Any grandma can put some basil in the ground. Up your gardening game this spring by planting aromatic hops. (Bonus: They’re super hard to kill!)
Hydrangeas, hostas, and herbs look very pretty in a container pot. But a new plant—with delicate, bright-green cones on a twisting vine—has been spotted in backyards across the city and on the patios of Foxley and Parts & Labour. Toronto is growing its own hops.
Added midway through the brewing process, hops lend bitterness and citrusy, floral, or herbal aromas to beer. That’s not to say that they don’t have other uses. Stuffing your pillow with dried hops has been known to help you sleep, perhaps because the cones are cousins of marijuana. Or make tea for a new mama with them, which might boost breast-milk production.
But their best trait? “They’re pretty easy to grow. I’m sure you could kill them, but it would be tough,” says Ian Coutts. The author should know. He recently dedicated a year of his life to making a keg of 100-mile beer, growing and preparing all of the ingredients himself on his wife’s farm in the Ottawa Valley. He chronicles that experience in his new book, The Perfect Keg.
If you’re keen to sow something a little different this spring, it’s the perfect time to plant hops, he says. His green shoots came by courier from Richter’s Herbs (richters.com, $18 for three plants) in just a few days. There are more than 100 hop varietals out there, so Coutts advises planting two or three different types to find one that will thrive. He opted for Cascade (grapefruity and floral), Williamette (earthy and fruity), and Nugget (herbal), and discovered that Cascade grew best on his farm. “Hops like a sandier soil,” he says, “so good Toronto backyard soil should be fine.” Plunk them in little dirt hills or—if you’re gardening on a deck—a large container pot, though you’ll need to train them along a trellis.
In his first year, Coutts battled wilt with a homemade solution of baking soda and manure tea, and fought off bugs with an organic spray. Since then, however, he’s barely had to intervene. He suggests watering about once a week, or “whenever they get droopy,” and pinching the leaves off the first few feet. That’ll allow the plant to concentrate its energy into its cones, which grow at the top.
Figuring out when they’re ready to harvest can be tricky: There’s about a week-long window when the hops are at their prime. “Pick them just as the cones are opening up and you can see the yellow pollen inside,” Coutts says. Then dry them out over 12 hours or so to stave off rotting. He rigged a dryer by resting an old window screen on two chairs, spreading the hop cones on top, cracking a window, and turning on a fan. He kept indirect air flowing for 24 hours, until the hops were papery and opened up like pinecones. Coutts also made sure his buds were out of straight sunlight, which, he says, turns them “skunky.”
Once ready, hops will keep for up to a year in airtight bags in the freezer. A pinch will add a nice bitterness to ice cream, salad dressings, and cocktails; throw some in a smoothie to aid digestion. If you have a decently green thumb, you might just run into Coutts’ most recent problem. “My chicken coop is 18 feet tall, and last year my hops got so high that they were creeping along one side and into a tree,” he says. “As long as they’re watered, hops will flourish and aim right for the sun.”