The Conquest of Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu


Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu was toppled before first frost. A vital part of our garden has become a dog run.  Gone are the scree beds, replaced by sod. Rufus now rules the roost.

July 26, 2009. Mike Hayman photo.
July 26, 2009. Mike Hayman photo.

Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu, conceived fifteen years ago by my good friend, the talented landscape architect Kirk Alexander, was a wonderful adventure with xeric plants and even a few alpines. In soil that was mounded and amended with 50% gravel and grit, I succeeded with cacti galore, a reluctant Afghan Iris cycloglossa, and even a remarkable annual—with flowers as blue as blue can be—the self-sowing Eritrichium canum ‘Baby Blues’. I could not have grown this botanic odd lot even a few feet away, in garden beds of ordinary garden soil. These plants, and dozens more, prospered in the sharp drainage.

June 12, 2013.
June 12, 2013.

In spite of my gravel glory, there was the thorny issue avoided, even denied, for several years. My city garden, one of my great loves, was becoming too much for me to handle.

I’m growing older and going backwards. Our 1/3-acre city garden has been planted from stem to stern for 20 years. But this part of the garden, that measured a little more than 2000 square feet, was becoming a burden.  It was no more work than any other part of the garden, but something had to give.

There is no maintenance-free garden wonderland, not even in a gravel garden. The weeds didn’t sleep at Putt-Putt or anywhere else.

I felt overwhelmed for long stretches this summer. It seemed to rain every three or four days. For every raindrop there was a weed.

Then it went hot and dry in August, all the way through September. I got weary of hauling hoses.

Rufus rules the roost. November 26, 2015.
Rufus rules the roost. November 26, 2015.

I am 64 and have lived with symptoms of M.S. for 15 years. I don’t do heat very well. I can’t ignore Kentucky summers. They’re hot and humid. I’m not completely undone by summer heat, as some M.S. victims can be, but I drag around more. Coping skills can take a little of the edge off.

In my childhood, before there was air-conditioning, window fans allowed in a little of the cooler night air. Errands were run and garden chores completed before mid-morning; the windows and shades were drawn until evening.

One blessing, better than window fans or air conditioning, arrived late this summer, when I met Sarah Owens.

Sarah trained at the New York Botanical Gardens and worked as the Rosarian at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I can’t do justice to her full résumé, but she is a ceramicist, baker, teacher and author, besides being a very talented gardener and designer. Gardenista had a recent profile of Sarah and her new book. Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories and more is artful and comprehensive —the perfect holiday gift for foodies, bakers, novices and health nuts. Pomegranate and zaatar-spiced focaccia anyone?

Rufus and Sarah Owens. November 25, 2015.
Rufus and Sarah Owens. November 25, 2015.

Sarah agreed to come over for a couple of hours each week. I’d never had any help with garden chores. What a therapeutic load off. The weeks went by; the garden became fun again. The garden beast slowly got tamed.

I began to wonder how I could pare it down so that I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed again.  I wanted to spend four hours a week working in my city garden. My new free time would be spent sitting around.  (Sitting in your garden is not as easy it sounds. Slow down for a minute, and you can always spot a wayward, annoying weed.)

Four hours doesn’t sound like much work does it? I’m not counting April and May when I am more than happy to spend ten or twelve hours a week getting over winter. I’m bemoaning the drudge hours, after the glory of spring turns into the burdensome responsibility of summer. Leave town for a week at the beach, and you’re looking at double time, four hours of un-fun, when you return. Take a two-week break? Well, you can do the math.

Grayson Shipwreck and Earthbound. October 2, 2015.
Grayson Shipwreck and Earthbound. October 2, 2015. Sarah Owens photo.

So Sarah and Grayson Shiprek, and his crew from Earthbound, ripped out the scree gardens and installed fescue sod—in one day.


October 29, 2015.
October 29, 2015.

So damn me for tearing out the scree garden and replacing it with lawn. You didn’t volunteer to help while I was traveling this summer. I had to make a decision. I feel better. I’ve got less to maintain.

