the main reason why most hops are produced commercially in Europe and are grown in sunnier areas. For example, the Hallertau region in Germany is particularly well-known for growing hops.

The wild variant of hops is usually found in very humid areas, but is not the only variety of hops that enjoys a nitrogen-rich environment. To grow hops at home it is important to use a well-fertilised substrate, especially when cultivating hops in pots. If you want to plant hops out in the garden, keep in mind that these plants have rhizomes. Rhizomes are subterranean shoots from which new, vigorous plants emerge to the surface every year. So once you are finished with your hop cultivation, make sure that every single one of the plant’s rhizomes has been dug up and removed from the ground. Otherwise, new shoots will continue to sprout from them!

Climbing hops vines
Hops vines like to climb [Photo: Benoit Daoust/]

Propagating hops: cuttings or seeds?

The most common as well as the most widely recommended method of hop propagation is to propagate cuttings. There is a major reason for this: only unfertilised, female inflorescences form the coveted hop cones. The structure of male panicle flowers is fundamentally different from that of the spike-shaped female flowers. On the one hand, fertilisation of female flowers is not ideal for processing in the brewery but, on the other hand, not as much as beer wort can be produced from the same mass of hop crop as from the non-fertilised flowers. If you hold a bag of hop seeds in your hand, you will not be able to differentiate the males from females easily. Further along in the process with mixed seed hop cultures, the problem can arise that female flowers can be fertilised unintentionally. To avoid this faux pas, the hop varieties are best propagated exclusively by means of cuttings. If you want to plant hops in your own garden, it is recommended to buy young plants which have already been started.

Watering and fertilising hops

Hops require a lot of nutrients and water to grow well. This comes as no surprise: hop vines can grow up to 10 cm a day! The soil that the hop plants grow on should always be kept moist to support these thirsty plants. That being said, waterlogging should be avoided at all costs. Water logging can lead to an insufficient oxygen supply to the roots and consequently lead to the deadly root rot.

Because hop plants need a lot of nutrients, additional fertilisation is essential, especially in pot cultivation. Just like with watering, fertilisation should be adapted to the rapid growth of the hops. This means essentially that as the hops grow bigger, the intervals between each fertilisation should be shortened. In other words, you should fertilise more often as the plants grow bigger. Thus, in early summer, hop plants should be supplied with extra nutrients up to once a week. It is important to note, though, that fertilising should be stopped as soon as the hop vines start flowering. However, even during bloom, watering remains a full-time job: especially when cultivating in pots, watering must be done daily on sunny, warm days to ensure optimum supply to the plant. We also recommend using a pot that leaves enough room for this thirsty perennial.

Pruning and stringing

Depending on the variety, hops can grow to an impressive height of 4 to 8 metres. Without proper support, the thin hop shoots are not able to grow upwards at all. Therefore, three to four climbing vines per rhizome should be tied up to a trellis made of wires. This should be done as soon as the individual shoots become so long that they can no longer bear their own weight. We would like to point out that hops are right winding plants, which means that in order to climb up the supporting aid, they have to be tied up clockwise. All other shoots sprouting from the same rhizome are cut out, this will increase the yield of hop cones.

Hops on a trellis
Hops can make a decorative addition to the garden [Photo: Irina Mos/]

Pruning for winter is not necessary when it comes to hops, all above-ground parts of this perennial plant will die off on their own! The nutrients from the vines are relocated to the rest of the plant laying underground, this gives the rhizome enough power to push the fresh shoots back to the surface next spring. Incidentally, the rhizome of hop plants native to regions with temperate climates are not susceptible to frost damage. Even prolonged permafrost cannot harm these robust hops.

Like most plants, hops are not completely immune to pests and diseases. Hops can be infested by aphids. What many do not realise, is that these little pests can be combated with ordinary household items as opposed to commercial chemical products. For example, pouring some nettle liquid manure over the affected plants can help against aphids. Alternatively, you can also rinse off the plants with a mixture of some dishwashing liquid and water. You can learn about other household remedies against aphids in this article.

Also important to take into mind is that many hop varieties are also susceptible to powdery mildew. The best alternative to chemical plant protection is to choose a less susceptible or even a mildew-resistant variety of the plant.

Hop varieties: which are the best?

There is a great diversity to varieties of hops – hundreds of different types of hops are available on the market! This means that when it comes to hops, there is something for everybody to enjoy, regardless if you want to brew beer or use hops for a different purpose such as a striking visual addition to the garden. When it comes to the taste, hops offer a wide spectrum: while some taste sweeter and fruitier, others are known to have notes of menthol and can even be a bit spicier.

