The Impatient Gardener: May 2011

27 May 2011

Putting the clothes (and the paint brush) away

It will (and it probably should) horrify many of you to know that we have been living with our clothes on makeshift shelving and stored in laundry baskets in the basement for about nine months since the start of the remodel. Can you even imagine that? I actually lost track of a lot of my clothes in the process.

But last weekend, when I was supposed to be working on the path but the weather had other ideas, we officially moved our stuff back into our room. The holdup was a very long paint job on the built-ins in our bedroom. It took me well over a month to paint them. Normally it wouldn't have taken so long but I was so burned out on painting that it was very hard to get myself inspired to get back to work on them and I wanted to do a really good job on them. It is so hard to paint doors and anything with edges, at least for me.

I designed these built-ins and had an amazingly talented woodworker (the same person who built the banquette in the kitchen) create them. He and I work well together because he seems to actually understand my vision for these things. As we were going through the remodel one thing I learned is that sometimes things that make perfect sense to me are pictured entirely different by the person who is actually doing the work.






Between all those drawers, which are nice and deep and have soft-close sliders that mean there is no excuse to ever have a drawer sticking out, and the new walk-in closet, we have a lot of storage. Since we both pared down our wardrobes quite a bit (if I didn't need it for the last nine months, I probably don't need it now was my thought) we have more than enough room. This is especially exciting because we've never had enough room to store both of our wardrobes in the same room (this speaks more to the diminutive size of our house rather than any propensity towards being clothes horses).

Obviously I have a lot of work still to do on the built-ins. I'll be making a cushion for the window seat as soon as I find the right fabric. I'm looking for a couple of baskets for those cut-outs underneath the window seat. And I need to bring in books and accessories for the open shelving. You'll notice I painted the back of the open shelves that flank the windows a light blue (mixed from all the different blues I tried to paint the bathroom before I realized that grayish white was really the color it should be).

And while moving our clothing back into a proper storage area feels better than you can imagine, finishing the built-ins marks a major milestone for me: the painting is finished. OK, it's not totally finished as there are a few very small painting projects to be done, but for the most part my paint brush is taking the summer off and I am so relieved.

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23 May 2011

A path's journey

Unrealistic ambition strikes again. Last week I told you about what I think is the biggest project I've taken on yet. I didn't lay out the timeline (other than to say that I wanted it to be finished as soon as possible and hopefully before several relatives come into town for Memorial Day). But in the back of my mine, I was really thinking I'd get the whole thing more or less finished over the weekend. Not completely finished, mind you, but finished all but a few bits and pieces that I could take care of on a few nights after work.

Like pretty much every other project that I've taken on my life, that was a completely unrealistic concept. It also happened to be the weekend for our master gardeners' plant sale so I was working at that all morning Saturday until about 3 p.m. and when I walked out of the building where it was held it was pouring. Day 1 was shot (although I did put it to use on an indoor project I'll fill you in on later in the week).

Then Sunday morning I got a later start than I anticipated, so by the time I got out there and had all my tools assembled, it was a bit after 9 a.m. I was thinking about doing a time-lapse video throughout the day, but the thought of editing all the video was intolerable (I've made several videos for blog posts and never posted any because it's such a pain to edit them). So I tried to take pictures about every hour or so from the same place so you could see how it came together.

9:15 a.m.

The outline of the path was cut Thursday so at least that part was finished going into the big work day.



10:15 a.m.

I pulled out all the sod. I was moving the dirt we dug up to a new garden area so I wanted the sod separated out.



11:30 a.m.

Help arrives! Mr. Much More Patient came back from work and we each started at an end digging down about 7 inches to allow for road base. We tried using the Kubota borrowed from his workplace, but we didn't have the digging arm attached so we ended up doing it all by hand.



1 p.m.

The dogs decided it was time to go to the beach for a walk in between the last update so to the beach we went (note tired dogs laying in the driveway and Mr. Much More Patient checking his e-mail in the garage) and not much looks like it was accomplished since the previous picture.



