Right now it’s twiddling time for British hop growers and many hands make light work.This is always true of any seasonal work in a hop garden, butespecially when training hops the first time around.
It can be quite daunting to sit in the middle of a hop garden on your own surrounded by a sea of plants, all needing to be ‘firsted’ immediately.There is an optimum time to twiddle the hops and if the weather warms with perfect damp conditions they can quickly get out of hand, quite literally. This week some of the varieties have been at that perfect stage.Like Goldilocks’s porridge they were not too short and not too long but just right.
A twiddler’s eye view of a hop before and after twiddling. Depending on the variety we put up between 4 – 8 bines. The variety shown is Admiral, a high alpha hop with a clean marmalade aroma.
Once the correct number of bines have been put up the strings, excess bines are pulled out and left beside the hop hill.We try to pull the whole bine off at ground level, I find two hands at the base of the shoot works best.If the shoots are only broken off, then the piece left will send out fresh shoots from each leaf axil, making even more work next time around at seconding.
Very little equipment is needed, this week just hats, gloves and stools. Sunny, warm days spent outdoors with blue skies and good company, twiddling time is a pleasure.
Below is an area of hops all firsted, you can see the little piles of unwanted shoots left beside the hop hills.
I have been asked to explain exactly what ‘seconding’ at hop training is. During hop training each year you will train each hop plant at least 3 times, normally starting in mid April and working throughout May until early in June. For ‘hop training’, ‘hop twiddling’ or even on occasion ‘hop tying’, these three visits per plant are called, rather unimaginatively, firsting, seconding, then finally heading.
First things first, because when hops are done well the first time round this really does make a difference when you go back over them the second time around. The exception to only firsting once is for young hop plants in their first year after planting as setts. We will walk over these as many times as necessary to put up all the bines they produce as soon as these are long enough to reach the strings. The young plants need everything up in order to make as strong a root system as they can for the following year. It takes 3 years from planting before you get a commercially viable crop off any new planting, hence this extra care and attention to detail is important to establish them well. A newly planted area is a commitment for any grower. Below is a garden due to be firsted.
and a before and after of the same hop which has been twiddled for the first time round. It has been thinned right down to 6 bines and the rest that have been pulled out from around the bottom are left next to the plant where they will naturally disintegrate.
As soon as the bines have grown above the banding strings then seconding can take place. At this stage they are roughly between 6 and 8 foot high. Basically seconding at hop training is simply tidying the hops up and making sure there are no bare strings or strings that have more than there fair share of bines. They are still easy to reach therefore they can be moved without kinking or breaking them. Below left is a hop waiting to be seconded, then the hops done in the centre and right is the garden immediately after it was completed. Even so in the picture on the right, you can see the heads immediately favouring the left side of the photograph and there was only the slightest of breezes.
Each plant should have its correct number of bines e.g. 2 per string so if lots more have gone up you can cull out these extra bines at this stage too. If there are 3 bines up one string and an empty string next to it, you simply unwind one of them, cross it back over then twist it up the empty string a couple of turns so it is nicely secured. The hop strings are naturally closer to each other below the banding, which makes it easier for bines to crossover between one another. This would all be fine if they did it evenly, but generally if there has been a prevailing breeze they will tend toward one side of the plant.
It is the easiest and quickest stage of hop training because you are walking along and working at a comfortable height you can cover the ground quite quickly. Gloves are generally not necessary now because you are no longer pulling out the bottoms, this in itself makes it pleasanter on a hot day. The other contrary thing they can do is to get themselves trapped. Either in a loop of the string or between the another bine and the string, the trapped head will stay that way and as the plant keeps following the sun it will eventually screw its head right off. Below is a rescued bine before and after, it has not been put up the string as it will be brittle, so best left for now to go up on its own or if not it can be dealt with next time around. We are always careful not to break a head, by seconding there are no replacements to be had. Cold or windy weather make a difference to the brittleness of the bines and there are varietal differences too. If a head gets broken, you need to pinch out one of the side buds to allow the other to take over as the new leader. This helps, but a bine with a broken head wants to put all it laterals out and grow bushy like a christmas tree, it will not grow as well as one with its original head still on.