Hop varieties can also be divided into two sub-groups based on their alpha-acid content. On the one hand, the so-called bitter hop varieties have an alpha acid content of over 10 %. All varieties below 10 % are referred to as aroma hops, the low alpha acid content reduces the bitterness of the hops. However, aroma hops contain a higher concentration of essential oil. The composition of the aroma can contribute to a hops’ own unique flavour. Here are some of the best hop varieties, that you might want to grow in your garden:

Dark hop varieties:

  • ‘Nugget’: strong growth and high yield; very susceptible to disease; low demands on the soil
  • ‘Target’: low demands on the soil; very beautiful, closed umbels; less susceptible to powdery mildew
  • ‘Hallertauer Magnum’: high bitter constituents; strong growth; grows the largest umbels and leaves
  • ‘Northern Brewer’: early ripening; less productive but contains a large amount of bitter substances

Aroma hop varieties:

  • ‘Hersbrucker’: traditional variety; distinct spicy note; overall good aroma
  • ‘Hallertauer mittelfrüh’: old variety; still popular in cultivation thanks to its aroma; large dark green leaves; aesthetic growth
  • ‘Centenniel’: popular variety in the USA; aroma reminiscent of beetroot and berries mixed with woody notes
  • ‘Citra’: aroma hop variety of high value; varied fruity aroma
  • ‘Amarillo’: moderate aroma; sweet fruity yet spicy notes
Hop flowers
The harvested hop flowers are female [Photo: M. Schuppich/]

A goal for most commercial cultivation of hops is to cultivate small but high-yielding varieties, which would greatly facilitate mechanical processing of the crop.

Other than the aroma and dark hop varieties, there are also some one-of-a-kind hop varieties offered on the market that can enrich a hobby gardener’s bed. They are usually characterised by their ability to be planted just about anywhere in the garden.

Unique hop varieties:

  • ‘Billbo’: extremely low in bitterness; very suitable for teas; not the best variety for beer brewing
  • ‘Comet’: very decorative light green to yellow foliage; very large and conspicuous umbels
  • ‘Gimmli’: dwarf; shoots reach a length of 4 m when tied up; well suited for cultivation in pots or containers; resistant to powdery mildew

Harvesting and storing hops

From the end of August to mid-September, the hop cones that are so revered by beer lovers, can be harvested. When the cones are ready for harvesting, they begin to shed a yellow powdery hop resin. It is also then that the elaborate manual selection process follows. In commercial cultivation, the hops vines are cut off as a whole just above the ground and removed from the trellis. On smaller farms however, the unfertilised female inflorescences are then separated from the shoots with the help of a specialised machine.

Ripe hops flowers in basekt
Hops can be harvested in autumn [Photo: Foxxy63/]

In principle, the harvested hops are then dried to extend their shelf life. Either the umbels can be air-dried, or the process is accelerated through the oven. Here, moisture is removed from the umbels at up to 80 °C for one or two hours. When it comes to the air-drying method, it is important to choose a dark place so that the green colour of the umbels is preserved as much as possible. If the dried inflorescences are subsequently compressed into pellets, the storage volume can be significantly reduced and, if the cap is airtight, the storage life is expanded even further and without a loss of aroma.

Hops: use and benefits

Hops are what make beer what it is – which is why they are used almost exclusively in the art of beer brewing. About 17 kg of hop cones are needed to brew 1000 litres of beer. It is common to use the dried inflorescences of the female hop plants for brewing. However, the brew can also be prepared with freshly picked hops, this is how the so-called green hop beer is made! The hop resins provide the trademark bitter taste of beer due to the bitter substances lupulin and humulone they contain. Thanks to their antibacterial effect, the bitter substances of the hops also act as a preservative, which is why beer can be kept long. This positive property of hops was discovered by Saint Hildegard von Bingen as early as the 12th century.

Glass of beer with hops
Hops is responsible for the foam on your beer [Photo: Stone36/]

Furthermore, female hop cones are also beloved in the form of tea. The infusion is said to have a calming and sleep-promoting effect.
Hops can also be made use of on the stove – young, fresh shoots of about 15 cm in length can be cut during budding and cooked as a hop asparagus. It is important, however, that the shoots are still tender and young; the ideal harvest time is therefore from about mid-March to early April. Preparing hop asparagus is not different from cooking its namesake, the classic asparagus. Interestingly, the hop asparagus brings an interesting resinous note to the plate. If you are interested in cooking with hops as opposed to brewing beer, it is definitely worth cultivating this perennial in your own garden.