Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Simple season extension

Bamboo hoops supporting thin plastic sheeting haven't been exactly pretty, but they are effective.  We had a lovely dinner last night based on greens harvested from these hoops.
Tuscan kale and purple mustard under plastic cover
Tuscan kale and purple mustard
Probably they'd been fine without any cover, especially the Tuscan kale, but I'd transplanted them late from the cold frame flat.

And, I was worried about an errant woodchuck (maybe emerging on a warm day?) or one of the young deer coming in from the powerline corridor munching through these in a flash.  At least the plastic tucked around these plants kept the herbivores out!

Cold frame with leeks, lettuce, and greens (barricaded against squirrels, etc.)
My musing about woodchucks led me to a search that found this post, by naturalist Marcia Bonta, that related a finding that woodchucks don't actually hibernate in South Carolina, according to a researcher at Clemson University.  Hmm, that's where I work (and live nearby).  So I wasn't that far off in my (perhaps) concern. Yikes!

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gardening 'products'

There are a lot of garden products marketed to us (certainly in North American markets). 

Most of them are in 'the just say no' category, with the exception of organic nutrients and minerals, depending on our soil and its condition.

I was reminded of this at a garden club gathering this afternoon, and then again this evening, reading a post at A Way to Garden about the (now-collapsed) association between Scotts MiracleGro and the National Wildlife Federation. 

Quite odd, I thought (although I hadn't heard about it previously) and apparently it created a firestorm of opposition among NWF supporters and others over the last week or so.

We basically need to create healthy, very fertile soil for our (pampered) vegetables and decent (but also healthy) growing conditions for everything else.

We don't need a lot of 'stuff' to do that -- just keep all the organic matter your property produces at home, import (as locally as possible) more leaves, manure if needed, mineral elements, etc. as you need. 

But, there's usually not much need for pesticides in a balanced and diversified growing environment;  maybe a barrier spray or insecticidal soap, or organic material for something that gets out of hand (I used some hand-me-down Spinosad spray (thanks, CEN!) against Colorado potato beetles last season).  But I'd planted potatoes in the same general location for several years, so I was 'breaking' the rotation rules, so it was no surprise to see them.

Marketing to garden consumers is all about needing stuff to make your 'yard' beautiful, bountiful, and pest-free. 

I think I'll just concentrate on gardening for nature.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Red maple

Acer rubrum (red maple) is a wonderful native tree in the Southeastern US (and the Northeast, too). Check out its range.

There are numerous cultivars, selected primarily for their fall leaf color.  But equally interesting, although maybe not so remarkable, is the lovely winter color of recent growth.  It can be reddish (that's what caught my eye), but also more towards yellow, too.

What are those reddish young trees along the edge of the highway, I asked my gardening companion?  Maples, maybe, I thought?  And, happily, he's done his research (see the book link on the sidebar), so he knew new growth on red maples was reddish in color, so my idea was confirmed.  And as I look around where red maples have been planted, it's clear that new growth is definitely colorful!

And we're already seeing flowers of red maple on the ground both at home in the Piedmont and in the mountains.  They're always among the first flowering trees in our native flora, and maybe a bit ahead this year, with a mild winter.

red maple flowers (from cas.vanderbilt.edu): click on image for link

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Sugar snap peas and snow peas

Even though we're in the final days of January, spring is around the corner.  I'll be planting sugar snap and snow peas this weekend, hoping for a long cool spring, without too many damp (seed-rotting) days.  I'll plant more later, too, buffering the odds of germination, emergence, and growth.

My garden blogging friend Randy planted his peas last Thursday, following the thickly planted strategy recommended by his spouse Meg.  An excellent approach!

The most productive peas that I've ever seen (this were being commercially grown to be sure) were in the mountain highlands of Vietnam, in the area around Dalat.  

This is an amazingly productive temperate vegetable growing area, with high tunnels and covered areas growing LOTS of vegetables for Asian markets and beyond. This was a post I made about this time two years ago about planting cool-season vegetables.

Snow peas ready to harvest in Dalat, Vietnam (2010)

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Backyard (garden) birds

Out in the Garden today with a group of volunteer education program guides, we heard some of our resident birds.  It wasn't the focus of our program, to be sure, as it was an orientation series, but I noticed the uptick in calls, with another mild winter day.

Our resident Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, and Tufted Titmice were actively calling, along with a flock of (seasonal) Cedar Waxwings foraging for fruits. We're hearing woodpeckers and our resident red-shouldered hawks, too, calling as they're foraging or hunting.

