(07/26/22) HAMMOND, La. — Persistent rain and a gloomy, gray sky is not the forecast Jeb Fields had hoped for on the morning of the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station’s annual horticulture field day — an event normally headlined by a tour of sun-soaked, vividly colored gardens where newly released ornamental plants are tested.
But with the clouds offering respite from the typical summer heat, Fields, assistant research coordinator and extension specialist at the station, quickly decided the wet weather was a blessing in disguise.
“I’m glad it cooled off,” he said, “because I wanted to show off this cool research.”
That research includes an array of projects that reflect a growing priority at the station: sustainability in Louisiana’s nursery and landscaping industry. The field day, held July 22, provided a unique, up-close look at that work. Without having to endure scorching temperatures, visitors could take their time to view research plots at their summer peak and ask questions.
With umbrellas in hand, dozens of industry professionals spent about two hours in the field with AgCenter scientists and students, learning about such topics as alternative growing materials and fertilizer efficiency. By the end of research tour, the rain had let up, and the visitors proceeded to the eagerly awaited excursion into the station’s trial gardens.
Fields was happy to highlight the fact that faculty and staff at the Hammond Research Station do more than evaluate new ornamental releases. While that is a valuable program, the sustainability research aimed at keeping the industry both economically and environmentally sound is a lesser-known — but increasingly important — aspect of the station’s work.
“These are things that could change the industry,” he said.
He is spearheading a project studying wood fibers and sugarcane bagasse as potential alternative substrates — the materials that plants are grown in — to alleviate pressure on commonly used resources such as peat. With help from research associate Maureen Thiessen and student Amanda Mizell, Fields is looking at how mixing these different materials into containers affects plants’ growth and fertilizer needs.
Along with graduate student Kristopher Criscione, Fields also is investigating a concept called substrate stratification, or layering different substrates in containers. The goal is to “change the air and water balance to create a more uniform wetting profile,” Fields explained.
Potential benefits include increased fertility, more efficient irrigation, reduced soil cost and less weed pressure — all of which can help producers use fewer resources and keep more dollars in their pockets.
Fields and research associate Ashley Edwards are working to help growers make the most of fertilizer applications. They’re collecting runoff from potted plants and monitoring its nutrient content to better understand how well plants are absorbing fertilizer and how long those products remain active.
Temperature seems to be a factor in making better use of fertilizer. To aid efficiency and longevity, Fields and Edwards are exploring using light-colored pots that reflect heat and irrigating at carefully selected times of day to cool down plants.
Many other presentations at the field day fit in with the sustainability theme. In another study, Fields is examining how moisture sensors can be used to make better irrigation decisions. Graduate student Max McKeown is studying the use of groundcovers, which tend to require less maintenance than turf. Horticulturist Yan Chen talked about growing tea plants, which can be productive for up to 100 years and provide nursery professionals a new niche.
On the economic front, AgCenter economist Maria Bampasidou discussed a study she’s beginning of labor issues in an industry that employs more than 50,000 people in Louisiana. And the ever-popular trial gardens tour offered information on which of thousands of plants — from coleus to colocasia — stand up best to Louisiana’s heat and humidity and provide good return on investment.
The field day came after a challenging year at the station. Last year, Hurricane Ida caused extensive damage in the area.
“We lost about 150 century-old pine trees and almost every single pecan tree,” Fields said.
The team at the station has spent much of 2022 — which happens to be the facility’s 100th anniversary — cleaning up and getting gardens back on track.
Attendees of the field day applauded their efforts.
“We love our research station,” said Lisa Loup, president of the Louisiana Nursery and Landscape Association. And she was quick to add that the soggy conditions at the event were no problem.
“We work in the rain, in the snow, in the sleet — it doesn’t matter,” she said.
Not only are nursery and landscape professionals dedicated to their jobs, Loup said. They’re also committed to supporting the research station, which she said helps people like herself stay in business, providing valuable services to society and contributing to the state’s economy.
“Everything you see when you walk out your door from your home, from your businesses is us,” Loup said. “We create the environment that we live in every day.”
A virtual field day video including information on the research projects and plant evaluations is available at https://youtu.be/5SvWq9y50RU.
Detailed data from the trial gardens are posted at app.lsuagcenter.com/hammondtrials.
Graduate student Max McKeown, center left in straw hat, discusses his research on groundcovers during a rainy field day July 22 at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
LSU AgCenter horticulturist Yan Chen pours samples of black tea for attendees of the July 22 field day at the Hammond Research Station. Chen studies growing tea plants, which are a type of camellia. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
Jeb Fields, extension specialist and assistant research coordinator at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station, discusses his research during a rainy field day July 22 at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
Visitors admire a Monarda punctata plant during a rainy field day July 22 at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter