Dr. Terry Rehn’s eight-acre homesite is his own experiment station where plants — both native and those from other parts — grow freely and spread naturally.
In the 22 years the retired cardiologist has owned the Prairieville property, he has established beds that require almost no replanting, even with annuals, by discovering plants that naturally reproduce in his environment.
“I throw in leaves and pine bark mulch and let plants naturalize,” he said. “There is no point in fighting nature. It does not make sense to do it.”
The crown of the garden is a giant live oak, which Rehn estimates is 150 to 200 years old.
“Live oaks create a wonderful eco environment,” he said. “While other trees lose their leaves in the fall, live oaks lose theirs in March. They act as a cover for plants during the winter.”
Rehn has lost several trees on the property, but rather than buy replacement seedlings, he looks to his great tree.
“I like the genetics of this 150-year-old tree,” he said. “I took acorns from the tree to plant several other trees.”
When Rehn first moved to the property, the base of the live oak was surrounded with aspidistra, the hardy old cast iron plant. He cleared the area and, using his standard treatment of leaves and pine bark mulch, created a bed for ferns, ligularia and other shade-loving plants that have naturalized and now require little care.
That is, unless the deer and other wildlife that share the rural area’s swampy habitat pay a visit. Rehn continually experiments with different varieties of plants to find those that are deer resistant.
“They don’t eat the ferns, but we can’t grow hostas here,” he said. “The deer eat the hostas.”
Rehn also created a bed around a second live oak, which lost half of its branches in hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He started this lush bed with one or two lace ferns, one or two gingers and one hitchhiker elephant ear plant.
“On the stem of the hitchhiker elephant ear are fertile bulblets that get in the fur of animals like squirrels,” Rehn said. “When the squirrels climb the tree, they drop the bulbs and new plants come up.”
Now, the bed requires little care and gives seasons of blooms with naturalized bluebonnets in the spring and rudbeckia in the early summer.
Rehn grows many kinds of daylilies in a once sunny bed that is now beginning to be shaded by several spreading Natchez white crape myrtles.
“We are transitioning to shade now,” said Rehn, who still grows zinnias in the summer and larkspur in the spring in one remaining sunny area. He never replants these annuals, which reseed themselves every year.
Two of Rehn’s most interesting trees are dawn redwoods, long thought to be extinct.
“They found the tree growing in a remote valley in China in 1941,” he said. “Cuttings from those trees are now grown all over the world.”
Rehn’s large greenhouse is filled with hundreds of orchids, which he grows year round.
He donates many of the growing orchids, daylilies, ferns and other plants for sales at the LSU Hilltop Arboretum, where he serves as president of the board of governors.
He has dozens of potted plants in areas around the yard, on and around a brick patio designed by Michael Hopping, on the front porch of his home and around the pool and pool house. Moving the plants to his greenhouse or other sheltered areas during the winter and back outside in the spring is a big project.
Rehn grew up in Illinois with an interest in gardening learned from his father, a vocational agriculture teacher.
“I gardened as a grade-school boy on a vacant lot,” he said.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he decided he had enough cold, snowy weather.
“When I moved down here, I had plants that I wanted to bring in my Pinto station wagon with no air conditioning and a black interior,” he said with a laugh. “As I was driving in the heat, I thought ‘What have I done?’”
Now that he is retired, Rehn spends a couple of hours each day working in his garden.
“I try to keep the weeds under a little control and let the others grow,” he said.