2 p.m.

Still digging. Make it stop.



3:30 p.m.

Finally, the digging is finished.



Here's a close-up of our crazy soil. There are a lot of areas in our property where it is obvious that fill (mostly clay) was brought in (the garage used to be next to the house and was moved so a lot was brought in for that), but this shows what I think the native soil is mostly like. The top layer is top soil that is a little bit clay-ish. The middle layer is a deep, dark lovely hummus-rich loam and the reddish bit at the bottom is sand. I'm not sure why it is red, perhaps there's a lot of iron in it, but it sure is nice to dig in.



5:15 p.m.

After some final edging and a little clean up and raking (and trip to the grocery store), we started putting the road base in. We thought it would be easier to install the aluminum edging if there was some road base for the stakes to bite in to. The Kubota did come in handy for this part of the job. You'll notice in the foreground that an ice cold beer (or two) also came in handy.



6:30 p.m.

With a massive thunderstorm threatening we worked quickly to get the metal edging installed. I'm not overly thrilled with how the edging looks right now, but I'm hoping once we get more road base in it will even out the curves a bit.



So that's where we ended for that day. If storms hadn't rolled through all night, I would have come back out after dinner to put in some more road base and compact it and maybe even start laying down some stones.

A few observations on the path:

1. It's curvier than I originally intended it to be. I'm not sure how that happened. I think when I started cutting the edges it looked funny so I freestyled a bit. There will be garden beds on both side of it for part of the length so I think that will help quite a bit with the curviness. Also, it's actually mostly a straight walk to the garage with the exception of the bigger curve in the middle. I hope I don't end up regretting its design, but I'm certainly not changing it at this point.

2. The digging was by far the worst part and there are parts where we simply couldn't dig as deep as I would have liked. By the garage, for instance, we hit gravel about 5 inches down. But since we're essentially putting gravel in, we figured that was ok and we'll just put a thin layer of road base there.

3. Since we did the edging in kind of a hurry, I have to go back and check that it's high enough. Since we're putting gravel in between the stones I do not want them intermingling with the grass or, worse yet, the dirt from the garden beds falling into the path (weed city).

4. We did not put down any landscaping fabric. In my experience that stuff just makes more work down the line. It does a good job preventing weeds for about a year, but eventually bits of dirt and weed seeds get into the path and then the landscape fabric actually works against you buy holding the dirt in and giving the weeds a place to grow.

Obviously there's a lot more to do so stay tuned. And if you're planning on taking on a ridiculous path of your own, this one is about 50 feet long, 3.5 feet wide and we had two people working in for about half the time. The rest of the day I was on my own. If we had friends who owed us a lot of money, we could have made them work it off for the digging portion and it would have gone much faster.

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19 May 2011

The biggest project yet

I fell on my head over the weekend. Literally. I was staining the underside of the little overhang over the front door and I fell off the step ladder and went, as they say, a$$ over tea kettle. Don't worry, I'm fine. Saw a few stars, had a headache for a couple days, but all is well.

I tell you this because it may provide some explanation of what exactly I was thinking when I ordered somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 tons of stone products that I expect to be delivered before the weekend. Regular readers know I've been toying with this project for some time but in my grand tradition of biting off way more than I can comfortably chew, I expanded the project a little.

Trust me, though, it makes sense. As it turns out, stone isn't really that expensive. What is expensive is getting the stone delivered. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of stone yards near me so about 30% of the entire cost of materials for this project is going to be shipping and as long as I was paying it, I decided I was going to load that truck up.

The main portion of the project is creating a path from the patio to the detached garage. This is something Mr. Much More Patient has been wanting for a long time, and it makes sense. That path is well worn and since we walk it, shovel it and snowblow it year-round, it makes it an inhospitable place for grass to grow (which is already a challenge in our sandy soil).

You can see the graffiti attack of the back yard that outlines the future path and some garden beds.

