When the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station opened the gates for its annual field day in July 2021, Kurt Ducote looked around and saw something special. Scientists, landscapers, nursery owners and others were mingling over lunch after a morning spent admiring the latest and greatest ornamental plants in the station’s trial gardens.
“You cannot go to any other industry and have lunch with four or five professors at any given time,” said Ducote, a tree grower in Lakeland and president of the Louisiana Nursery and Landscape Association.
“It’s one big family,” he added. “If you have a problem, everybody’s willing to help. If you want to know information, all you have to do is ask.”
Providing that kind of accessibility to Louisiana’s landscape horticulture industry is a key part of the mission of the Hammond Research Station, where scientists conduct research on nursery and landscaping practices, evaluate the performance of hundreds of new flowers and other ornamentals every year, and spread that information through outreach events and other activities. Data gathered at the station helps those in the business make informed decisions about what to grow, buy, sell and plant.
So how does that support Louisiana’s landscaping and nursery trade? “Totally,” said Michele Andre, a Ball Seed Company sales representative for south Louisiana and south Mississippi.
Without the station’s trial gardens, Andre said, plant buyers like herself would be at an informational disadvantage. The Hammond trials provide performance data specific to local soil and climate conditions.
“We are unique,” she said. “Florida has similar conditions, but we have a silt loam soil, and they have sandy soil. It’s totally different. For south Louisiana, south Mississippi and the coastal area — Texas even — it’s very, very important for us to know what we can do for plant material.”
“We trial plants because the majority of plants that people use in their landscapes are bred in Oregon or Minnesota or Michigan or Tennessee,” said Jeb Fields, assistant professor and extension specialist at the station. “Not all those plants do well here. We try them out so we can tell the nurseries what’s doing well.”
Andre noted that the Louisiana Nursery and Landscape Association has raised more than $100,000 to fund improvements at the station in recent years — a sign of just how much the facility means to those in the industry.
It is somewhat of a local attraction, too.
“These gardens act as horticulture evangelists,” Fields said. “People come out and they want to go plant plants, they want to go to nurseries, they want to go buy some plants to put in their yard. We show people what they can do.”
The station has a unique setup compared to other trial gardens, which tend to feature lots of flowers planted in long rows.
“We have our landscape set up in beds like it would be at your house so people can see it and get an idea of what it looks like in a landscape,” Fields said. “All of our beds were designed by landscape architects.”
Those beds were installed in the mid-2000s, when the station underwent a makeover to better serve the changing agricultural landscape in the Florida parishes region.
The station was founded in 1922 and was the fourth agricultural experiment station established in Louisiana. Originally called the Fruit and Truck Experiment Station, researchers at the facility focused on work that supported the local truck farms — farms that grow fresh produce, then haul it to market on pickup trucks — that dominated the area in the 20th century.
Strawberry, citrus and vegetable production eventually declined, however, and nurseries became a bigger and bigger economic force. The AgCenter revamped the station, turning it into 150 acres packed with colorful flowers, striking foliage and towering pine trees.
The facility is divided into several areas: the Allen D. Owings Sun Garden, where new shrubs, annuals and perennials are tested; the Piney Woods Garden, where native trees and plants grow under a pine canopy; the Hody Wilson Camellia Garden, which includes more than 600 plants; the Shade Garden, where visitors can find caladiums, impatiens and other shade-loving plants; and the Margie Y. Jenkins Azalea Garden, a collection of many types of azaleas as well as more than 50 species of native trees and shrubs.
Some of the gardens are named for people important to the station’s history. Owings is a professor emeritus, Wilson was a former station superintendent and Jenkins was a prominent nurserywoman in the area.
It’s a huge asset to the green industry — and an interesting place to work, Fields said.
“I have worked on university campuses and research stations my whole life, and I like the research station aspect,” Fields said. “You get more interaction with the industry, and you get to work closer with your clientele and stakeholders. It’s hard for a grower or landscaper to buy a parking pass and navigate campus. Here, they can just show up. My door’s always open, and I’m here to serve.”
Olivia McClure is an associate communications specialist, LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
A swallowtail butterfly at the Hammond Research Station. Photo by Olivia McClure
Visitors at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station field day in July 2021 help rate test plots of plants. At right is former LSU AgCenter extension horticulturist Allen Owings, now retired. Photo by Olivia McClure