For most people, the primary use of beer in the garden is to enjoy it. Whether or not you have actually been to a German-style “beer garden,” you have probably savored a cold beer on a warm day while out on your patio or deck. Did you know that beer can be involved in your gardening as more than just a post-weeding treat?
Although beer is not considered a good fertilizer for plants, as some have claimed, there are still many uses for beer in the garden. Beer is an excellent addition to compost and can also be an effective way to control various pests, particularly slugs and snails. You can also take on the challenge of growing your own hops, which add flavor and preservative to beer.
Grab a cold one, sit back, and I’ll take you through the research of how beer can support your current garden, and even inspire some new gardening projects.
Beer as fertilizer?
Beer is mostly water, and it contains sugars … it must be a good fertilizer for plants then, right?
Well…not so fast.
Many have come to the same conclusion, and if you Google it, you can find a blog post or two arguing that beer in the garden, or beer on the lawn, did wonders.
Most sources, and every credible source I could find, however, claimed that this was a myth.
Even if beer is harmless to the garden, which is debatable, there’s no real evidence that it does much good. So, at the very least, it’s a needlessly expensive way to feed and water your plants.
Many credible sources, however, went beyond this and actually argued that beer is harmful to plants. Beer is full of simple sugars, or carbohydrates, and plants utilize complex sugars. These simple sugars – the same ones that give human consumers a beer gut – aren’t good for plants.
One Cornell study did demonstrate how giving alcohol to flowers can result in sturdier flowers. The reason for this is that the alcohol actually stunts the flowers’ growth, meaning that they don’t grow tall and floppy, but stay shorter and sturdier. Even for this use, the alcohol must be properly diluted, and giving the flowers too much alcohol proved to be toxic. When it came to giving the flowers a bit of booze, the study pointed out that beer and wine were not able to be used in this way; it states quite strongly that the sugars found specifically in beer and wine “wreak havoc on [plants’] health.”
Beer also contains yeast, which is a fungus. Dumping fungus, plus simple sugars, into a garden or
lawn can cause its own set of issues. Usually, the end result is that it has no effect or it creates a nasty smell … not exactly what you were going for. There are many different kinds of yeast, and garden plants already have access to the types of yeast they need that already exist in the soil.
So, although some bloggers swear otherwise, beer is generally not considered to be a good fertilizer for your garden.
Beer in compost
While beer can’t be dumped directly into your garden as fertilizer, it can be a useful addition to the compost pile.
According to a list of compostable materials put out by North Carolina State University, beer and wine dregs, as well as leftover materials from beer and wine making, can be added to compost.
When mixed with other organic materials in compost, beer contains sugars and yeast which can help boost the breakdown of materials. Leftover beer also helps keep the compost moist, which is particularly helpful if you’re limited in your water supply.
Nature tends to not let things go to waste; adding beer to compost will make sure that the nutrients will get recycled and eventually get to your plants.
One of the most popular uses for beer in the garden is as a pest control, particularly for slugs and snails.
Slugs and snails may seem harmless – just the words snail-pace and sluggish refer to their famous lack of speed. However slow-moving, these guys can wreak havoc on a garden. They love to leave holes in leaves and plants, munch on fruit and vegetables left close to the ground, and kill off succulent seedlings. They lay an average of 80 eggs, up to 6 times a year, so a small slug problem can quickly become a big slug problem.
They’re tricky fellows, too, because they’re most active at night. They tend to hide during the day, attack your garden while you lay sleeping at night, and leave only their tell-tale slimy trails as evidence. Cowards.
There are a number of ways to deal with slugs and snails. If you’re facing an infestation, it’s best to attack from a few different angles. One of the best ways to treat and prevent a slug or snail problem is to make the habitat less inviting. Remove rocks or debris, and block off other potential hiding spots.
Another way to get rid of these pests is to actually go out, particularly at night or on a foggy day, and catch them in the act. Dress like a ninja if it helps you get in the zone. And then grab them as you see them, tossing them into a dish of soapy water to drown them.
If you want to reduce the amount of time you need to spend squatting over your garden, picking off slugs and snails while the neighbors watch in curiosity, you can also set up beer traps. You can buy them or just make your own. You need a dish that is deep enough that slugs and snails won’t be able to climb out of it, something like a margarine container or a coffee can. Bury the container so that its rim is just an inch or two above soil level; if it’s perfectly flush with the soil, you run the risk of capturing other critters that may actually prey on slugs and snails (you want those around).
In the evening, fill the container with some beer to use as bait. Slugs and snails are attracted to the beer, particularly the smell of yeasty fermentation, and will – hopefully – shimmy their way to the container, get stuck and even drown in the beer.
You’ll need to replace the beer every few days, and be sure to put the trap (or multiple traps) close to the slug hotspots. The traps will only attract the slugs and snails that are in a few yards of it.
According to the University of Maryland, not all beers have the same slug-magnet power. One study, for example, showed that the Kingsbury Malt Beverage was more tantalizing for the mollusks than other brands. If you don’t have beer, you can also use three teaspoons of yeast added to a cup of warm water to get the same effect.