Because I'm a sucker for a curvy path, I'll be incorporating some gentle curves in it (but not so drastic that you feel like you're walking out of your way to get to where you're going). It will be about 50 feet long and 3-1/2 feet wide. The material choices are where it gets, um, interesting.

A year and a half ago I rescued the bluestone from the patio at my grandmother's house (you can read about that here and here) which was torn down. I also rescued her bedroom door, which has become the door to our new bathroom, all of the glass doorknobs, which I haven't retrofit the existing doors for yet, and one other thing I haven't figured out what to do with (I'll go into it in another post because it's too hard to explain it succinctly). There wasn't enough bluestone for the entire path and I also feel that traditional bluestone is a little too formal for my house.

So the plan is to combine irregularly shaped flagstone along with the bluestone (which is not irregularly shaped but I intend to make it so) in the path. I've never seen a path like this and I'm not sure how it's going to work, but it seemed a shame to waste all that material that I had and who knows, it may end up being kind of neat. I haven't decided yet if I'll just intersperse the bluestone amongst the flagstone randomly or if I'll create "clusters" of bluestone at regularly spaced intervals. I plan to play around with the layout a little when I have all the stone.

This is the flagstone I chose for the path. It's called Fond du Lac Silver and it's more of a uniform gray color. Since I'm already mixing with bluestone I didn't want to get too colorful. And it should tie in well with the light gray skirting on our deck. I ordered two-thirds of the path stone in "steppers," which are described as being 8 to 18 inches and the other one-third in flagstone, which is 2 to 3 feet.

I've had a short flagstone path from the patio through the garden for eight years now and I have tried to grow damn near everything between those stones. The most successful attempts have been creeping thyme and Irish moss, but all the walking and shoveling we do on the path during the winter makes it almost impossible to keep it growing from year to year and it has become and expensive proposition to replace a lot of it each spring. So I've decided to nix the idea of anything growing between the stone at all and I'll be putting in gravel around it. It's called Raven Black, and it's a dark gray gravel that I hope will create a more cohesive look between the flagstone and bluestone. I'll hold it all in there with aluminum edging.

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Raven Black gravel

This is sort of the look the mini-retaining wall will have. I ordered 2- to 3-inch tall stone, and of course my wall will be shorter than the one shown here. I also ordered this in Fond du Lac Silver, shown below.

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The second part of the project is the addition of two small retaining walls I'll use to create more level garden beds off the new deck. I've been wanting to add some multi-tiered garden beds ever since I fell in love with the gardens at the Hotel Iroquois in Mackinac Island and with a sloped back yard, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. In a perfect world this is not a project I would take on in the same year (and so late into the spring) as I was tackling the garden path, but it only made sense to buy all the materials at the same time given the high delivery charge. And since I a.) don't have a place to store 2.2 tons of retaining wall flagstone and b.) sure as heck am not moving all that stone twice, the retaining walls will be going in this year too. And while I've laid a few small paths and have a pretty good idea on the process, I'm relatively clueless on the retaining wall building process, so that ought to be very interesting.
Oh, and I've got a bunch of relatives coming to town for Memorial Day so I'd love to have it mostly done by then.

OK, maybe I hit my head harder than I thought.

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17 May 2011

Another new look

Welcome to The Impatient Gardenener 3.0. This is the third incarnation of this blog and I think it's the best yet. I hope you agree. My goal, as always is to make a place that is pleasing to look at, but more than anything, user friendly. Over the coming weeks I'll be updating some areas and tweaking things a bit to improve the site, but if you have any comments or suggestions I'm more than happy to hear them.

The design for the blog this time around was a collaboration with the talented Danielle Moss who took my vision and turned it into reality (and did all those crazy computer code bits that I simply do not understand).

If any of you are original readers of this blog I think you'll agree it has come a long way since the first version. Hope you like it!


14 May 2011

What's happening now

This headline should really read "What WAS happening a few days ago." Blogger was down for much of the end of the week so I couldn't post this, but I hope you enjoy it now. Sorry for the delay.

