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Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: Part One

On the first day of Advent the postman gave to me, some mushrooms to grow in coffee…

My children (aged 4 and 7) were exploding with excitement this morning as they opened the first door in their Lego advent calendar – a special treat this year from Grandma and Grandpa. We also have the atmospheric beauty of another Jacquie Lawson digital calendar – this year it’s a seaside advent world with a puzzle, short video or mini-game each day. One of my friends even has a beer advent calendar – like a grown-up chocolate version, I guess. As usual, I’m off on a tangent with my advent journey – through upcycled coffee grounds to a harvest of oyster mushrooms, hopefully in a couple of weeks’ time.

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The Kitchen Garden Pearl Oyster Mushroom Kit is from The Espresso Mushroom Company, featured in my recent post 10 Ethical Gardening Gifts for a Green Christmas. They kindly offered me a kit to grow throughout December and having grown mushrooms in the past and had successful crops, I was happy to give it a go. The growbag filled with recycled coffee grounds from 100 espressos needs to be soaked for 12 hours and then I’ll be keeping a photo record of the development of the mushrooms over December and updating on my Facebook page and on the blog.

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The best kind of advent calendar

I’m intending to upload a few videos of the mushroom growing process to my YouTube Channel – if you’d like to see inside the kit, you can follow my mushroom growing exploits here. I’m pretty new to vlogging and it’s the first time I’ve narrated (not keen on the sound of my recorded voice – but then again, who is?), so any helpful hints will be gratefully received…

Here goes… and a very merry Advent to one and all. 🙂

What is your advent calendar this year – chocolates, art or something completely different? If you’d like to watch the development of the mushrooms and my other gardening activities, you can follow the blog below. Thanks.

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut

I love making soup. Homemade soup was a big part of family lunchtime when I was a child and I’ve carried on the tradition, making soups out of everything I can get my hands on. My favourite soup cookbook is a faded copy of ‘Soup and Beyond’ which I’ve had since I was a student. I really like the way it broadens traditional soup horizons, with combinations such as ‘Potato, Leek and Lavender Soup’ and ‘Prince and Pedlar Soup’ (quince and medlar). This recipe book, alongside a keen interest in more unusual crops, has led me to play with all sorts of soupy concoctions – most of which have tickled enough taste buds that they’ve been reprised multiple times, for example, our family favourite cream of kohl rabi soup (which alas has not been possible from the allotment this year for molluscular reasons – see Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016).

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Love this book

Allotment Soup Challenge

So I decided I’d set myself challenge for the next few months – to make as many different soups with produce from allotment 96B as I can – to trial new flavour combinations and to make the most of our homegrown produce. There’s nothing better than soup to use up leftover vegetables and to warm your cockles when your heart is feeling rather chilly, for whatever reason. So here goes… the first soup is with the leftover Jerusalem artichokes, harvested last week, mostly used in stir-fries, but with some sorry specimens (not a problem in soup) hiding at the back of the veggie drawer. It’s a good job the soup is nourishing and tasty as there’s an awful lot more artichokes where these came from – whoever had our allotment before us really liked the knobbly tubers and we could currently supply the majority of Hertfordshire until Christmas and beyond…

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Our first plant produced this sizeable pile – only 20 more plants to go!

Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and sweet chestnut soup 🌰

Ingredients

500g Jerusalem artichokes

150g sweet chestnuts

250g potato

1 onion

200ml stock

200ml milk

100ml single cream

1 tsp winter savoury (could use thyme but it might have a less protective effect on your digestive system – see below!)

Salt/black pepper to taste

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We’ve been happily adding these seasonal treats to gravy, soups and casseroles for the past couple of weeks

Method

Roast the chestnuts (with a cross slit in their shells) and the scrubbed artichokes in the oven at 180ºc for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft (don’t need to add oil). Meanwhile, boil the peeled, chopped potatoes, winter savoury leaves and halved onion in the stock and milk until the vegetables are soft. When cooled, combine the stock, milk, onion, winter savoury and potatoes with the artichokes (which can be skinned at this point, or as I did, squeezed out of their skins – messy but fun!)

Blend the soup and when it is smooth add the chopped chestnuts and salt and pepper to taste. The soup can then be blended again until there are only small nuggets of chestnut to add a bit of bite to the soft soup. Heat in a pan and serve with crusty bread. It really is pretty simple… and delicious.