One problem with beer traps is that they can attract other animals, essentially making you the provider of free booze to random creatures. To prevent this, you can cover the trap or set up barriers that would keep animals out.
Other uses for beer in the garden
Although primarily used to deal with slugs and snails, beer can also be used for other pest problems as well. You can put beer in a wasp trap (you can make your own trap out of an old bottle) to keep yourself from getting stung while you garden. You can also use beer to deal with fruit flies inside, keeping them away from your fresh garden produce. Put a cup of beer on the counter, cover it with plastic wrap secured with an elastic, prick a few holes in the plastic wrap with a toothpick and watch the pesky fruit flies get stuck inside.
If you’re a true beer lover, you might want to go even further in how much you involve beer in your gardening. You might even want to make beer your purpose for gardening.
You can do this by growing your own hops.
Hops have several different uses. They can be used medicinally, as a food supplement for livestock, as a preservative, or simply as beautiful ornamental plants. Most commonly, hops – specifically, the cones–are used as a flavoring agent in beer-making.
Hops are perennial plants, so your investment in growing them will really pay off each year. With this in mind, don’t expect a harvest the first year you plant them. During the first year, the plants are focusing on building a strong root system that will support your hop harvest for years to come. Hops are rhizomatous plants; their underground stems can produce roots and shoots, creating quite an intricate network that can spread to a depth of 15 feet underground.
Hop plants are used ornamentally because they’re full, leafy plants that grow rapidly in the spring; hop bines are the stems, which climb by growing around a supported structure. For this reason, they can look fabulous in archways or climbing up a garden trellis.
Hops are also dioecious – this means that male and female hop flowers are produced on different plants. It’s the female plants that produce the mature flowers, called cones, which are used in beer-making.
Which hops to select?
Hops used for beer-making are generally divided into two categories:
- Bittering hops: These are hops that have higher levels of bittering acids, which comes through as a bitter flavor in beer.
- Aroma hops: These hops have lower levels of bittering acids, producing more pleasant and varied flavors and aromas in beer.
Helpfully, these category names are pretty self-explanatory and easy to remember.
If you know you’re going to use your hops for beer-making, focus on hops cultivated for that purpose, whether they’re bittering or aroma hops. There are other types of hops out there, such as Bianca, or the Blue Northern Brewer, that are specifically used for ornamental purposes; their foliage colors range from bright yellow to dark blue-green. If you’re growing hops for beer, you’re more interested in their beer-making qualities, rather than their colors.
A very common bittering hop for beer-making is Nugget. This variety is particularly noted for its disease-resistance.
If you’re looking for an aroma hop, a popular choice is Cascade. Part of the reason for this plant’s popularity is that it’s very easy to grow.
So you’ve decided which type of hop you’re looking for, and how you plan to use it.
Now – where to get it?
Buying hops online
You can buy hops online, from local nurseries and greenhouses, or by propagating the plant yourself. Hops are not available to grow from seed. Instead, they’re propagated from an existing plant stem. This way, the characteristics of that specific hop plant are perfectly preserved.
The way to propagate hops is by using stem cuttings. These can either be stems that grow underneath the soil, called rhizomes, or stems that grow above the soil. Either way, you want to select a healthy plant to start with, to avoid disease and other future problems.
If you’re planning to propagate an existing plant’s rhizomes, you can help the process by burying any untrained bines beneath the soil during the summer months. These bines will become rhizomes, adapting to life below the soil and shooting off buds. You’ll want to collect the rhizome piece you need during the winter months; in January or February, the plants are dormant and this makes it an ideal time. With a shovel, dig directly beside the plant. Using a sterile knife, cut a 3-inch stretch of rhizome that has multiple buds. You can plant this section in a pot indoors or in a different outdoor location. When you replant it, plant it vertically, with the tip of it just below the soil surface.
If you don’t want to wait till winter, you can take stem cuttings from a hop plant to use for propagation. If you cut a section of bine, you can dissect it to allow several cuttings to be made from one bine. Each cutting should have one node at the top, and the other end of the stem should be dipped in root toner. Plant the cutting in sand and keep it moist; after roots develop (about 2 weeks), you can replant it in soil with regular fertilizer.
Let me start this section by saying that if you, like me, live in a northern climate, growing hops in your home garden will require the use of various season extenders. Hops can’t be planted outdoors until the danger of frost is passed, and they need at least 120 frost-free days for flowering. They like damp springs and hot summers, with plenty of hours of direct sunlight.
The best soil for hops is sandy loam soil that drains well. Hops need lots of water, but don’t like to have “wet feet,” either. If you have very sandy soil, that’s a good start but you may need to add some organic material to it to help it retain some moisture.
Where to grow hops
When you’re choosing a spot to transplant or grow hops, choose a location that has plenty of direct sunlight. Keep in mind that hops grow thick foliage, and grow upwards along a structure, so make sure you don’t plant them somewhere that will interfere with another plant’s supply of sun.