Sometimes I feel like everything I write on this blog is old news because my zone 5 garden is so far behind so many of those of my readers. I can't believe that some blogs have pictures of tomatoes on the vine this week!

The situation seems to be particularly bad this year, although I'm not sure if that's because the weather really has been worse than normal or if it's because we had a lovely spring last year so things are slow in comparison to last year when they were probably ahead of schedule.

I planted climbing rose CanCan in front of the downspout in the front of the house. I was so upset when I found out there was no option to putting that downspout smack dab in the middle of the front of the house, although I have to say it doesn't look as bad as I thought it would. Cancan is developed by Bill Radler who created the Knock-out rose series and grows to about 10 feet so I have hopes that it will do well in this place and not eat the house.



Some of the daffodils are blooming. Is there any cheerier flower than a daffodil? OK, maybe daises, but daffs are close.



Other varieties have yet to bloom. I should have daffodil blooms for at least the next two to three weeks.



I was thrilled to see the wonderful purple spikes of 'Blue Angel' hosta poking up. Certainly a favorite in my garden.



The Serviceberry tree has fuzzy little buds getting ready to bloom. The Serviceberry trees at work usually bloom four to seven days before the one at my house does so I usually have a little warning. My mother-in-law bought this tree for us the second summer after we bought the house, so it's been in the garden for eight years now. It's a lovely little tree.



Dicentra 'Gold Heart' is coming up. I think everyone should grow this plant. It's just amazing.



The mini greenhouse is full of plants: some plugs from the Yahoo plant co-op, some from last year that I overwintered in pots heeled into the ground and, believe it or not, I finally potted up the poor amaryllis bulbs that were forgotten in the basement.



There are a lot of plants by the garage waiting for a spot in the ground. Three beautiful Hydrangea 'Little Lime' are waiting, along with some roses I overwintered (again in pots in the ground) and a few other random things.



They back yard looks like a graffiti artist attacked it. That's the rough layout for a path and new beds that I have planned. I'm not at all looking forward to doing the hardscaping, but paying someone to do it just isn't in the budget so that too is going to be a (back-breaking) DIY project. I hope to complete it by Memorial Day but I suspect that, like a lot of my DIY projects, that is a totally unrealistic deadline. (There is nothing like taking a picture of your own space to realize what a dump it looks like!)



And very exciting news: The cable railings are finally finished on the deck! I was going to do a post on installing these because Mr. Much More Patient did the honors, but honestly, it's a pretty high-level DIY project that is a bit more complicated than a post on a blog would cover. They are however, sailboat lifelines. No seriously, they really ARE sailboat lifelines. There is NO difference and we actually bought the materials for this project from a company that sells both marine stainless steel products and has an architectural line. By the way, if you're looking for something like this, email me for the contact information. Anyway, since Mr. MMP has experience with lifelines, he figured this out pretty quickly, but it was still a three-weekend project just because drilling all the holes and cutting all the wire took a long time. I'm happy it's finished now. All we have to do now is touch up some of the stain on the deck and pergola and install the stair lights and the deck is finished!



So as Al Roker would say, that's what's happening in my neck of the woods. What's up in yours?

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10 May 2011

Backyard visitors

It is the best time of the year to be a back yard bird watcher as the migratory birds are making their way through the Midwest and our yard. They usually start showing up about a week before Mother's Day and peak right about now. This year we've seen all the birds we usually see, including a fleeting glimpse of the beautiful indigo bunting who I hope shows his face again soon. The only bird we've not seen yet this year that we sometimes are lucky to have around for a little bit is the amazing scarlet tanager, whose neon feathers are easy to spot at the feeders.

It seems, though, that the more rare the bird, the more camera shy they are. The orioles are almost impossible to photograph as they simply will not come around if there is a person within 50 feet, so I have to take their pictures through the window.

But here are a few of the visitors who came for cocktail hour last night.

