Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Horton hatches the cone

I have previously seen what I thought was an assassin bug in amongst my hops, particularly the Columbus. For the past couple of weeks there is one that has remained on station in the same spot:


I think I have now identified this as a juvenile wheel bug that hasn't yet developed the characteristic wheel on its back. Staying patiently in one place like this immediately made me think of Horton hatching an egg:


The big difference being that instead of waiting for an egg to hatch, it's waiting for another bug to come along so that it can stab it with its beak and inject digestive enzymes that will liquify it from the inside which can then be sucked out. Yum! The intention may be very different but it is always in the same spot every time I look. I just hope it's getting enough to eat. Never thought I'd be coming over all maternal for an assassin bug. As Dr Michael Raupp of the U. of Maryland is quoting as saying on the Wikipedia entry: "They're the lion or the eagle of your food web. They sit on top. When you have these big, ferocious predators in your landscape, that tells me that this is a very healthy landscape, because all these other levels in your food web are intact." Needless to say, I'm feeling a little better about my efforts at organic hop farming.

Just so as to update where the hops have gotten to. The Columbus has come on with an extra growth spurt, despite producing what I thought was a terminal cone previously. As you can see from this pic, it has reached the top of the twine available and is starting to just fall back down. Fortunately, it hasn't grown over to where the Cascade is, as that would make telling them apart a lot more complicated. You can also see that cone production has continued vigourouly despite my earlier harvesting:



The Cascade has also continued to produce cones after earlier picking:


The Willamette is producing a huge number of cones but they are some way from being ready for harvesting. They also look as if they will be ready at roughly the same time, in contrast to the other two plants:


Not bad for a plant that was pretty stingy last year.

Overall, there appear to be a lot of cones to look forward to in the very near future. Fresh hop beer awaits.

Monday, July 21, 2014

On complicated sex and harvesting

Last year I saw some smaller cones on my Columbus around the time I harvested. I had hoped they would turn into a second harvest but had to move them and that stopped that dead. I have seen them again this year:


Doing some reading this year I found this piece that clearly states that these are in fact male flowers. I had known previously that hops are dioecious, that is they have two sexes. What we think of hop cones are the flowers found on the female plant. The presence of male plants nearby is not desirable as there is a chance of pollination and subsequent formation of seeds within the female flowers which are not something we want in our beer. What I had not know was that some strains of hops are "triploid" and can thus have both male and female flowers. The above article specifically names Columbs (as well as Zeus) as an example of a "triploid" hop variety.

"Triploid" means that the plant has three copies of each chromosome, in contrast to us humans who normally have just two copies in most of our cells ("diploid"). The exception to this rule being our gametes, which have half the normal number (ie one of each, that is referred to as haploid). In contrast, plant genetics can get very weird and complicated very easily. Some crops (such as strawberries and sugar cane) can be up to octoploid (8 copies of each chromosomes).

The above article is written by the head hop grower at Great Lakes Hops and she says that male flowers in Columbus appear when the plant is severely stressed. This year has been a bit dryer and hotter than last year but I don't think they could be described as "severely stressed". Certainly last year it did not appear to be stressed at all and there were a good number of male flowers. However, last year they did only appear after all of the female cones had developed. This year, with a bit more stress, I have seen them appear much earlier. Perhaps this is sign to make sure I water them more regularly. I have mostly been relying on our weather so far this year, which has provided plenty of rain but not at regular intervals.

Although there are some signs of stress this year, it doesn't seem to have affected the production of cones much. I have already started harvesting some from the Columbus:


And Cascade, with plenty more to come:


The cones on the Willamette are not yet ready to pick but there are plenty of them:


This is just one lateral arm. If you remember last year, this is a plant that gave me a whopping total of three cones. I'm particularly pleased with this as the plant itself does not look overly happy in comparison to the others:


I am hopeful that I will be able to continue picking hop cones for several months to come. If I'm very lucky I might even get an increase in production in relation to last year. The Willamette is certainly set to give me a lot more than its first year.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Middle-aged spread

