Our fourth edition features Rahn, an educator, plant enthusiast, artist, chef, and innovator. We met with Rahn just days after the second city-wide flood caused by rainfall and an insufficient pumping system. Even after losing a few precious crops, Rahn's spirits were still high as he showed us around his botanical paradise.
Rahn is a wealth of botany knowledge. We discussed teaching children about plants, navigating New Orleans’ problematic water and sewage system, and growing beneficial plants and flowers.
Our interview began just as Rahn was finishing a new batch of his popular homemade ice cream. Can you describe your process a bit, how you got started making ice cream? What ingredients do you use?
I used to cook professionally when I was in San Francisco. I was always a kitchen person. I’ve always loved food since age 11. At one point I wanted to go to culinary school. I used to teach high school biology in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. I actually opened up a school with some folks. I wanted to return to teaching so I came to New Orleans to work at Edible Schoolyard. My job is a perfect combination of my culinary self and my green thumb environmental ecology self. I have two older daughters and we used to sell lemonade at festivals in SF. When we moved here we decided to switch it up. So we started making ice cream. I love food chemistry and food science. I also just love to make custard! One of the first things that my mom taught me how to cook was banana pudding. I’ve been having the ice cream speakeasies for 8 years now. We try to have events every two weeks.
Most of my ingredients come from my garden especially the plant-based ingredients like the paprika, but because of the flooding, we can’t use them. If anyone is eating anything edible and it’s been touched by water compost that. I have a really nice rosemary lemon curd and use the rosemary from the yard. I try to use as much as I can from the garden, eggs I get from friends who have chickens when I can.
What was it like growing up for you? Did you have access to nature?
My mom and pops gardened. We had big apple trees and a bunch of random plants. I was always in the yard. I was raised in the 80’s. I was outside digging holes, connecting hoses and making rivers, roaming the streets. Across the street behind a row of houses, there were woods with lots of animal species - birds, wild dogs, turtles, rabbits, snakes. I grew up around all of that. I was always able to access nature, look at plants and tastes things I probably shouldn’t have. As I’ve grown older those woods are now golf courses. My mother and father are still in St Louis in the house I grew up in. There are robins and nothing else - no turtles, snakes, rabbits. There are no birds of prey. I’ve seen all of this diminish and that’s why I do what I do. A lot of the kids I teach don't have access to certain resources. They aren’t getting food from the grocery store, they get it from the dollar store and the gas station. I tell the kids I eat junk food and make ice cream. I just let them know that your diet is your health. You have to be really tactful, especially with black kids on how you talk to them about eating better. They can only consume what they have access too. This is why we give them a lot of food in class. They are living in food deserts and accessing fresh, healthy foods isn’t possible.
If they want to take food home they can do that too. If they want to bring an eggplant home we’ll give it to them with a little recipe. One kid brought a sweet potato home and the next season brought back two that he’d grown from the one he brought home before.
When I teach I like to collect dead things and share with the kids. Like I said I used to teach biology. I like to teach my younger kids through evolutionary biology.
When did your love for nature / plants begin?
Since I’ve had my own room, I’ve always brought things from outside in. I remember bringing in this huge ass stump in the house that wasn’t completely dry yet. It made a mark on the ground and my mom was pissed, but she knew that I’d be bringing things from the outside inside.
I salvage, re-purpose, and build using found objects with pieces from nature in my home. Most of it is reclaimed wood from dumpsters. I’ve renovated this house with found objects I've refurbished.
What do you look for? Are you specifically looking for something or do you just so happen to find it?
It kind of finds me. I was going to abandoned places and dumpsters. I also have people that I look to that have a lot of the things I’m looking for. Most everything in here I’ve found. I’m all about collecting things and refurbishing them.
I grew up in Missouri not far from Illinois and was always going to junk shops and antique stores with my pops.
What is your favorite plant?
Coleus is my all time favorite plant. Well, the mint family in general - it gives you everything from oregano, actual mint, zinnia flowers. They come in all different varieties.
I’m really sad about this one - my Thai hibiscus or if you’ve been to the islands it’s sorrel. I can’t use this one since the flood. You peel them back and let them dry or use fresh. They make the red zinger commercial tea out of this is one. I had a cotton plant that went down as well. I grow it at the school so the kids can ask me questions about it. I like to have cotton because it serves as a really good talking point.
This pencil cactus is probably my favorite outdoor to indoor transfer. I’ve known folks that have a pencil cactus and they do really well indoors except for mine. I moved mine outside and it’s flourished.
How much water did your garden take in?
