The Hammond Gardens: Connecting Science to the Success of an Industry 

Jeb Fields, Abdi, Damon, Stagg, Jason

The Louisiana Agriculture nameplate stands against a white background.

Jeb S. Fields, Damon E. Abdi and Jason Stagg

Sprawling across 150 acres near Robert, Louisiana, the Hammond Research Station is Louisiana’s home for ornamental horticulture research and extension — a place for green industry professionals and hobby horticulturists alike to learn about ornamental plant research and new varieties while also paying homage to the historical landscapes of Louisiana. The station is known for high-end horticultural research with internationally recognized soilless substrate research and sustainable landscape programs.

The Hammond Research Station has been in existence for over a century and serves as a repository for the rich history of Louisiana landscapes. Founded in 1922, this Hammond hallmark served as the home of Hody Wilson, station superintendent from the 1930s to the 1970s, who bred camellias. The Hody Wilson Camellia Garden remains to this day, providing a secluded slice of Louisiana horticultural history.

Beyond the acclaimed research programs and innovative extension resources, it is the Hammond Gardens, a hidden gem of the Louisiana horticultural industry, that serves as the showcase of the station. The Hammond Gardens comprise more than 40 acres of meticulously maintained seasonal plantings. What delineates these gardens from its contemporaries is its composition. It includes a standard trial garden, an arboretum and a botanical garden that generate data to inform plant selections while also providing an aesthetic arrangement commonly found in gardens that are not used for research. The Hammond Gardens has six distinct sections with several more ancillary gardens and beds scattered throughout. Unlike most trial gardens, the Hammond Gardens evaluate seasonal color, trees, shrubs, perennials and more, providing an assessment of a wide range of plants. In making selections, we have one criterion: If it could look good and perform well in your yard or landscape, we want to evaluate it.

The Hammond Gardens integrate research and aesthetics together, blending the scientific design necessary to provide quality evaluation data with a humanistic element that represents what our citizens and stakeholders may see in their yards. To the untrained eye, observers might not realize that the gardens generate a deluge of data, with descriptive characteristics and ratings collected on every plant. This is where our advancements in multimedia dissemination manifested in new ways to connect with stakeholders and Louisiana residents.

In the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns, the Hammond team developed an interactive and informative webtool to share our evaluation data. The website is continually updated, and once sufficient years of data have been harvested, it will serve as an invaluable tool for plant selection and create a resource that our green industry stakeholders and homeowners can rely upon when making decisions. For example, if one has the desire to add a small tree in the landscape that provides bountiful purple blooms all summer long, entering these features in the webtool will return an actionable answer — in this case, Shoal Creek vitex — providing a data-driven tool for landscape decisions. While the webtool is in its infancy, the maturation of this feature as more data is accrued will provide immense value to the public.

While the Hammond Research Station is now known for its ornamental horticulture programs, the vast majority of its existence was devoted to improvement and education of strawberry and truck crop production, which was the dominant agricultural industry of the region for much of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that Regina Bracy had the foresight to oversee the shift from regionally focused horticulture crops to much broader nursery and landscape efforts as a matter of statewide interest. Soon after, Allen Owings joined the station faculty and worked to expand plant trialing and collecting initiatives. Positioned between Louisiana’s two major metropolitan areas, the Hammond Research Station was the perfect site to develop the ornamental horticulture research and extension programming that the Louisiana green industry needed.

Over the past two decades, the gardens have expanded, and the research has shifted in response to industry needs. However, the mission objective remains unwavering to support the Louisiana green industry through whatever challenges they face. Extension and outreach programs center around improving nursery crop production and reimagining landscape management strategies to enhance the overall sustainability of the industry and our communities. The team at the Hammond Research Station works closely alongside the nursery and landscape associations throughout the state, developing innovative educational materials for stakeholders and working together to address issues as they arise.

Every year, we host our annual horticulture field day on the third Friday of July. Though it is often the hottest time of the year, it’s also when the gardens are at peak performance. The interaction and camaraderie within our industry as stakeholders from the across the state and beyond descend upon Hammond feels more like a family reunion than a work event. Attendees arrive early in the morning and participate in rating our trial plants and getting an update on current research.

The Louisiana Nursery and Landscape Association, the state’s largest industry association, holds its annual membership meeting in conjunction with the field day, allowing current and prospective members the opportunity to foster the connections and teamwork needed to drive the industry forward. The collaboration between scientists and green industry stakeholders is how we continue to advance ornamental horticulture. This close connection allows the Hammond team to stay engaged with the industry, to act immediately to address issues of today and to identify the challenges of tomorrow.

Furthermore, it directs the station’s efforts so that the research and extension outputs are immediately impactful. We seek “applied solutions,” a running catchphrase of the Hammond team that signifies the importance of blending scientifically derived information with actionable practices for stakeholders. Beyond that, our team and the industry partners on educational events and activities throughout the year, notably the expansion of the Landscape Education Days, bring the best of what the Hammond station has to offer to different regions of Louisiana. Whether it is recertification events and hands-on workshops for stakeholders, master gardeners volunteering weekly or spring and fall garden days for the public, there is always an event coming soon.

The gardens themselves directly benefit growers and landscapers, as many landscape plants are bred in climates quite different from the conditions found in Louisiana. Here you can have record-breaking rain or a lengthy drought. You can have nights that stay warm most of the summer and drastic shifts in temperature in a single day. With erratic weather like this, it is no surprise plants are bred in other locations where more mild effects may lessen any plant issues and may not represent our Louisiana conditions. However, the Hammond Gardens alleviate this concern by evaluating plants here in our climate, allowing the most applicable insights and information for growers or landscapers to make purchasing decisions, effectively removing the burden of trialing from the backs of the stakeholders. Perhaps most exciting is when the station is asked to trial new plants introduced by local breeders.

Aside from the firsthand data and support resources, the gardens are a point of pride for the industry members who often extoll the virtues of the Hammond Gardens towards members of other states that may not have a comparable public asset. The industry has been incredibly supportive of the station, personnel and activities. There is a history of strong financial support for the station and the passion to continue fueling our fire to serve our stakeholders. Ensuring the public’s accessibility of the Hammond Gardens is a priority that we take seriously. Some states with public trial gardens have them located on university campuses, requiring interested individuals to navigate a campus or even buy a parking pass. That is not the case at Hammond. The doors are always open (at least during weekday business hours), and we welcome each and every visitor. We are here to serve.

This station is a major asset to supporting the horticultural industry with research and extension, and the industry is a major asset to the station financially and with regard to focus. This reciprocated respect is exactly how it should be. For those of us who have worked at and visited quite a few research stations across the country, we know that the Hammond Research Station blends aesthetics and applied research and extension in a way that is truly unrivaled.

Jeb S. Fields is an assistant professor and ornamental horticulture specialist, Damon E. Abdi is an assistant professor of landscape horticulture, and Jason Stagg is a horticulture instructor. All are based at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station.

This article appears in the winter 2024 edition of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.

Flowers and trees are shrouded with fog.

Founded in 1922, the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station began with a focus on truck farming, or farming produce that is sold to distant markets. Today it is a source for information on landscape and nursery plants. Photo by Ashley Hickman

Pink and white flowers grow from bushes.

The Hody Wilson Camellia Garden at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station is named after Hody Wilson, the station superintendent from the 1930s to the 1970s who bred camellias. Photo by Olivia McClure

A pinkish-white flower blooms from a branch.

Several varieties of magnolias grow at the Hammond Research Station. Photo by Ashley Hickman

3/6/2024 9:44:23 PM
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