I received an excellent link to a Bald Eagle webcam today at Norfolk Botanical Garden (courtesy of a botanical sign company).  Checking it out was amazing  --  I guess with bald eagles that they reuse and repair their nest year after year, so the web cam works, but totally cool.

Here's the link to the Eagle cam info page.  It takes awhile to load, after you click on the web cam link, but is well worth it!

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Crocus and snowdrops

The early spring crocuses in the shady bed outside the breakfast room are flowering now, and I spotted a early snowdrop in front of the house today.  Spring is definitely early, and we had a lovely clear afternoon today that smelled of spring. 

crocuses from a previous year
I weeded some winter annuals out of the vegetable beds, and put some pre-sprouted spinach seeds in a flat, too.  I'm itching to sow cool-season greens, but I need to check soil temperatures before being too hasty.

My camera (an aging, but sturdy Nikon D100 with a nice lens) is languishing up in the mountains, so I don't have photos.  I guess I could use our very nice small Panasonic camera that my gardening companion favors for travel photos, but I'm not that familiar with it.  And I'd have to hunt around for the right download cord, etc. etc.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Robin flocks

a robin eating fruit (from a royalty-free photo used in The Nature of Clemson)
It's been busy at the hollies over the last few days. 

Large numbers of robins have (200+) been devouring the berries on the row of Ilex opaca cultivar hollies above the education building at the garden where I work. They visit the hollies, collect berries, then retreat nearby to eat them, then repeat.

This morning, in rain, before I began a program, the circuit from holly to perching trees nearby  (in this case, large Cryptomeria and Southern Magnolia) was in full swing.  Their continuous melodic murmurs were more than evident outside, but at a lower level from inside the building.

The year-round vegetable gardening class participants were fascinated, and we peered outside for a bit before we started the class. By the end of the morning, the flock had moved to the lower row of hollies (also Ilex opaca cultivars) below the nature center (the lower level of the building), presumably finished with the upper row after 4 days of feasting.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Categories, labels, and indices

I've admired the nice category listings on other blogs. What a good thing to do, I thought.  Not all of my posts are profound, but some are worth reading again.  I enjoy doing that, and maybe others would, too, I'm thinking. Hmm. 

Investigating, I discovered that Google's labels (on their blogger platform) can serve as surrogate categories (that makes sense).  But then I realized that my labels (over years of blogging and a LOT of posts) created a list (triple-columned) totaling over 14 pages.  Hrrhmp. 

That means I need to go through all of those labels and consolidate them into reasonable categories and revise the post labels, before being able to put up an nicely organized category sidebar.  Yikes!

But maybe that won't be so hard. 

About half of my posts are about wildlife gardening and natural history observations, with the other half about growing vegetables, and all of them are about natural gardening.  (We just say no to pesticides in our gardens and inside the house, with a brief acceptance for glyphosate for controlling bermuda grass and poison ivy.)


Saturday, January 21, 2012


The soil is soggy from lots of rain over the last couple of days.  (Alas, it was not a outdoor gardening day today, but I finished ordering warm-season seeds.  Gardening is an optimistic hobby, even as I contemplate the (hungry) woodchucks and deer that could chew things down in a flash.)

It's been a warm rain, with thunder and lightning, most unusual for for winter. 

It's needed though, and although we've had fairly normal levels of rainfall recently, groundwater and reservoir levels are still low.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Signs of spring

This shouldn't be a topic for reflection in mid-January, but we're definitely seeing signs of (premature) spring in the Piedmont. 

All of the Asian species that normally flower in winter are in full swing and the early-spring flowering shrubs and trees  (Japanese apricot, Prunus mume, for example) are also in full flower, almost a month ahead of 'normal.'

More interestingly, native birds are following the cues, and behaving more like it's February rather than January.  Vocalization, flocking behavior, courtship, and probably all sorts of things that I haven't noticed seem much more evident than usual in January.   The last two winters were quite severe for the SE and spring came late, providing a (maybe significant) contrast.

A radio show colleague remarked that the Farmer's Almanac predicts a cold February.

National Weather Service Climate Predication Center map
I haven't looked at that (nor do I know how the Almanac comes up with their predictions), but we'll see. 

I like to periodically look at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center's outlook maps for drought.  I think that their temperature outlook might be interesting as well.  Hmm, they're suggesting above normal temperatures for February (check out the graphic above).

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Growing vegetables year-round

Vegetables are on my mind.  It's seed catalog time, of course, and I'm trying to make sure I have enough (ha!) to give away for direct sowing and transplants of the right sort, as well as for my own gardens.

