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In the Case of Missing Poppies, Squirrels May Be the Culprits

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TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Question: For years we’ve had Iceland poppies in our Hancock Park garden. For the last two years, the large buds appear in the morning and by evening appear to have been bitten off. We also live across the street from a golf course with lots of squirrels. Could you offer any advice?

--P.P., Los Angeles

Answer: I’ve heard from several sources that squirrels seem to love Iceland poppy buds. I suspect squirrels are the guilty party. I’ve never tried eating a bud, but they must taste very nutty.

To protect the buds, try spraying them with a hot pepper (capsicum) solution, such as Get Away Squirrel and Raccoon Repellent or Hot Pepper Wax Animal Repellent, available at nurseries. Both come in ready-to-use spray bottles.

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Spray the pepper solution right on the buds, and once the squirrels have sampled a hot bud, I suspect they’ll stay away. I was told, however, that it’s best to use pepper sprays early in the season, before squirrels get in the habit of harvesting buds.

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Q: You recently mentioned that this is a good time to spray dormant oil on deciduous trees for pest control. But what about oil sprays on citrus trees?

--D.O., West L.A.

A: The same oil sprays that work on deciduous fruits also work on citrus for all sorts of pests, including mites, scale and whitefly.

For those unfamiliar with oil sprays, they don’t poison pests, they smother them. And they work especially well on citrus.

To use them on citrus, oil sprays often must be diluted more than they would be on deciduous fruits; the label will tell you how. Or you can buy an oil spray that is already diluted, such as SunSpray’s Ultra-Fine Year-Round Pesticidal Oil or Cooke’s Summer and Dormant Oil. Labels on both will tell you exactly how much to use on specific citrus.

There are also some precautions on the labels--such as not to use oils when temperatures exceed 90 degrees or fall below 32--so be sure you read the entire label.

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On citrus, oil sprays make the foliage a beautiful glossy green for a few days, so they not only smother pests, they make the leaves shiny!

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Q: I live in the San Fernando Valley and hate my lawn. It takes too much water, and when it does grow well, it needs too much mowing and edging. Just now, the grass appears to be dying, which seems like a good time to replace it with something else. What?

--J.H., Arleta

A: There really is no vegetative substitute for grass lawns. There are no ground covers that can be walked on and require such minimal care. I’ve seen many attempts, but all are either short-lived, more work or can’t be tread upon.

Ground-cover substitutes were very popular in the 1970s, but all succumbed to weeds and they couldn’t be walked on. Ground covers work well in some areas, but won’t cover expanses like a lawn.

I’ve eliminated my front lawn (and reduced the back to the size of a throw rug), but the new mixture of small shrubs, perennials and some ground covers takes more work, if less water--although turf researchers say even that is questionable. To walk through my garden now, you follow bark-mulched paths.

This lawn-less garden is much more fun, but it is more work and I have to do it myself since most commercial gardeners do not know how to care for this odd collection of plants.

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You probably have a Bermuda grass lawn, since it goes dormant in winter. (It didn’t die--the roots and rhizomes are very alive--the top just died back.)

Bermuda is the easiest walk-on ground cover for hot inland areas, and it shouldn’t need all that much water. It also grows near the coast, but tall fescues are often preferred and are nearly as tough. They don’t go dormant.

My suggestion would be to redo the lawn since lawns do wear out with time. Have it renovated or replanted in spring, and make sure there is a good mowing strip or barrier to keep it from spreading. I’d stick to the Bermuda and overseed it with annual ryegrass in fall for winter color.

There is no miracle substitute for lawns unless you want to turn it into a garden. But as far as kids are concerned, there is no substitute, period.

In the Garden is published Thursdays. Write to Robert Smaus, SoCal Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; fax to (213) 237-4712; or e-mail to robert.smaus@latimes.com.

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