As with most hop work, numbers of people are needed. It is not hard physically but if you had for example 10 people doing one row each, them they move along to the next 10 rows, it is satisfying to see what you have done at the end of each day. Contrarily a single person hardly seems to touch a hop garden. Hops have always been like this, it requires people about when any seasonal job needs to be done. With so much hand work the ‘man hours’ required throughout the year really add up, this is one of several reasons which make hops such a high cost crop to grow and in turn expensive for the home brewer to buy.
After seconding at hop training all fingers are kept tightly crossed for quiet weather, you definitely don’t want high winds to undo everything you have just done. Still, warm weather is ideal to get them up and over the top wires as quickly as possible, once over the top they are safe from being blown off the strings and we can all breath a sigh of relief. If that happens then minimal heading with twiddling sticks will be required – phew.
Green is the colour of May. This verdant month means two things, hop training and the re-greening of the countryside. No hay has been cut, no corn ripening yet, the countryside simply turns into a spectacular panorama of different shades of green. I love it and from March onwards always look forward to the trees getting their new leaves. The wait can seem long and drawn out. Of course the blossom and wild flowers are rattling out too and it amazes me every year how each flower perfectly coordinates with the particular green if its own leaves. So many beautiful flowers, the countryside is awash with colours, but for me the one colour that truly depicts May has to be green.
It is hop twiddling time once again in the hop gardens of England and as always a lovely time of year as the countryside greens up and pings back into life. The cooler weather has slowed down this growth, hence we are well on top of the hop twiddling (or hop training as it is also known). This can change rapidly when the temperature rises, then the bines will shoot up the strings like long dogs; they can grow 6 inches in length on a warm night.
Each hop is trained a minimum of 3 times through the growing season. Twiddling hops is not difficult, it just takes time to do each one and as with all ‘hop’ work it needs a few people to make the day swing along more companionably and to see your progress at the end of each day. Working alone in a hop garden makes any progress seem infinitesimally minute.
With the typical Admiral hop shown here, you first need to know how many bines you will need to put up, the number required depends on the variety being grown. A quick cursory glance will then show if you have plenty to choose from, it is usually 6 or 8 to go up four strings. The temptation is always to put too many up rather than too few, one for luck is not to be recommended!
This is how I like to twiddle, but other people will have their own way and the end result should be the same. First of all I pull out the very long coarse first bines, they aren’t wanted so best get them out of the way before you start. It is thought that the first growth probably contains mildews which overwinter in these first buds, therefore it’s another reason not to use them. I then select finer bines of the right length, preferably of a fairly uniform length, approx 14 – 18 inches long which is enough for two or three good turns up the string. It is best to select them from the middle of the plant if possible, this keeps the hills nicely contained because if you were to take a bine from a runner away from the base of the hop hill this risks getting caught in a tractor tyre later in the season and then broken off.
I do a quick check for a long narrow head on each bine, then if you have 2 bines per string you can wind both up each string together. They need to go up the string clockwise, hops follow the sun unlike runner beans which grow in an anti-clockwise direction. If they happen to be put round the wrong way, by next morning they will have unwound themselves. It is good to get them tucked in firmly at the base before you twist them up onto the strings, this is to prevent them being dislodged if you get a windy day before they have really got underway properly. Like the one pictured the plants next to hop poles tend to become stronger plants, possibly they never get run over by a tractor at harvest or it could be they are just more protected.
If the weather is cold and breezy then some varieties will snap easily, if this happens you need to take that bine out and replace it with another which has a head. Warm temperatures are simply kinder for both people and hops.
That is all there is to it really, you pull out the rest of the unwanted bines, then move on to the next hill.
Rules are simple – choose fine bines, make sure they have heads on , decide how many you need for each hop hill and stick to that number. Twist them clockwise up the strings then pull out the rest and move on. Below shows there are plenty more to be twiddled yet, they just need to grow a little bit more!
This week I spotted a few Spanish Bells growing fairly close to a bluebell wood. They were probably escapees from nearby cottages but I have dug the bulbs up now and they have been destroyed. We did not want them cross pollinating with the native bluebells.
The winter storms had also dislodged two Barn Owl boxes. Barn Owls are a protected species, so after having the situation checked by the Barn Owl Trust we are now able to fix one back in situ knowing there are no eggs. The other has tree ducks nesting in it so that will be secured later in the summer. Barn owls have been successful around the High Weald in the past, this is probably due to plenty of grassland and some margins close to the boxes which were left rough to encourage short tailed voles. It is wonderful to watch a barn owl flying silently as it hunts at dusk.