Gary Hammer’s Non-Stop Nursery

anise-scented sage (Salvia-guaranitica 'Black and Blue')

anise-scented sage (Salvia-guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’)

Gary Hammer’s dream was to open a nursery, and now that he’s done it, he has no time to be sentimental about it.
Hammer says he works  “from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.  ”Finally, after 20 years, such devotion has started to pay dividends. “Last year was our best year so far,” he said,  “and this year should be even better than that.”
He has achieved not only at building a viable business, but in introducing hundreds of new species to Los Angeles gardeners. Worldwide Exotic Nursery in Lakeview Terrace and Desert to Jungle Nursery in Montebello are full to bursting with plants collected by Hammer on expeditions to Mexico, Central America, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand.
Hammer, who sells to retail nurseries and to the public, attributes his success partly to the arrival of large discount outlet stores.
“When common plants began selling for bargain-basement prices at the large chain stores, smaller nurseries needed to find niches where they could make money,” he said.   “One niche they discovered was exotic plants.”
It’s also true that the baby boomers, who do everything with a flourish, are now ensconced in middle age. They have reached the age when people have always started to garden only for this group, the more unusual plants, the better.
A brief look at the plants in Gary Hammer’s nursery makes you wonder where you have been all your life. It would appear no more than 10 percent of the plants suitable for Los Angeles gardens are shown in local nurseries. For instance, there’s a plant popularly know as creeping Charlie or Swedish ivy (Plectranthus australis), usually grown as an indoor plant but also suitable as a shade-loving ground cover or as a hanging basket plant for the patio. Hammer sells 10 other species of Plectranthus, all suitable for Valley gardens but seldom, if ever, seen in them.
More green, less water
Hammer has at least 33 different sages (Salvias), a number of which have shiny green leaves. Many of these are native to the state of Monterey, in Northern Mexico.   “There are lots of plants that flower most of the year that come from this part of Mexico,” Hammer explained.   “Although they keep their lush green leaf color throughout the year, they require no more water than California natives.”
If you like cannas, you will want to visit Hammer, who grows 20 different cultivars in colors from peach to pink. He even has a pure white canna called White Star. He also has intensely colored, hybrid day lilies from Florida.   “I don’t like muddy-colored day lilies,” he said.   “These new hybrids also have a longer bloom period than those typically seen.”
Among the more unusual plants that Hammer grows are the tropical Heliconias, those members of the banana family with the dazzling, pendulous bracts having all the brilliant colors of a parrot’s plumage. According to Hammer, “Heliconias are plants that, in the Valley, will grow in bright shade, needing a little more light than fuchsias.”
If you’re looking for color in the shade and are getting tired of the azalea routine, consider flowering maples (abutilons). Hammer grows 15 different types. He is especially enthusiastic about Abutilon megapotamicum, a species with yellow and red flowers that is nearly always in bloom.   “This is the ideal plant to grow up a trellis or a chain-link fence that is situated in the shade,” he advised.
Speaking of vining plants, a celematis (Clematis tangutica) with yellow flowers, which Hammer brought back from Asia, is now in bloom. Be aware that its delicate, spidery seed clusters are even more decorative than its flowers.
Visiting Hammer is a humbling experience. Of the 858 plants in his catalog, less than half will be familiar to even veteran gardeners. It would take a lifetime just to learn their names.
The personal touch
Hammer hand-waters every plant that he grows, since the overhead sprinklers used by many nurseries water too unevenly, in his opinion, and compromise the health of his plants. The fact that he grows small blocks of many different species is another salubrious practice, since pests cannot get a foothold where botanical diversity prevails.
What plants would Hammer grow in his own garden?   “Plants that require a minimum of care,” he confided.   “I would grow agaves, yuccas and cacti which, in addition to their low water needs, are wonderful to look at because of their diverse shapes and textures.”
Asked what advice he would give to someone who was thinking about opening up a nursery, Hammer said,   “Concentrate on marketing. Never forget that your product is perishable and that you are not a botanical garden. At a certain point, what you don’t sell, you have to throw away.” I asked him to call me before he throws out his next batch of overgrown plants.

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