Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Bohemian Perennials

Hops and horseradish are both new to my garden this year, but historically appropriate to this area of Chicago. Indeed, I expect someone has raised the plants on this land at some point in the last century. While my neighborhood, Hermosa, is now known mostly as a Puerto Rican and Mexican community, it once housed mostly German and Czech immigrants. The neighborhood is bordered by rail yards and factories and this was a haven for local labor. Some of the older denizens of this area -- the 80 and 90 year-old African-Americans -- still recall to me when this area was "Bohemian". "Mind you," said one, "that was when there was still an ice man and coal carts".

Both of these newly planted perennials have not grown according to my book-learned expectations. I expected the hops to come up much sooner. They just popped up yesterday, in mid-May! Hardly the "early spring" oft cited in my garden reading. When I was visiting friends in chilly Oregon in early April, they already had long, winding vines trained up their arbor (I use "vines" colloquially, as I think the right label for hops is actually a bine -- but I don't want to put on horticultural airs). Perhaps this delay in popping up is due to languorous first-year growth. Maybe next year the hops will be up with the asparagus. According to my sources, hops grows like gangbusters once it gets going, up to half a meter a week. I plan to train the strongest shoots up my porch, which looks painfully new against my old, worn house. Hopefully, the graceful green vines will soften the raw edges of the construction.

The horseradish did come up early, but I am surprised about how it has been struggling. Everything I had read seemed to imply that it was generally repellent to all forms of garden pests: "no major insect problems" and "no diseases" is repeated everywhere in the "garden wisdom" literature. Usually, the authors write that the plant itself is the pest and it will take over the whole garden if you aren't careful. Well, my plant can't seem to keep more than two leaves on it at once -- every time there is new growth, I come out in the morning to see the leaves nibbled or snapped off. I can't figure out what it is -- I assume slugs or snails, since those seem to be damaging everything else in the garden. As usual, I am pretty suspicious of the information in the gardening books and websites. Who among these authors has actually grown everything in their books? Read just a few websites or "encyclopedias" and you find the same tidbits and tips repeated over and over again, often verbatim. It's like all the cookbooks that talk about browning meat to "seal in the juices" even though Harold McGee disproved this theory long ago.

Anyway, I did find an excellent online article on horseradish by a woman who seems to have actual experience. Interestingly enough, she calls into question another popular "fact": is horseradish really the ideal companion plant for potatoes? As for pests, she points to the flea beetle as the usually culprit for springtime damage. Now, my leaves do not have the "shot-hole" appearance that seems to be classic for the flea beetle. I am glad, however, to find someone that admits that horseradish isn't the absolute problem-free plant that the majority makes it out to be. Even she, though, attests to it's aggressive spreading habit, so I am going out to sink a bottomless pot around my plant right now. While it is currently struggling, I fear that when it does settle in and start real growth, it could be the end of my tiny vegetable bed!


  1. Abbie, what are you going to use the hops for? I am only familiar with their use in beer.


  2. I mainly wanted a fast growing vine for the new porch, figured I'd go with an edible. I've had pickled hop shoots before....but as for mature hops, probably best to try my hand at a pale ale....we'll see.

  3. Slugs are getting a lot stuff in our garden - they're loving our weather. Kind of ironic, if it is slugs, that they're eating the hops you could use to make the beer to drown them with if they'd quit eating the hops.