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The goldfinches not only fill their favorite feeder but there is "overflow parking" on a nearby branch as they wait for a turn to get at the goods.


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If you look closely you can see there are three orioles on our homemade orange feeder (there's a tail sticking out to the right on the bottom).


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Eastern Towhee


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The cardinals and the rose-breasted grosbeaks will not share the feeder for some reason. Here the grosbeak gets a turn while the cardinal waits. You can see the adorable little Mayapples beginning to open in the background.


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The finches are content to share a feeder with anyone. That's all skunk cabbage growing in the background. Skunk cabbage is a nice woodland plant with beautiful glossy leaves and a horrible name.


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The blue jay is a resident but rarely comes to the feeder (since we stopped putting mixes with peanuts out there).


What birds are you seeing in your part of the world now?


09 May 2011

The gardener needs the plants more than the plants need the gardener

When I posted about the amaryllis that I forgot about in the basement that bloomed its little head off anyway, someone pointed out that it's rather ironic that we try so hard to make some plants grow and then others just go ahead and do it even when we mistreat them.

Never was that more true than in the case of the dogwood in my window box.

Before I go any further, you know that I'l all about keeping it (mostly) real, right? Well this post is going to highlight two rather embarrassing situations at my house: dirty windows and inappropriate seasonal decorations.

Anyway, I'll just get the confessions over with. Yes, as of last week (the situation has since been dealt with) I still had my winter decorations in the window box. I just stuff a bunch of red twig dogwood sticks and pine boughs in my containers for winter as a free and cheery decoration. (By the way, they are decidedly LESS cheery come May.) Anyway, a few weeks ago I noticed something interesting as I looked out the kitchen window (which the window box is mounted under.) There were buds on the dogwood!


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Here's the view out the kitchen window since November.


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If you look closely you can see the swelling buds on the red twig dogwood branches.

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And here's a close-up (of the leaves, not the aforementioned dirty windows, which, by the way, I should get a pass on because we're still dealing with the mess from construction. Or something like that).


These are dogwood twigs that I cut myself and stuck in the dirt left in the window box in November. They were never watered or treated humanely. And sure enough, I looked again and those buds were opening up into leaves. This didn't happen with any of the dogwood twigs I had stuck in other, less protected containers.

When I pulled them out of the dirt there were no visible roots on the twigs, but I'm sure they would develop if given the opportunity.

Plants never cease to amaze me. We spend so much time coddling them and sometimes they don't need us at all.


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03 May 2011

Giving the compost a little help

Composting purists would not at all approve of the way I compost, but frequent readers of this blog know I appreciate the K.I.S.S. principle (even though that acronym reminds me of a bad kitty poster in my third-grade classroom). This means that I don't overthink composting, and generally just throw the stuff in the bin, knowing that nature will do its thing eventually. (This of course doesn't include any animal products, other than dog hair, which is plentiful around here, fats, perennial weeds or diseased plants.) Another word for it would be laziness.

Anyway, if you're composting properly, you are keeping a close eye on the ratio of browns to greens (essentially carbon-rich material to nitrogen-rich material). And since it's natural to have a lot of browns in fall and early spring and a lot of greens throughout summer, technically you are supposed to story the overflow of this material in a separate pile or holding area. Or, if you're me, you just throw it all in there and hope for the best.

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I do believe those are actual sunbeams coming through the tree branches in this picture of my overstuffed compost bin.And yes, I do just store the pitch fork in there like that.

But sometimes the pile needs a little help and that's the case with mine right now. It's chock-a-block with leaves from both fall and cleaning out the beds in spring. And while those leaves will break down at some point, I need some compost and the sooner the better, so I gotta get that baby cookin'.
The solution: Alfalfa. A 50-pound bag of of alfalfa cubes can be picked up at the feed store for about $10 and while I think it is a little ridiculous to pay for composting materials, it's the price I pay for being a lazy composter and that bag will probably last me at least two years. Alfalfa is a really good green because it is especially high in nitrogen.