It was up to almost the second step which is substantial for our yard. It receded a bit to the first step. Luckily it’s not prime growing season and I didn’t have a lot of things in the backyard. All this in the front is ornamental. The front garden is the beneficial garden for my pollinators and so neighbors can take plants like the rosemary, zinnia, lemongrass, holy basil - which is such a healing plant. It’s very relaxing and good for high blood pressure. It’s an all-around beneficial, medicinal plant. It’s also in the mint family.
Bee balm is also in the mint family - like this one here. Job’s tears I started growing - it’s a good takeover plant for ugly areas. These have been used as beads for thousands of years. They dry out and kids love to make crafts with them. This is the trumpet flower. This is a cassia, another beneficial plant. It’s a huge legume that fixes the soil nitrogen and blooms yellow flowers that attract butterflies.
How many plants did you lose?
All the edibles I can’t use but I can harvest the seeds and new growth except if it’s been touched by the water. These sunflowers point down to pop out because they really don’t need humans to do it. We can have our own lots and make our own gardens, but plants are really alright without us. My worst enemy in this city are weeds, but because it’s never really cold here they just grow in abundance.
What are some other pollinator-attracting plants you have in the front yard?
This is a hibiscus - it’s a wild hibiscus I wouldn’t recommend growing it if you want to control anything. I started growing them and knew it was risky. I keep pulling them up and they keep coming back. They are easy to pull up though and are beautiful. It’s a super wild type with thorns, but the birds and butterflies love it. I want this Japanese yew to grow in a column at least 20-30 feet. Evergreen wisteria specifically because I want cardinals over here, especially a family.
Oh wow! What’s the setup of your backyard?
The story about the backyard...we bought this house from the owner. It came with a bunch of stuff. But there was a shed here that took over ⅔ of the yard. Miraculously we had it removed. I had the soil tested and it was horrible in one spot, but good everywhere else. There was just a lot of stuff - bricks and bottles. I created test beds. The drainage was pretty bad. I have my irises and lemongrass and I created a mound to have everything flower here, but hadn’t figured how the water was going to flow. I planted these agapanthus around here too. I wanted my edibles around it, but what I didn’t know was the depth of the drainage issues especially in the city and particularly this yard. Now after the flooding and the rains I think I’ve figured out what to do. I’m going to raise it up even more and create an area with a continuous flow and build a feature to connect the two lands. This is probably the most fun shit I can do. I get to teach this all day - how to remediate our soul, redirect water, interrupt erosion to kids from kindergarten to 8th grade then I actually get to come home and work on that.
Here's a human-sized bird’s nest I built. If I pull all the weeds this area is actually brick and earth. I gathered a bunch of driftwood from the Lower 9th Ward to make the bird’s nest. People can come and chill and sit. I created one during Prospect 3 in a lot at a satellite venue. I built a huge one with a canopy and backlight.
Over here we are going to grow turk's cap. I like to transplant and propagate and this has grown so much. It’s a good beneficial plant. I’m gonna let it get huge. This is a trumpet flower - a different variety. It’s the suicide plant - it’s highly toxic I don’t have any at the school because it’s deadly.
Do the kids get excited about learning about soil and gardening?
They are as excited as you are about it. It took me awhile to figure that out though. I taught biology at a really funky high school that I opened. It was an alternative class. And I think they dug it because they saw someone teaching that looked like them - extra funky and weird and really into the sciences. It was really hard with gardening because kids also have to go outside and they aren’t always comfortable with that. Humans, particularly black humans have this nature deficiency as if we don’t belong. So the kids come with that. They come with the fear of eating leaves, they come with the fear of walking in the grass. They come with the fear of the unknown. So when I come as fearless as I come and goofy, I act, it’s a lot of fun. I transfer the excitement to them. They can’t get excited about it on their own - unless they learn about it from their grandparents or parents. They don’t know or they want to be really detached from the natural world. What they do know is that food comes from the grocery store, in packages sometimes. I’m really glad to be who I am and teaching kids my truths.
What are some of these other plants you have out here?
That’s another one of my favorite plants - lamb's ear. I’m so glad it made it. It’s a priceless flower. It gets super full and big and will take over. Butterflies love it. It’s delicate looking but a tough plant.
This Meyer lemon is my daughter’s tree. She was delivered on the floor in the bedroom. And the placenta is feeding this tree. We are strategic about what we want to plant and where.
I’ve got pineapple guava and hyacinth which make really nice edible flowers that are purple that look little butterflies. The kids love to eat them they taste like peas. We have a lot at the school. The rest of the plant is toxic though so it’s a really good learning point for the kids. It’s really important that they’re not as protected. A lot of these schools and parents try to over-protect their kids. So we just point out to the kids that this part is edible and this part is poisonous and this is why. I grew up like that - in the ground. I knew how to do identify plants. Folks weren’t as litigious. The kids know which part is poisonous and they know when the right time is to eat it. I teach them how to forage.
How many poisonous plants are at school?
