Sins of My Lawn: Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu



Top Hill Garden, aerial, Hayman July 16, 2009 1

I confess: I keep a lawn. Call me heathen. I know lawns are environmentally suspect, but mine doesn’t ask for much. I’ve applied nothing from the periodic table that screams Skull and Crossbones. And I won’t plow this spit of land for the sake of butterfly weeds or bee pollinators. I’ve got plenty of both.

I love my little lawn.

My 500-square-foot greensward dissects two gravel scree beds in the back of our one-third-acre city lot. My good friend, the landscape architect Kirk Alexander, designed this portion of our garden on the back of a cocktail napkin. A couple of beers knocked back while sitting in the garden got the creative juices flowing.


Soon after it was planted, another friend, Marc Winston, looked curiously at the new creation, and with little hesitation, said the new garden looked like Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu. The name stuck. The gravel scree is planted with cacti, yuccas, sedums and other drought-abiding plants.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

Other than my struggles with the nagging mulberry weed, this past summer has been a glorious growing season.

We’ve had cooler temperatures than usual, and it rained when we needed it. We went nearly three weeks in September without any rain, and while the countryside pastures looked parched, conditions weren’t dire. Early tomato blight and squash bugs tried to undermine my will, but they couldn’t beat me.

Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu Photo credit: Mike Hayman
Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu
Photo credit: Mike Hayman

October is my favorite month. It wasn’t always so. Fall colors were the onset of misery when I was a young teenager. The season signaled eight more long months until summer recess. The school year meant adolescent gloom. Summer was time off for bad behavior.

I’ve been trying to make sense of my teenage angst ever since. Fall eventually became a seasonal triumph. There wasn’t an epiphany that I can recall, or any behavior modification— besides smoking weed—but I started paying attention.

Black gums, maples and gingkos turn brilliant shades of red, yellow, orange and purple.

Leaf blowers begin their assault on my senses.

A half-dozen Ninja-like warriors, wearing bandanas, earphones and eye goggles, sweep through the neighborhood, yard by yard. The high-pitched drone of their leaf blowers edges ever closer to Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu.

Bush scree garden May 15 2009-1

We have many gardens up and down our city street. The plantings are exuberant and not very fussy. The lawns tend to be small and basically a blend of anything green that grows:  fescue, violets, broad-leaved plantains, Bermuda grass, crabgrass, and maybe even a little bluegrass.

My sins of the lawn dwell in the Bluegrass state. In Kentucky, we celebrate the green pastoral beauty that bluegrass mythically represents. We like to imagine our own native, homegrown grass as a luscious blue-green color. “Can you see the blue shades as you look across the pastures of the rolling Bluegrass countryside?” No I can’t. It looks green to me.

Bluegrass, Poa pratensis, arrived from England with the early white settlers. It doesn’t grow very well in our hot and humid summers. Turf-type tall fescues are the Kentucky lawn de rigueur. Most bluegrass seed is produced commercially in Idaho and Oregon. Little of it is planted in Kentucky lawns anymore.

I am not ashamed of my lawn. But I am afflicted by a menace in the vicinity of Putt-Putt at Machu-Picchu. I have been stung by sorrow where miniature golf meets the ruins of the Incas. Chiggers are punishing me again this year.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

If I’d been on the ball last spring, I would have followed Ned Hamson’s chigger-ridder advice. He wrote last year, in response to my Garden Rant piece on the Rigors of Chiggers: “Diatomaceous earth (food grade) is dangerous to critters with an exoskeleton but safe for everything else!”

These invisible insects arrived the year I installed the little zoysia lawn, and now they lurk. They inject tiny darts of itchy venom as surreptitiously as a KGB agent with a poison-tipped umbrella.

Hail at my friend Kathleen's Photo by Kathleen Matthews
Hail at my friend Kathleen’s
Photo by Kathleen Matthews

And then hail struck unmercifully on Monday afternoon. The pummeling lasted only a few minutes but shredded the leaves of elephant ears, angel’s trumpets, red buds and my big leaf magnolia.

Maybe hail is the price I paid for a winning bet on Lawn Ranger at the Keeneland Thorougbred race track on Sunday? “Great stalking trip,” the Daily Racing Form reported. The modest $2.00 Show bet paid $5.00. I didn’t think I was being that greedy.

The chiggers didn’t flinch.

Frost will set me free.


  1. I love your lawn, Allen! And the title is absolutely perfect. And in the spirit of partisanship for a fellow gardener, I will say “Death to chiggers!”. (I do it in sympathy because, as far as I know, we don’t have them up here.)

  2. In my book a real lawn is fine as long as it is not a chemlawn or monoculture. It’s hard to beat lawn for walking, sitting, playing, kids and dogs. What you have it perfect.

    I have minimized my lawn, let the weeds come (if it’s green and I can mow it, why worry about it?) and surrounded the grass with a diverse array of plants that support a diverse array of small wildlife. Bliss.

  3. If your climate supports it and it is an organically maintained affair, lawn is no sin. Lawn is lovely – there is a reason it is fetishized. It sets off other plants to perfection, it is a perfect substrate for play and walking – it is grand! BUT for many of us, it is not attainable, not in the least bit sustainable. I think those are the people to whom the chiding and wheedling is aimed, not to people who have patches of green in rainy, temperate climates. No need to feel any kind of shame for your little lawn-folly. It’s cute!

  4. There’s no shame in a Kentucky lawn! It’s we poor Californians who need to ditch them… it’s October and expected to hit 90 degrees again this weekend.

    • *shaking my head*

      I just … I just want Fall! Is that too much to ask?

      Feeling your pain in Sacramento.

    • Lovely! It’s only flaw is that the delicious coolness tempts those of us who live in Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Diego, but that’s our problem, not yours. People who live where it rains can plant grass, although a yard with nothing but grass usually resembles a house with white walls and no pictures — sad and unloved.

  5. I really enjoy reading all of the garden rants. My only problem is that the location (ie state, province) of the gardens described are almost never provided. Am I missing this identification somewhere?

    Also, is anyone bothered again this fall with the plague of biting, stinky Japanese ladybugs? And other than use of a dustbuster vacuum inside, is there a way to discourage them?

    Thank you and keep ‘ranting’ please!

  6. I learned on a birding/botanizing trip to Trinidad that chiggers are in fact a mite of reptiles, at least in Trinidad. So we learned to avoid sitting on “lizard sunning” wood (metal gets too hot for them) benches and to wear shoes, socks and tucked in pant legs with some natural bug repellant sprayed around our ankles if we wanted to stray off paths. (Of course, we northerners dearly wanted to wear shorts and Tevas!!)

    I managed to avoid them the whole trip until I relaxed my guard the last afternoon, sitting in loose airport clothing while on a wood benched boat tour to watch the scarlet ibises come in to roost. . . and started itching around my waist on the red-eye flight home. . . So maybe figure out where do the reptile hosts hang out in your garden?? And how to manage for them (helpful insect eaters) . . . and you?? Just a thought. My issue has been feather mites periodically from birds that I let nest (no longer!) on my patio roof supports.

    • Kate, I used to gird myself for the garden. I’d strip down afterwards and shower. A real nuisance. I’m back to shorts and a tee shirt. I simply rub up and down my arms and legs every 15 minutes or so. This seems to be my best chigger defense. If the preventative slips my mind, they’ll get the best of me.

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