But, it's interesting as I update my 3-class program about year-round vegetable gardening that I'm coming up with information about folks that are doing this in much more extreme climates. 

It shouldn't be surprising -- one of my heroes is Elliot Coleman of Four-Season Harvest (and other books); he and his spouse Barbara Damrosch run a market garden (Four-Season Farm) in coastal Maine.

But it's remarkable about how many people have been extending the seasons in various ways for decades (centuries if you count Parisian market gardeners) and probably longer if I had time to learn about Roman vegetable growing practices.

Cold frames at West Dean, UK
It's fascinating to learn about the different levels of frost and freeze (important for overwintering vegetables, to be sure) and what levels of protection might be required.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Keeping organic matter out of landfills

This seems like a no-brainer, but lots of folks must still be putting organic matter in the trash, based on a discussion at a meeting today.

It's easy to compost.  Just dig it in under shrubs, trees, and edges, if you don't have a compost pile. My mom, from her hillside house (in a wooded neighborhood) in Austin, Texas, liked to throw her compostable materials (banana peels, apple cores, etc.) into the woods below her deck.  They decomposed quickly, and didn't ever look unsightly, as I recall.

It's not hard to compost vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, leftover bread, shredded paper, paperboard in a simple compost pile or bin, either, if you have the space - apartment dwellers have options with worm bins and other kinds of indoor composting systems.

my gardening companion with a large pile of fresh mulch (wood chips)

Not to mention leaves, yard 'waste' and other forms of biodegradable woodies. We have leaf pick-up in our neighborhood via a vacuum truck (although, we NEVER let leaves leave our landscapes), so if we need more, we have them delivered. 

bags of leaves snagged in our neighborhood in the mountains
And, in the mountains, where leaf pickup has (probably briefly) transitioned to bagging, we can pick up lots more.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Seasonal rhythms

It's been cold the last few days, but we're headed back to milder temperatures by the end of the week.  It's been an oddly punctuated winter so far, basically mild, with short snaps of cold.

It's been interesting to see early flowers of Japanese apricot, the odd daffodil, and quince -- then the swelling buds of various species in the warm spells.

Then, zap, the temperatures were back to the low 20's (°F), so even the kale froze solidly last weekend and didn't appear to recover in the unprotected mountain beds.

The kale and mustards (under plastic cover over bamboo hoops) in the Piedmont were fine.  And the small spinach and lettuce plants in my improvised window box cold frames were doing well, too.

The robins are flocking, too, massing together on lawns and finishing up berries on dogwoods, hollies, and other fruit-producing trees and shrubs.  A resident red-bellied woodpecker is taking breaks from poking around the wild cherry bark to snag a few black oil sunflower seeds under the platform feeder, too.

And I have a dining room table covered with seed packets to catalog, before buying the final warm season packets.  Here's a photo from a number of years ago.  Same idea!

And the post I made then, in August, 2008.   It's fun to read it again.  Some things stay the same.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Gardening creativity

I went to an Artist's Way meet-up gathering this evening for past and prospective participants;  it was a 12-week program that I did summer before last.  It was a great experience.  Yes, I'd still like to do watercolors, draw more, and use pastels (and still plan to do that), but I hadn't given enough credit to what writing, teaching, and creating gardens meant as a creative endeavor.  That's what going through the program helped me realize.

Gardening is essentially creative. We create spaces and add plants in ways that please us. We combine textures, and colors, and shapes. We work with a changing medium.

What fun!
Front meadow in summer

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Winter birds

The birdfeeders are active this time of year. 

Our platform feeder in the mountains is a perfect example of 'pecking order' in action, with rounds of our common feeder birds: Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and White-breasted Nuthatch.  Adding to the usual mix, we have Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, American Goldfinches, and House Finches.

In the last few days, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker has been hanging out on the black cherry below the feeder, and periodically investigates the feeder.  And I saw a Downy Woodpecker on a nearby oak this afternoon.

A flock of crows was mobbing a hawk above the ravine at lunchtime (probably a red-shouldered, by the call). It was definitely a ruckus in the neighborhood, first the hawk's continuous calling, then the crow flock's squawking response.  This went on for some time.

Amazingly, in spite of the cold overnight temperatures, we were able to eat lunch on the (covered) deck at ~50°F, quite comfortably.

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Friday, January 13, 2012


Our mild winter (so far) has been punctuated with what we called in Texas (where I grew up) 'blue northers.'

