The most exciting thing I ever found growing in a garden patch was definitely not planted there. I was maybe 10 years old and parted the leaves at the base of a bush to find, not berries or baby gourds, but …
For some reason, that’s the word that flashed across my mental marquee on a sunny Sunday a few weeks ago, when I realized my hops plants finally had flowered.
Two years I’d been waiting for this, and I almost missed it because I’d stopped paying (close) attention, for reasons of mutual preservation.
I originally planted four hops rhizomes — two Centennial, two Nugget — in the late spring of 2019. Two didn’t make it to 2021. I can’t tell you which varieties because I can’t find the notebook where I drew the diagram, but Greg Hopper, of Hopster Hops in Falcon, guessed they’re probably Nugget, because “Centennial are pretty damn hard to grow.”
What I can tell you for sure is that looking at the empty spots along the fence where they had once, briefly, thrived is kind of depressing. I probably killed them with the wrong kind of attention, i.e. way, way too much water. I’ve got a couple of strawberries that can confirm this pop diagnosis if anyone’s up for a plant seance (talk about hortiCULTure, ba dum tss).
With my history, I’m happy to take the 50%, call it a win and hope it stays that way.
So now I’ve got hops. What the heck do I do with them?
In some gardens, they’re just for looking at — an ornamental feature that peaks at lush and fragrant talking point. For some homebrewers, they’re crops. When I’d acquired the spindly root cuttings as part of a program run by Local Relic, I’d promised to hand the harvest back over to the Colorado Springs artisan brewery, which would use the cones to make a special locally sourced beer.
Local Relic’s hops giveaway program continued through the pandemic, though on a “less robust” level, with the brewery giving away about 150 rhizomes to mostly backyard gardeners this spring, said owner Jeff Zearfoss.
If a hops-picking party, like the one I participated in the fall of 2019, happens this year it will be in the early fall. Zearfoss told me to stay tuned.
Regardless, my hops plants won’t be making their big debut this year.
“You can pick the flowers, but I would leave the bines hanging,” Zearfoss said.
They’re probably not yet totally ripe, but Hopper suggested picking a bloom to investigate. When it’s ready, the center should be a dark gold color and, if I crush the cone and roll it between my fingers, the lemony scent should be intense.
Once the weather grows colder, the bines will start to turn brown as the plant recalls all the energy it spent during the growing months into the root ball. Once they’re brown, I should cut them down, Zearfoss said. By 2022, he added, they should be ready for legitimate “harvest.”
Fingers crossed they make it.
I asked Greg Hopper how I might up those odds. He recommended adding nitrogen to the soil and, in the fall, potassium, which is like a “natural antifreeze.” Plus, a layer of good mulch.
“And the next part will be your water. You can’t overwater them, honestly, especially here in Colorado,” he said. “You’d be surprised by how much water they need.”
I am surprised. And also thinking a strawberry seance isn’t such a bad idea.