The sharp-eye will have noticed that vertical growth has almost stopped. The graph (top right) showing heights has almost entirely levelled off. This hasn't meant that growth has stopped though. There has been much more in the way of secondary growth further down, something I can sympathise with (if only in my case it were a sign of continued vigour). The Columbus has been putting out lots of new secondary shoots:


It's cones are also looking like they are getting close to harvest time (I haven't used soft focus for this pic, it really is just that hot and humid here now):


The Cascade is also showing signs of the same kind of spreading lower down:


The Cascade is also producing lots of nice looking cones, although not quite as many as the Columbus. The Cascade cones are also a little different in that they are appearing and maturing from the top down whereas the Columbus is from the bottom up:


The Willamette is also showing plenty of lateral growth but primarily higher up:


One very nice change this year is that the Willamette is making a lot of cones:


Compared to the three whole cones I got from the Willamette last year this is a huge improvement with dozens of cones in their early stages.

I've also had some more sightings on the bug front. Found this one sitting on a leaf shooting eggs out it's butt (at least that's what I hope they were). If you look closely you can just see a white streak behind it:


I've no idea what kind of bug this is but it's clearly not going for a parent of the year award. Also found this bug, which I'm hoping is an assassin bug of some description:


What with the efforts of this bug and some of the others I've seen this year there has been relatively little in terms of actual leaf damage. There have been one or two that I've felt the need to discourage though:


Again, I'm not sure what kind of caterpillar this is but I know I don't want it eating the leaves of my hops, as it's been caught red-handed doing here. I suspect the fact that it's hairy probably means that the spiders and assassin bugs didn't fancy it, so I took matters into my own hands. Haven't found any others since.
Overall, everything is looking pretty good and I suspect I will start harvesting some of the Columbus cones and putting them in the freezer for brewing at a later date.

Friday, June 6, 2014

First major infestation and other mystery die-offs

I found the first signs of a significant infestation today. Here's what I spotted initially from above:


Underneath I found these guys going about their evil doing:


Needless to say I removed the leaf immediately, which is why it's on our outdoor table rather than still on the plant. They were subsequently disposed of. I didn't find any evidence of them being on any of the other leaves but will be keeping a very close eye on things.

I also noticed this somewhat mysterious dying-off of some of the lateral, secondary shoots on the Columbus:


As there is a very neat distinction between the dead & dried part vs the green & alive part I'm hoping that this is a case of the plant deciding to concentrate its efforts on forming cones further up the plant. All of the dead lateral buds I found like this are lower down than the newly forming cones on this particular bine. There are a good number of cones forming though:


These are the cones that have developed the most so far. If my harvest only includes the cones that are visible now I will still be happy. The other bines of the the Columbus have yet to produce any so I am hopeful I will be getting a lot more. The same is true for the Cascade and Willamette. There is still plenty of growing left to be done this year so I'm in no hurry.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Terminal cone

So in previous years I have noticed that my hops get to a certain height then decide that they've grown far enough and produce a cone on the apical meristem, which is the origin of vertical growth. In Houston this happened at the start of July and last year here in Maryland it was closer to the end of July. The Columbus has already produced an apical cone on the tallest of the shoots and we're still in May:


As with previous years, I'm hoping this will mean that the rest of the plant will begin to fill out and hopefully produce more cones as a consequence. There are already a lot forming on the Columbus:


There's currently no sign of cones (let alone terminal ones) forming on the Cascade:


Or Willamette:


I guess this means that they haven't stopped growing vertically yet. There is still plenty of growing time left this year so I am still very hopeful the Cascade and Willamette will end up being more productive than last year in terms of cones.

I'm really not sure what determines the height hops grow to. It seems to me that at less than 14 feet tall the Columbus is somewhat short of what would be considered normal growth, especially for commercial growers. Perhaps I've ended up with a dwarf variety somehow. It's also possible that they are not getting enough water. I have only actively watered them once so far this year as (I feel) we have had plenty of rain so far. It is also possible they are just not able to transport water any further up the stem than this. I have a vague memory from a botany class a very long time ago that plants rely on evaporation through the stomata in the leaves to achieve transport of water up from the roots. If this is the case I can see that living in an environment with high humidity (such as we have here) would make this more difficult and thus limit vertical growth. This would also explain why (relatively arid) Eastern Washington state is an ideal growing area for them. There may well be a trade off though between having the plant putting energy into vertical growth versus cone production. What is the ideal point for switching from one to the other?