We don't use that term in the Southeastern U.S. where I live now -- 'cold fronts' is about as colorful as it gets.

But basically it means the same thing, a wave of much colder air bringing much lower temperatures. Tonight, in the mountains, it may reach 19°F.  Chilly, especially if there's wind, as we usually have.

My cold season veggies look forlorn, even those under cover of minimal plastic, and glass.  But there are birds to watch and tomatoes and peppers to order, so all is fine!

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Heirloom and hybrid seeds

Vegetable seeds are on my mind, and I'm planning to do an assessment this evening of what I have (BEFORE I order any more seeds). Hmm.

a VERY small sub-selection of seeds
But don't I need to order some disease resistant tomatoes, I think. We need some productive transplants for Garden Fest (and for our Master Gardener's Plant-A-Row for the Hungry garden). Those are normally hybrids, right?  The Totally Tomatoes catalog and the Tomato Grower's catalog beckon. Hmm.

Generally, with tomatoes, which are susceptible to all sorts of diseases, I've found F1 hybrids to be more productive, but last year, my Cherokee Purple tomatoes in the mountains produced a pretty good crop and certainly were tasty. But I also grew a very productive heirloom in Clemson that was not particularly tasty (a paste tomato).

I'm musing about the benefits of open-pollinated seeds, heirlooms, and hybrids, having just finished The Heirloom Life Gardener (a nice book written by the founders of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds), mentioned in yesterday's post.

They're solidly in the all-heirloom camp, and I applaud their success, but having grown many hybrids myself, I certainly witness the perspective that hybrid vigor makes them more productive than heirlooms under a number of circumstances.  (Check out this article in the NY Times for some interesting points).

I'm certainly aware and sympathetic to the viewpoint that in rural cultures throughout the world that seed saving is vital to survival, so open-pollinated varieties (OP) are essential.  Large companies buying up smaller seed companies to 'monopolize' the seed trade is a worry-making reality.

I love the romance of seed varieties from all over the world, and that's part of the fun for me.  I want to grow red turnips from Japan, Asian eggplant varieties, Italian paste tomatoes from the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, storage beets from Germany, French filet beans, as well as cool new selections of mache (from Holland) or hybrid heat-tolerant kale from Japan.

And who knows what might turn up in the local tailgate and farmer's markets this summer?

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Seed companies, seed catalogs, and seeds

I hardly need to buy more seeds as I have LOTS already, but succumbed to ordering more from two favorite seed companies (Sow True Seeds and Renee's Garden), justifying this with the idea:

that I'm teaching vegetable gardening classes and doing presentations to garden clubs (where I share seeds)!  We can plant them in the two vegetable gardens at the botanical garden where I work! I can share them with the Master Gardeners who are doing a Plant-a-row for the Hungry garden!  I need more warm-season vegetable seeds to donate to grow transplants for the April plant sale! My friend and colleague has a school garden -- spring greens for the kids! etc. etc.  I have two vegetable gardens of my own, too.  Anyway, you get the idea.  Uh, I need to actually assess what I have before ordering more, but... happily seeds are an inexpensive hobby.

seed packages at RHS Wisley (now I have a permit to bring seeds back!)
Hmm.  I think I need to organize a seed swap -- now that'd be fun.

And then I started looking at the Comstock Seed catalog, a venerable (200+ year old) seed company purchased a couple of years ago by Jere and Emilee Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (their book, The Heirloom Life Gardener, is lovely).  I was a pleased recipient of a review copy, offered to Garden Writers Association members.

Yikes, I may need to order some interesting heirlooms from Comstock, too.


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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Meyer lemons

I love the process of growing and harvesting vegetables, but equally enjoy cooking and eating them.  Delicious.

Growing fruit is a bit more problematic, often requiring more 'management' - organic or not- than I like to do. 

And my youthful enthusiasm for harvesting blackberries, blueberries, apricots, concord grapes, and strawberries, and making jam has long since disappeared.  It's nice, certainly, but jam-making is hot work, and the product not necessarily so healthful in any quantity (although I made some nice low-sugar peach preserves last summer).

But my small Meyer lemon harvest (thanks to my friend CEN for the gift of the tree), yum.  They've finally become fragrant, so I harvested four lemons a couple of days ago.

Yesterday, with one of the fruits, I made a delicious lemon pasta with the zest and juice and today, it was lemon-cilantro sauced chicken.  I'd never cooked anything savory with lemons before, so I had to do some research to come up with the recipes.

