We all can appreciate that trends in color and design affect the appearance of our homes. In the same way, interests and pastimes can impact backyard landscapes. A preference toward organic produce has fueled an interest in backyard vegetable gardens, as well as organic garden products.
Similarly, home brewing has propelled hops from being an unknown beer ingredient to being one bred for backyard use by even non-beer enthusiasts.
The plant itself, Humulus lupulus, is best grown in northern latitudes, because longer daylight hours are needed to trigger the unique cone-shaped flowers used by brewers to add flavor balance to many popular beer varieties. The vines are technically bines, which are basically flexible stems that climb by wrapping themselves around any supporting structure.
They grow at an incredible rate every year, with new growth reaching 25 feet in a matter of months. This aggressive habit can make it a bit of a garden thug, with bines climbing on top of each other to form a thick wall of vegetation.
Plants also spread via rhizomes, with new growth popping up feet away from the parent plant.
This overt aggression can be well directed toward trouble spots in the yard. Hops can easily provide an affordable screen, with some varieties bred for more attractive foliage rather than flower production. Most plantings of hops will grow to full height in two years, significantly faster growing than most screening plants. The tough vines can withstand being close to roads, and resist drought. Even the coldest of Chicago winters will not affect this plant hardy to zone 3.
While they grow best in full sun, they can handle a partly shady area without issue. The plant requires little care, other than removing the dead bines in late fall, and some pruning if a tidier appearance is desired. The fact that they die back every year helps keep the plant looking fresh every year, as well as gives the gardener a chance to maintain the support structure.
So, whatever your motivation for growing hops, you will not find a better climber to fill a trellis quickly. Beer enthusiasts can readily find a wide variety of popular varieties to add to their recipes, and gardeners can find attractive vines to hide problem areas in the yard effectively.
Jim Stendler is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.