I am an apartment dweller, and am trying to keep my mobility options open, should the right brewing job upgrade suddenly require relocating . . . <whine> but I wanna grow hops!
My first hop bines – Cascade, Willamette, and Fuggles
I previously grew some hops in 24″ round pots on a second-floor west-facing porch with moderate success. They only got direct light from early afternoon on. After three years, they were still going great. Some upheaval and a move and they are gone . . . but I’ve ordered new rhizomes and they have arrived!
Now, I need someplace to grow them. Hops have a number of needs to grow properly, and I have a few wishes of my own, so my background in engineering has me screaming for a “requirements list” – something no engineering design starts without. So, let’s see:
- Large volume
- Potentially portable
- Reliable water supply
- Good drainage through soil
- Enough nutrients
- Soil that remains loose
- Hop bines must be supported
- Pest protection
- Mildew/root rot protection
So taking a look at this list, some ideas started to take shape. I don’t have a lot of extra cash, so would much prefer to scrounge from what I have and put on my Handyman cap. After getting some Red Green episodes playing in the background for inspiration, I discovered that I had (with minimal dumping/recompacting) several Rubbermaid storage buckets that were not being used (the lids of several were in use under fermentors to protect my hardwood floor). They were definitely cheap (#1) and larger than the 24″ rounds that I had used before (#2). As far as durability (#3), they were certainly able to withstand weather and wet conditions – but have you ever filled one to the brim with water and just stepped back? They tend to bow out and half-collapse (NOT something I wanted to happen to my hops). Trying to move one (#4) filled with wet soil and fragile roots without flexing it all and snapping roots is also difficult.
Returning to the cheap scrounging, in my woodpile was a large number of narrow slats cut from quality cherrywood. They were from a project that was not finished when 1/3 of the raw materials were stolen from me (I’d been cutting small cubes for my smoker since, but hadn’t used it for much else). Using these and a couple of wider planks, I built support frames for each of the buckets.
Wooden support frame for hop buckets
Every connection is double-tapped with 2-3″ outdoor-grade drywall screws. All of the holes were pre-drilled. I built the frames to be tight just under the rim and the bottom to just brush the ground when empty. To make it nestle in, I had to cut the handles off of the ends of the bucket (a set of wire cutters made short work of them).
Hop buckets framed up
Now that I had containers, the next step was to consider their contents. A huge problem with potted plants of any kind is water management. Potted plants cannot rely on the root systems of other plants, hidden aquifers, etc. when they get dry – and it is all too easy to forget about them for a few days on the WRONG few days. It is equally disastrous when potted plants can’t drain and simply sit in a flood of stagnant dirt-water – the plant literally rots right off of its roots. I’m planning to have these hops in the buckets for a couple of years, so I want this to work right.
My plan is to build is a holding reservoir with a wicking siphon system. It sounds impressive in engineering terms, but in practice it is quite simple once you understand how it works. To make sure that my plants don’t go dry, I am setting aside the very bottom of the containers specifically to hold water (#5). This means that instead of putting my drain holes on the bottoms of the buckets (like most plant pots), I drilled them partway up the sides. Also, since I am intentionally storing extra water (and will be supplying it back to the soil), I can let new water drain quickly from the soil to the reservoir or out of the bucket – in other words, I can use MUCH bigger drain holes (#6). There are 2 holes on each side and one on each end – all are 1/2″ diameter and approximately 2″ up.
Drainage holes above water zone
To isolate the water reservoir and prevent it being filled with soil, we need some sort of separation. There are fancy screens and false bottoms (sound familiar?), hydroponic rocks, and expanded stone fillers that all work well and have their strengths . . . price is not one of them. However, the kitchen at work had some equipment come in packaged in odd-shaped beadboard (white styrofoam) – an inert buffering substance that does not break down in wet conditions and would otherwise take up space in a landfill . . . and (dum- da-da -dum!) free (#1). I broke the styrofoam into mid-sized odd-shaped pieces and layered them into the bottoms of the buckets, making sure that there were at least 2-3 layers. As these layers settle under the weight of wet soil, they will press down without crushing, creating a coral-like network of water caves.
Water zone buffer with cotton rope wicks
To seal it off from the soil that wants to drop through, I will be covering the beadboard with a thick layer of peat moss. The peat moss will act as a filter bed – it is porous enough that it tends to stick to itself and allow the liquid to drip through. It can also trap some nutrients that the soil can wick back up from direct contact. However, the soil can’t get to the water at the bottom in the reservoir (#5). A wick is one of the simplest forms of on-demand siphons. A rummage through my camping gear (#1!) turned up a chunk of nylon-cored, cotton-wrapped 1/4″ rope. I cut a few lengths and coiled some across the bottom of each bucket, under the beadboard. In each bucket, I pulled both ends up through to make two wicks. The nylon threads at the core will help keep the wicks in place all the way up through the soil while the water will slowly travel along the cotton fibers as the soil drys and absorbs more water from the wick (#5).
Cotton rope wicks
Once the wicks were in place, as mentioned, a 1-2″ layer of broken-up peat moss was layered over the beadboard and wetted down. Once the layer was more cohesive and less dusty, alternating layers of soil and peat moss were layed in, always making sure to continue keeping the wicks penetrating each layer (#5).
By using good-quality pre-mixed potting soil (on a budget, so I used Miracle-Gro Potting Mix), I ensure that I have a solid set of both quick-use and long-term nutrients in my soil (#7). Alternating 1-1.5″ layers with peat moss distributes the nutrient-rich soil to all areas for roots, while preventing any compaction or “rocking up” that would present problems for the roots (#8). Each peat layer creates a buffer drainage zone where over-wet potting soil may find close drainage relief that can transfer it across the layer to a drier area. The peat also acts as buffer filters, helping to retain more of the nutrients being leeched by drainage or being added with watering later in lifecycle (#7).
Hop bines need to climb and this is a good time to consider how your are going to support them. If you need to mount a pole, ring, tiedown, etc. to your bucket or frame, it is easier to make those modifications now than when you have a big plant in your way. I will be letting them climb the railings along the 3-story outdoor stair on my apartment building, so that’s done-and-done (#9). (I have wool twine ready if I need to direct it more).
Two of the biggest threats to hops are bugs and molds. In NH, the bugs are relatively a non-issue (for the plants, anyway – we have tons of mosquitos and blackflies). Some birds munched the first couple of shoots and I think a mouse or squirrel was digging for seeds, but I covered the tops with a thick layer of peat moss as a mulch and that stopped (#10). Downy and powdery mildew are concerns even here in New England. Having my plants isolated in pots, starting high above the grass and not near any other shrubs gives them an advantage, as does the steady light breeze (#11). Once the bines reach a few feet high, it is also good to strip the leaves off of the bottom 1-3′ for further isolation.
Once the bines have become established strongly, I will be adding some ground cover to protect from critters and heavy rains/dry spells. I have seeds for ground-cover-style thyme and oregano. Neither of these plants reach down more than a couple of inches, and create an aromatic (i.e. anti-pest) layer of edible greenery that also acts as a mulch (#12).