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Garden Plot: Here's how you grow those hops

Monday - 3/10/2014, 1:13am  ET

Hops plants (AP)
A pile of hops waits to be sorted at Perrault Farms in Toppenish, Wash. These hops are conventionally grown, but Perrault and other growers are planting more organic hops to meet a new federal rule requiring organic brewers to use organic hops in their beers beginning in 2013. (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

Editor's Note: Meet Mike in Fredericksburg on Saturday, March 22 and Sunday, March 23. He will be at the Home & Garden Show in the Fredericksburg VA Expo & Conference Center.

You can grow your own hops

Jameson in Centreville on the Eastern Shore writes: "Do you have any specific tips on growing hops in this area? I'm hoping to find plants that are local and adjusted to our unique climate."

A fellow Hop Head! I greatly prefer hoppy beers, and can tell you from experience that beer brewed with fresh hops is an ambrosial experience. Some people grow the big plants strictly as ornamentals and summertime privacy screens. Hops are big plants that need strong support; the vines can reach 20 feet in a season. They're not self-supporting, so they need heavy gauge string or wire to hold onto.

They're prone to mildew, so they require lots of elbow room, great airflow, and watering only at the base. As "Herbaceous perennials," their above-ground growth dies back over winter, but new growth appears as soon as the weather warms up again, just like with hostas. They grow fast and reach a big size very quickly.

There are different varieties, including ones with different levels of "bitterness" for brewers. Here's an article I did on them for my Public Radio show that goes into a lot of hoppy details.

There has been a huge resurgence in East Coast hop growing (we used to be the center of the hop universe until mildew pressures moved all of the big commercial growing to the West Coast), and you have some great local resources for plants and advice, including the Maryland Hop Growers Association. (Here's their Facebook page and a Univer sity of Maryland experimental station in Upper Marboro that focuses on hop growing. (Read this one right away and keep scrolling down).

Cornell is selling a number of different varieties this season, but the order deadline is March 15. And there's a priceless photo of old school hop growers using stilts to tend the tall plants.

Yes, I expect to get a beer out of this a few years down the line.

Last Call for Grape Vine Pruning

Malcolm in Kensington writes: "Our home came with a grape arbor. The first year we got lots of grapes; last year, not very much. I think the vines need to be pruned, but am clueless as to how."

You are correct, Malcolm. Whether the final intent is fresh eating or wine making, grape vines need to be pruned back severely every winter. Last month would have been ideal, but our extended winter means you can do it soon with just as positive an effect.

You'll find lots of online articles illustrating your pruning options, but they can be confusing. Instead, I strongly recommend you follow Lee Reich's advice in either "The Pruning Book" or "Grow Fruit Naturally." Both books are in print, easily available and detail the best way to prune neglected vines as well as new ones.

They also illustrate the different methods of trellising in an as easy-to- understand style as you're likely to get.

In addition to cutting the plants back, make sure there's an inch or two of compost underneath the growing vines to prevent disease - no wood mulch! And no actual feeding, either: grapes are very light feeders and chemical fertilizers dilute their flavor and make them much more susceptible to pests and disease.

Then, be sure to remove a good third of the leaves throughout the season to keep the air flowing freely. (This necessity is probably why there are so many old- world recipes involving grape leaves.)Then remove some of the actual fruit clusters while they're still small. That's how you get the biggest, tastiest grapes at harvest time (if the birds don't get them first).

But that's a Plot for another day.

Best to Prune Back Oversized Plants Over Several Seasons

Michele in Alexandria has a very common problem. She writes: "We have two beautiful holly bushes that anchor the beds on each side of the front of our home. But they're now 12 feet tall and we can no longer manage trimming them without ladders. And they block the view from two of our windows. We'd like to trim them back to about six feet tall; can they take it?"

Well, they might not die from a severe pruning, but they'll certainly look like Hades afterwards. This happens more often than not; homeowners don't plan for the final size of a plant, and then try to make up for ten years of growth in one very ugly round. Don't you do that.

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