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Mmmmmmmmm, alfalfa slushy (say this in your best Homer Simpson voice).
So I stick a few handfuls of alfalfa cubes in a five-gallon bucket then fill it up about three-quarters of the way (just so that I can haul it without spilling the resulting slurry all over my pants) and let it "brew" for 45 minutes or until all the cubes are broken down and the whole thing is like a big ol' stinky slushy that some horse would love to have.

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I use the handle of the pitchfork to make several holes in the pile, top, then fill them up with the alfalfa slushy before tossing the whole pile to aerate it.

And instead of layering this into my compost bin (which would necessitate removing a lot of the material in there) I just use the handle of the pitchfork to poke several holes all over and as deep as I can go and pour the alfalfa slushy in there. Then I toss the whole thing like a giant dead leaf and alfalfa slushy salad (aren't you hungry now?) to mix it all up and properly aerate the pile.
I'll bet within the week I have a nice steaming pile. Compost pile that is.

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01 May 2011

Guest Post: How does your garden grow?

Bet you're surprised to be seeing a post here on Sunday. It might, indeed, be a first. But in addition to being a Sunday, it is also May 1 and I happen to have a fantastic guest here today. You might even say he's a rock star.

Michael Nolan is the co-author of a book called "I Garden: Urban Style" that gives tips and tricks for gardening in an urban setting. He also has a blog called My Earth Garden that is absolutely chock-a-block with great stuff. In April he resolved to try 20 different recipes in 30 days. In May he's going "Around the blog in 31 days," meaning that he'll be guest posting on 31 different blogs all month and he's starting right here on The Impatient Gardener.

So here's Michael talking about how to keep your gardening goals realistic:

Patience might be a virtue, but not all of us garden types are all that virtuous.

The most frustrating part of gardening for me is how often I get ahead of myself. As an “impatient gardener” as well, I have to admit that it happens all too often. What I find that helps keep me focused is to have a well-written plan and to set clearly defined goals to remind me when I am being unrealistic. And it happens. A lot.
What’s in a garden plan?
The first step in getting a garden growing is to sit down and make a plan. This applies whether you are working on an existing space or creating a new garden from the ground up and skipping this step can go a long way toward adding to your frustration when things aren’t going so well mid-season. The garden plan should include the nuts and bolts of the garden space; everything from dimensions to soil type, sunlight and shade notes to water availability and drainage. Think of it as the Wikipedia page for your garden and endeavor to make it as detailed as you possibly can.

If you're just growing for yourself or you an another person, you probably don't need to start 50 tomato plants from seed.

How to set realistic gardening goals
The biggest mistake many new gardeners make is that they take on way too much. They overplant and are wholly unprepared for managing the chaos that ensues when Madam Spring shows up in full force. It’s also a mistake that well-seasoned gardeners make. I’ve been at this for over 30 years and I still do it every year. I know I only need a dozen tomato plants to meet my needs for the year, so why do I always plant 20-plus?
The process of setting goals for gardening is important even if you are only gardening for aesthetics, because regardless of your inspiration, you need to be able to have a point at which you can say that you have accomplished what you set out to do in the first place. Otherwise, you’re going to end up one of those bitter old Ouiser Boudreaux type old ladies who grow tomatoes every year even though they don’t like them “because that’s what old southern women do."
If you are growing for food, do a little research to find out what the average yield is per plant for the crops you want to grow. That will give you a good idea how much of a particular plant you need to grow to supply your food and you can add that to your gardening plan, setting goals accordingly. Pay attention to the timeframes on seed packaging or look up information on the ‘net to learn how long you can expect to wait for your first veggies and fruits to be ready for the table and your goals will always be in sight.
With a bit of foresight, some planning and a few gardening goals in place, you’ll be ready to get your hands in the dirt in no time.
Michael Nolan, the Garden Rockstar, is an author, blogger and speaker on gardening, sustainability, food ethics and homesteading. He is currently in the process of writing a new guest post on a different site for each day in May. To follow his progress, visit

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