Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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If you’re looking for a vine that will cover a fence, arbor, trellis or other support system, consider hops (Humulus lupulus). The hop plant vines grow fast reaching a height up to 25 feet by midsummer. Once the daylight hours begin to shorten, the vines stop growing vertically and begin growing horizontal branches that might need to be twined by hand onto your structure. And yes, this is the plant that produces the hops used to flavor beer.
My late friend, Wayne Kakela, grew hops and loved the look of their large leaves for screening areas of his Strawberry Park yard with a living wall. Because our growing season in the Steamboat area is so short and dry, the plant might not flower, but the foliage will be lush and gorgeous. It could take as many as three years for this vine to become well-established, so give it extra care early on in watering and weeding.
If you are lucky enough to obtain flowers, light green hops or small 1-inch cones, will form in the late summer. These look and smell nice and can be harvested and cooked as a vegetable, used for decorative purposes or harvested for brewing beer.
Hops are grown from rootstock, which is not easily found in nurseries, so you might need to mail order. (Or it helps to have a friend willing to share.) The plant prefers full sun and plenty of moisture during the early growing season. The plant flourishes when fertilized with material rich in potassium, phosphate and nitrogen, especially nitrogen when applied a couple of times in the spring and once in midsummer.
In prepared soil, plant the rootstock once the threat of frost has passed, two per hill with the buds facing up, covered with about an inch of loose soil. Space your hops hills about 2 to 3 feet apart. The roots can penetrate into your soil to a depth of 15 feet.
If the vines become tangled and thick, you might want to do some pruning to promote air circulation and reduce the chance of any diseases forming. Pruning should be done carefully on the lateral branches, avoiding harm to the main stem.
If your vine produces the hops cones and you wish to harvest them in late summer, pick cones that feel papery and light. If you plan to use them for decoration, pick your hops early. Otherwise, wait until the cones are drier. Be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves since the hooked hairs can cause a rash. Knowing exactly when to harvest hops is tricky. It would be worth your while to study hops harvesting further if you plan to use the cones for brewing purposes.
At the end of the growing season, simply bury the healthy bottom vines in order to propagate new plants for next year. As soon as they start to show any green in the spring, dig them up, cut them into pieces about 4 inches long and replant. Make sure each cut piece contains an eye or a bud.
Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Contact 970-879-0825 or firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.