Welcome to February’s instalment of a Year in the Life of the Hop Garden.
February has brought a mix of sharp frosts, biting winds, bright sunny spells, cold rain and of course, Storm Eunice.
Whatever the weather, Matthew is always to be seen out in the hop garden, beavering away. He cuts rather a lonely figure in the windswept field, with only the deer for company, but they are a welcome help in keeping down the thistles and grass.
Matthew’s main task this month is to go along all 86 of the alleys and check each individual hop plant. Some plants have perished in the cold weather and need replacing.
Using a coloured stick helps mark the spot, as it’s easy to lose your bearings when there are so few distinguishing landmarks!
The replacement hop plants have just arrived. With their straggly root system, it is sometimes difficult to see which way up they should be planted! Matthew will heel the hop plants in to acclimatise them and to get some goodness from the soil, before he transplants them to their final place in the garden in the next couple of weeks.
Field mice don’t hibernate, but they will burrow in between the hop roots to shelter from the winter cold.
Every now and again, Matthew comes across a pile of roots on the surface – a tell-tale sign that a fox has been digging the roots out in search of a field mouse on its night-time prowl.
The task of realigning the skewers under the wire work and within a few inches of the hop plant carries on. This means the correct tension is maintained throughout the garden when it is strung. Other skewers just need to be screwed back down deep into the soil.
There are over 6,500 individual hop plants in the garden. Each and every one of them has to be checked. Matthew started this task in the last week of January and has completed 7 rows so far. Only another 79 to go!
Matthew originally set himself the target of completing the checks by the end of February, but he has been digging out the new drainage ditches instead.
The very first purple hop shoots are showing on a couple of plants, but the shoots won’t survive a severe frost. The hop head should be gathering strength underground, awaiting the advent of spring. But by banking the soil around the crown now, this will help to keep the crop of new shoots (which will be cut and eaten as poor man’s asparagus) blanched and tender.
It's not just hop plants that Matthew is planting. Poplar trees have traditionally been associated with hop fields, acting as a windbreak to protect the hops. Matthew will be ordering about 115 new poplar “whips”, which will only be about 1m tall when they arrive. Lombardy poplars have the classic upright shape and can grow to 30m. About 35 will be planted along the existing field line.
White or Black poplars, whose branches spread more widely, will be added along the hedge line.
The pallet of coconut coir has now arrived from Sri Lanka. Being organic, it doesn’t store well over the year and starts to perish, so each year a fresh supply is ordered in. There’s enough here to cover the 300 miles of string needed for the 8 ½ acres.
So a busy couple of weeks before Mathew can then set his sights on the monumental task of stringing the garden from early March…….
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