Structure for hops
Hops will need some sort of structure to climb up. For most home gardens, a 14 to 15-foot trellis is adequate. Once bines grow to an adequate length (at least a foot), wrap them clockwise around the climbing support you’ve provided. You can “train” 1-3 bines to climb up this way, being sure not to damage the growing end of the bines. Unused bines can be buried, as they will add to the underground root system that will provide the plant with nutrients to last through the winter.
Hops like regular, light watering. Damp springs and warm summers are a recipe for hop success, but in the heat of summer you’ll need to make sure they’re watered frequently enough. You need to strike a balance, though, as the plants don’t like to be waterlogged and many an eager gardener has accidentally over-watered them.
Hop plants should be fertilized twice each year, in spring and early summer. The limiting nutrient for hop production is nitrogen, so be sure that your fertilizer is giving a good dose of it.
If you live in a cooler climate, you’ll definitely need to start hops indoors and plant outside well past the danger of the last frost. When transplanting, remember to harden off your plants. Your little baby hops have been pampered inside, and might be shocked by the elements. Get them used to the outdoors gradually; start by putting them in a shady spot outside for several hours a day, and work your way up to longer periods of time in the location you plan to plant them.
When you’re ready to transplant, dig a hole that is twice the width of the pot the plant already lives in, but the same depth. Carefully transplant the hop and fill in the soil around it; make sure to water the plant thoroughly afterward.
During that first year of hop gardening, you’ve got to be thinking in the long-term investment mindset. The hop plant needs to get well-established in its new home, and store up ample nutrients to stay alive through the winter so it can return next spring. Don’t harvest hops that first season, and don’t cut back any foliage if you can help it. Some gardeners purposely provide a smaller climbing support the first year, to limit hop production and force the plant to focus on its underground efforts.
Common diseases for hop plants are downy and powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is caused by a fungus, and downy mildew is caused by a “fungus-like” organism. To avoid problems with either, take care not to over-water hops, or to keep their stems and leaves wet. Pruning at specific times of the year, depending on your region, can also help prevent the problem. This typically involves carefully cutting back the stems that are closest to the soil.
Various insects, like hop aphids and spider mites, are known for bothering hop plants. Hop aphids tend to spread in cool weather, while spider mite outbreaks are more likely to happen during spells of warm, dry weather. Hop aphids should be controlled before the hop plants flower, as they will enter the cones of the plant and cause a sooty mold to develop. Washing hop plants, avoiding over-fertilization, releasing or attracting beneficial insects (the ones that eat the pests), and avoiding over-watering can help control the problem.
For both common diseases and insects, a good prevention is to purchase disease-resistant varieties from a reputable, disease-free source.
If it’s your first year growing hops, remember that cones are not harvested until the second year of growth. Even though it’s tempting to get started on your beer-brewing goals, you need to let the plant store as many nutrients as possible to help it survive the winter and become well-established for next year’s harvest. Your patience will pay off!
If you’re in your second or subsequent year of growing hops, you get to harvest the fruits of your labor. Hops are typically ready near the end of the growing season, mid-August to mid-September, depending where you live.
Mature hop cones will feel dry and papery. The lupulin in the hop – the actual gland where the essential oils and acids for beer-making are found – will be golden yellow and have a stronger aroma. Immature hops will still feel soft; lupulin will be pale and only have a mild plant smell, not a particularly “hoppy” one.
Drying and storage
Mature cones can be removed and used for making beer immediately. You can also choose to dry them by laying them out on mesh trays and setting them in a shady spot. When they’re dry, put them in sealed bags or containers and remove as much air as possible. Put them in a cool spot or, better yet, in the freezer.
Does beer make good fertilizer?
No, beer does not make a good fertilizer. Although some people think that the combination of sugar plus yeast plus water in beer means it must be a good thing to pour on plants, it’s not. The sugars in beer are simple sugars, not the complex sugars that plants are looking for.
Is beer good for a garden?
Beer is not good for your garden, and may even be harmful. Although many people believe that beer is good for lawns and gardens, there isn’t really any credible data to back it up. Some experts say that dumping stale beer on a garden or lawn is harmless; it won’t do any miracles, but it won’t hurt, either. Other experts, however, believe that the sugars in beer can be detrimental to plant health.
If you want to add the nutrients in beer to your garden, try adding it to your compost pile first.
What plants benefit from beer?
Beer is not a good fertilizer for plants, but it can be useful by adding it to a compost pile or by using it for pest control. Beer bait traps are especially effective to deal with slugs and snails. Slugs and snails have plants that they prefer to eat – lettuces, zucchini, strawberries, and all types of cabbages, to name a few. These plants benefit from beer because beer traps can help manage the slugs and snails that target them.
Even if it’s not a great fertilizer, beer still offers a lot to the gardener. Add it to your compost pile or use it to control pests. Be inspired to grow your own hops and experiment with brewing your own beer. At the very least, enjoy a cold beer to refresh yourself in the garden this summer. Cheers!