Well, not quite.

I keep a mistress in the country. A tiny and manageable garden. I love her very much. And I love the dozens of small trees and shrubs I’ve planted over the last few years that need mulching and watering. And there is the two-acre prairie saga and the three acres of bottomland that are filling-up with daffodils, next to the Salt River. And a thousand newly planted Crocus tommasinianus near the house.

I am trying desperately to be a better partner to my two garden loves.

November 26, 2015.
November 26, 2015.

Holly Cooper, my sister-in-law, who comes from good gardening stock, counseled me last month. She said, “Lesson from my practical grandfather: Gardens grow…evolve & delight…then grow too much and you have to grub out! There’s always another opportunity, a fertile realm in which to paint.”

Her grandfather was the nurseryman Theodore Klein whose home and property in Crestwood, Kentucky, became the wonderful Yew Dell Gardens.

There are happy endings. It just takes the Kirks, the Sarahs, the Graysons and the Hollys to help you get there.


  1. I empathize with the feeling of being overwhelmed by a garden creation you love. For many years I watered my garden by hand every summer after work for an hour and a half. Alternate weekends were consumed by mowing (8 hours to get the front/back mowed & weed-eated). My 2/3rds acre was too much to handle alone. I was growing older too. Could I manage this forever? Nope.

    Sometimes there are tough decisions to be made. You enjoyed Putt-Putt at Machu Picchu while you had it and now you’ll move forward into/with other gardening that I hope you will enjoy just as much.

  2. Thanks for sharing a topic most of us aging gardeners probably have a hard time coming to terms with. Our ideas and dreams don’t fade nearly as fast as our bodies! My mother has enjoyed what she calls “yardwork” all her adult life, but at a certain point, she needed help with the heavy lifting. Still, right up into her 80’s she was out there weeding, pruning and planting, and I think it’s kept her healthy. Now she lives in an independant-living community, with a small porch and bed in front of her apartment–a drastic reduction of garden space. The grounds are maintained by management, but at 90 and with mobility issues, she still insists on weeding, dead-heading and “sprucing up” the bed, while growing herbs in pots on her porch. She uses her “gripper”, a tool for picking up dropped objects, to weed sometimes. I have no doubt this activity is part of what keeps her independent.

  3. My mother, a great gardener, continued gardening after she downsized to an apartment. She didn’t like giving up her house and garden, but soon adopted a small space, and continued puttering around in the soil. These were her most joyful moments. Eventually, she moved to an assistant living situation. It wasn’t a fitting end but, still, mom was determined. She commandeered a tiny speck of a public space, outside the dining room. I’m sure she was thinking, “Try to stop me!” Mom never abandoned her will to garden.

  4. I hear ya, Allen! And all my reasons for selling my last garden and buying a tiny townhouse size one are right here in your post. Plus, it’s so much more fun to create a new garden than keep taking care of the old one, esp if it’s large and on a hillside, like my last one.
    Also, this post is a great myth-buster, the myth being that turfgrass is less work than a diverse garden. The biggest lesson I learned from ripping out my own 1,000-sq lawn was how difficult it is to replace it, and why turfgrass is so popular in the first place for covering large amounts of land.
    So no damning necessary, pal. Susan

  5. Gardening energy changes with different phases of life, and I don’t see any need to apologize for making your garden less maintenance so you can enjoy it again. Happy sitting (if you can manage it)!

  6. Great article. I’m 62 with a big garden and a February date with a knee replacement. As soon as I can get about this coming Spring many of my perrennials are history; to be replaced with polite dwarf shrubs. Gone will be the thuggish, rampant plants that only reward my efforts with a week or 10 days of bloom. No more Ms. Nice Person. From now on if I want to gaze on luscious roses and exquisite iris it will be at a garden other than my own. And that’s ok.

    • And it is OK, Kathy. Your thuggish, rampant plants can be sent away to exile when you’re ready. Good luck with your knee replacement!

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