The lemons (so far) have been lovely, juicy with just one or two seeds, and with nice thin skins that yield a delightful zest.  And I know they're organic, because I've been tending them!  Last year, I'd obviously harvested the lemons too early, as they're now fragrant and a lovely yellow when fully ripe.

Last weekend, I gave the entire tree a good washing with insecticidal soap (to treat spider mites) and pruned off the kaffir lime shoots (as recommended by some knowledgeable-sounding citrus sites).  I'm inspired to be an even better steward of my delightful small lemon tree!

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Planting potatoes in winter

Cleaning up, at the bottom of the pantry, I discovered egg cartons filled with small potatoes that, too small to eat at harvest, I tucked away, but now they're happily sprouting away.

I'd planned to try to use them as 'seed potatoes' anyway, thinking that they'd be in the dark, etc.

sprouting potatoes
Yikes, I thought, even though the weather's mild, it's way too early even in the South to put out potatoes, although there are alternative folks who start them in the fall, based on my internet searches.

But something else I found was this informative post by Barbara Pleasant, an excellent and knowledgeable garden writer and vegetable gardener. 

What she suggests is what I'll be doing tomorrow with my sprouted potatoes, as soon as I can mix up some potting mix with the coir bricks that I've still got in my garden shed. 

I'll be tucking them into double paper lunch sacks filled with potting mix and keep them inside until I plant them outside, probably in early March.

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Friday, January 6, 2012

A mild winter

We had a couple of nights in the teens early in the week, but temperatures rapidly climbed back into the upper 50°F's by the end of the week.  It was downright balmy on a late afternoon excursion to nearby downtown Greenville (SC).

Of course, we may have hard freezes to come, but the warmer winter has encouraged the Prunus mume (Japanese apricot) and flowering quince to open flowers already, a good month in advance of when I'd expect them.

And normally in February, we sporadically start having the warm days like we had today.

But although it's unusually warm, I'm just as glad not to have the abnormally cold winters of the last two years, when we had much more snow and ice and cold weather than we normally see in the southern mountains and piedmont.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Turnips and turnip greens

I'd never eaten a turnip or turnip greens before moving to the Southeast almost three decades ago (growing up in Texas didn't put us in the turnip green belt).

But then, my parents were from California and weren't gardeners, and it was a era that vegetables weren't exactly front row and center.

But I discovered kale, mustard, and turnip greens living in Southeast Georgia, and have been a fan ever since.

I've grown lots of kale, collard, and mustards, but haven't grown turnips, but my colleague sowed some Purple Top seed late last summer in the kitchen garden next to the visitor center (at the botanical garden where I work).

We've harvested quite a few of the greens to contribute to our local food bank, including many of the turnips, which had sized up nicely last fall.

But, a number were left in the ground (supposedly, turnips 'sweeten' with frost), and this was the largest of the bunch, harvested this afternoon.

Turnip on grocery bag
 Yikes, this turnip is on a LARGE grocery paper bag (not a lunch bag).  It was big.
An extra-large turnip
But amazingly, it wasn't woody, and roasted, it was quite tasty. Summer turnips are often fibrous and bitter, but not this one, and its greens were edible, too.   We may be able to harvest the rest for the food bank, after all!

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Four-season vegetable gardening

I'm thinking again (post-cold snap) that those of us in long winter day climates just need to add more winter protection to easily bring more greens through the winter than we normally can. 

There are already lots of hardy greens that we can grow (if temperatures don't get below 20°F for too long), but with a bit of protection (cold frames, mini-hoophouses, etc.), we can extend our vegetable-growing seasons throughout the winter.

I harvested some last large leeks yesterday (delicious roasted), and hope my small leek seedlings (transplanted to beds in late fall) back home in the Piedmont are doing well, in spite of the cold snap.

It's been a mild winter so far, and temperatures will moderate again by the end of week.  Time to sow more experimental winter varieties of lettuce and greens in our unheated hoophouse, at the botanical garden where I work!

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

More winter sunsets

I spent some time today gardening, harvesting greens and pea shoots (in front of a low 20°F forecast) and tidying up the mulch edges on the paths and in front of our house in the mountains.  I've put thin plastic over rivercane hoops over some of the greens, but that's more of an experiment than real protection.

There were wonderful views along the French Broad River on an after-lunch walk, and the lichen-covered trees were luminous in the mid-afternoon light.

But, what I saw through the small front window and was able to (sort of) catch in the camera in the late afternoon today was more brilliant sunset color.

The clear winter air, combined with cloud streaks made for another magical sunset. 

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