The hyacinth can make a kid sick, but it’s not life-threatening. Ferns - you can’t eat. A huge lesson with students growing food and plants is that some you can eat and some you can’t. We have holly growing around the perimeter and they know not to eat it.
What’s some advice you have for New Orleans green thumbs about dealing with sewage and water issues?
I’m still learning. I know of roots that retain a good deal of water. The vetiver - like the oil. It’s been made in France for centuries it’s the cousin of lemongrass. You use the roots. This root system under here is like matted locks and you can barely pull them apart. You buy vetiver oil for $25 an ounce - it’s an earthy perfume scent. It’s a plant that’s been used by the upper echelon for centuries. It’s a savior plant of any wetland. It retains so much water. I plan to split this one up and use it.
What’s your favorite plant in the backyard?
I have two. I have the indigo and a mystery plant. Indigo is just a beautiful plant. These florets are so delicate. I didn’t expect it to make it at all, but it’s had such new growth and it’s beneficial for pollinators. I want it to be the focal point when I open the door.
Over here this is a plant that’s yet to be identified. Our gardeners at Edible Schoolyard moved and it was near the greenhouse. I put it in the ground and it’s a beautiful mystery plant. The new growth is outrageous. My guess would be the flowers are mauve and chartreuse. I asked the gardener and he got it from somewhere else and it’s just a mystery. I put a picture of it on a forum, but I kind of want it to stay mysterious.
What’s your ideal plant that you don’t have?
I want a Pride of Barbados. It’s a super spectacular plant that gives you these floral shoots that come out like claws and tapers off and give you brilliant red. I just don’t know where to put it without it taking completely over.
What are your soil building methods?
I’m all about building soil. Coffee grounds. Anything that comes from the earth. I include eggs. I also compost citrus even though it can be bad for worms. Same with onions they are really acidic, but I throw them in my compost. I just expect the worms to figure it out and go somewhere else before they burn. I throw in greens and other organic food scraps then layer it with brown matter like oak leaves or untreated wood chips. It’s been getting wet so I hope it dries soon. At the beginning of the summer squash started growing out of the compost. I get a lot of fertilizer and soil from this pile. It takes 10,000 years to have an inch of topsoil around the earth. But we can build our own soil with food we’re actually eating.
What are the kids' reactions when they learn about compost?
At first they think it smells like poop and they hold their noses. They all say it’s gross and that there’s worm and maggots. But then you have the fearless kids. I have a 5th grader that’s like “Oh this is compost. This is where things decompose and you can make soil”. When he was in second grade he went on a museum tour and they were talking about food systems and compost. The tour guide asked if anyone knew about compost and out of a sea of adults this soon to be 2nd grader explained the process step by step and why it’s good for plants to everyone. The kids know the process even if they think it’s gross.
Do any of the kids garden at home?
The majority of them haven’t. A small amount get excited because they know someone with a garden. They aren’t exposed to it. The school I teach at - Arthur Ashe is enveloped in a huge oak grove with gray horn owls and blue jays. They are exposed to an ecosystem that's literally right at their fingertips. They just don’t know how accessible it is. Teaching is taxing. But If I have to be around kids and teach them how I’m living I wouldn’t do it if weren’t in such a dope area. I teach kids their basic science in garden class because math and reading are pushed so hard in school. Science classes are definitely lacking.
Funniest age to work with?
With kindergarten, you have to change it up every 5 minutes. With high school kids, you can be rappin' with dialog. In the garden class - we teach them their five senses. I remember teaching them the sense of touch and feel. I ask them what do they touch and feel with...I get them to the point that they realize they touch and feel with their skin. I asked this one kid - what is your whole body covered with. He said “brown and sometimes black”. He was so literal. It was great.
Can you explain some of these wood pieces in your room?
This is manzanita and they only grow outside the Bay area. You can’t burn this it has to melt. In order for it to grow the seed needs to be scorched and they grow out of the rock. They are the most sinewy tree. When I moved here from California I had those tied to my truck like antlers. I’m a really airy person; I’m all the way Aquarius. If I didn’t have certain earth and water elements in my home to hold me down I’d just float away. I need driftwood and plants. I also have some pieces from Death Valley.
What are some of your favorite places to go near New Orleans to be surrounded by nature?
I’ve been to St. Francisville. There are really great hikes out there. There’s been substantial glacier movement so there’s an old riverbed which is crazy because we’re in the South. I got lost - that’s how I gauge a good hike. They have huge banana spiders as big as your face but completely harmless. You’ll be walking and bam there they are. There’s a river bed hike and a hike along streams and rivers.
Words to live by from Rahn
We need to slow down as a people and just enjoy. Drive slow and take in all the nature.
All photographs taken by Collection of Collections, unless otherwise noted.