The shorter stature may well make it easier to harvest, so no complaints from me on that front. My biggest concern is successfully getting cones from these plants that I can use in my beer. I suspect the reason for the apical cone appearing earlier this year has a lot to do with these being in their second year of growth and are thus much more vigourous. The Cascade and Willamette still have over a month to produce an apical cone if they are to stay on the same timetable as previous years so I'm not worried at all. I'm still quietly confident that this year will provide an increased harvest compared to last year.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A growing community

In previous years I have had more than a few problems with bugs and pests. So far this year there has been surprisingly little. With any luck the cold winter we had here has knocked down our resident bug population a little. We've also had fewer in the way of mosquitoes so far too, so fingers crossed. This doesn't mean that there have been no signs of damage though:


This is the worst of what I've found so far, which really isn't that bad in relation to the whole. I haven't been able to spot anything doing this kind of damage. The suspects so far:


I'm reasonably sure that this is a juvenile stink bug of some sort. Apparently the brown marmorated version has become a particular problem in Maryland and Northern Virginia. It does sound like they particularly target fruit rather than the plant itself, so I'm quietly hopeful that it does not pose that great a threat. Still, having said that, this one was eliminated with extreme prejudice.

I also found this:


No idea what this is or who it belongs to but it gives the impression of being eggs laid by an unwelcome pest. A fair bit of prejudice was used in disposing of it too. Hopefully I wasn't eliminating something that might help me. Speaking of which, I have observed these guys:


This looks like what I would call a hunting spider, which in this case appears to be dealing with a red mite of some description. Always happy to see bug predators to help keep down the numbers of things that might damage the hops. I've also seen spiders of the web-making variety:


As well as this one that also looks like a hunting spider of some sort but with a bright red spot on its abdomen:


It's not just spiders that seem to be on my side. I found this and was initially unsure:


I now think it's a two-lined leather wing. This reference says that their larvae eat others insects, so again, very welcome.

All told, this year has seen very little in the way of damage to the hops from bugs and pests in general. The presence of these predators would indicate that there is certainly enough for them to survive on. I will just have to hope that they keep on top of their numbers. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Thinning & hop shoot risotto

Standard advice for growing hops suggests pruning back excess growth so that the plants can concentrate their energy into growing their most successful shoots. I have decided that only the Columbus is in need of pruning as the other two still need to establish themselves more. Here's the Willamette:


And the Cascade:


Both of these plants could certainly do with filling out. The Columbus on the other hand is much thicker at this point:


It has even been trying to escape. Here it is throttling a nearby daffodil:


From the pruning advice above, I have settled on nine shoots overall (three per line of twine). Once I'd identified these nine shoots I cut everything else back to the rhizome. Here is the slimmed down result:


That gave me a quantity of hop shoots:


As mentioned earlier my plan had been to use them to try making a hop shoot risotto. The shoots on their own are not unpleasant just a little bland. This unfortunately proved to be true once they were included in the risotto, which was eventually reverted back to having more flavour by adding mushrooms. Some of my own homebrew was used instead of wine though, which definitely enhanced the flavour :) There was no hop shoot flavour perceivable in the finished product, which was nevertheless pretty tasty.

Not entirely sure why this wasn't more successful. Perhaps I just didn't have enough in terms of shoots, perhaps I pruned too late in the season. There are many possible reasons. Unfortunately, this is a dish I can only try making once a year. According to the page on which I found the recipe this is a Venetian delicacy. I don't really think of the Italians growing hops so it's also possible that the varieties they use for this risotto are quite different to those used for making beer. Hopefully I will be able to try again next year with an even greater quantity of pruned hops. I may also try pruning a little earlier in the year. There's also the possibility that the Cascade and Willamette will be thick enough to need pruning and thus contribute to the harvesting of shoots. Many possibilities to try, just a very long time between experiments.