You might want to eat fairly sparingly to begin with as the effects of Jerusalem artichokes can be rather potent on the unwary digestive system, but the winter savoury should help take the wind out of the Jerusalem artichokes’ sails, so to speak. 😉

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Fresh, nutty and delicious soup

Please leave me a comment – especially if you have any suggestions about other ways of cooking with Jerusalem artichokes – or producing power with them, or any other ideas as I’m not convinced our collective digestion systems will cope with eating all of them over winter, so we need to dream up some alternative uses!! 🙂

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10 Ethical Gardening Gifts For A Green Christmas

If, like me, you are starting to think about Christmas through a haze of concern for our world, then it makes sense to buy gifts which support charities and companies that offer ethical and environmentally sound products. If you are buying for a fellow gardener or nature lover this year, here are some presents which could help you create a greener Christmas for friends and family…

1. Send a British Bouquet

Visit the Flowers From The Farm website (a not-for-profit network run by volunteers to support local UK flower growers) to find your local suppliers. I found our local flower farm on the website – The Baldock Flower Farm – a family run business selling local Hertfordshire flowers. A December bouquet with holly, mistletoe, festive flowers and foliage is sure to brighten even the dullest Christmas Day.

The website also has a area which lists flower events and workshops around the country.  What better present for a flower-lover than the opportunity to learn more about growing their own cutting patch or creating a hand-tied bouquet?

2. The Gift of Inspiration

Books are fabulous gifts for all ages and can be revisited time and time again (although having spent 12 years as a English teacher I’m probably a bit biased!) My top pick for family gardeners this year would be the RHS Plants for Pips which my kids really enjoyed  (I’ve reviewed it on the blog here). For ‘grow your own’ enthusiasts and those interested in environmental friendly gardening practices, I’d suggest Creating A Forest Garden by Martin CrawfordI’ve got it on loan from a friend at the moment, but it’s so good, I’ve requested my own copy for Christmas. It’s a comprehensive hardback with lots of information on how and why to set up a forest garden.

If Creating A Forest Garden is a little too detailed or pricey, I’ve also borrowed the paperbacks How To Grow Perennial Vegetables and Food From Your Forest Garden (also by Martin Crawford). Both are full of fascinating information about how to grow, harvest and use unusual plants. I particularly liked the photography in Food From Your Forest Garden and I can’t wait to try some of the inspiring recipes like ‘Iceplant with Peanuts and Coconut’. These, and many other environmental books, can be purchased online from Green Books – a publishing company which was launched in 1986 to help spread Green ideas and practices.

I’ve been indulging in a bit of botanical hygge with these inspiring books…

3. Donate to Others

Give a charity gardening donation such as planting an allotment with Oxfam to help others through gardening. Another gift which supports poor communities is Present Aid’s (Christian Aid’s charity gift shop) Floating Garden which provides seeds and training to families in Bangladesh to help them create floating gardens which can withstand the regular flooding which affects the country. This gift also makes a contribution to Christian Aid’s Climate Change Fund.

4. Feed the Birds

Birds are one of nature’s pest control mechanisms – eating snails, caterpillars and cabbage white butterflies. Giving the gift of a bird feeder, bird food, a nest box or a bird bath will help support the UK’s bird populations and reduce the need for chemical pest control in the garden. These days the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recommends feeding birds throughout the year, rather than just in the winter, so that birds have a better chance of surviving food shortages whenever they may occur. Bird food and feeders are readily available in shops and online, but the RSPB’s online shop offers a good selection and supports their work protecting birds and habitats throughout the UK.

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This Song Thrush is one of nature’s own pest controllers

5. Grow Your Own Festive Fungi

With the Espresso Mushroom Kitchen Garden from The Espresso Mushroom Company, you can give an edible gift to be grown on the biodegradable, recycled coffee grounds of one hundred espressos. This small Brighton based company aims to change people’s perception of ‘waste’ and demonstrate how it can be a useful resource. Three gifts in one: the Oyster mushrooms are fun to grow, they can be used a couple of weeks later to lift any Christmas leftovers to another level and the process creates a high grade, mushroom-enriched soil enhancer compost.

6. Go Perennial

Give a gift of perennial seeds, plants or tubers. Choosing some perennial fruit and vegetables in place of annual crops helps to reduce the impact of growing plants anew each year, with the associated energy costs of heating, compost and pots. I’m planning a perennial bed in the allotment next year (to add to the raspberries, Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, currants, strawberries and oca we already grow.) This will hopefully include crops such as Welsh onion, perennial kale, sea beet, yacon, wasabi, hardy ginger and ulluco to broaden our perennial range. Pennard Plants, Backyard Larder, Agroforestry Research Trust (set up and run by Martin Crawford) and Incredible Vegetables all have a good range of perennial plants and informative websites.

Jerusalem artichokes, Oca and Sea kale

7. Organise a Peat-Free Compost Delivery

We all know that using peat in compost is the antithesis to environmentally friendly gardening, but good peat-free compost can be hard to source at times. A delivery of compost, perhaps with a peat-free seed compost (something I find impossible to get locally) would be a great gift to start a year of green gardening. Suppliers of good quality peat-free compost include Dalefoot Composts (I’ve used their wool based composts for the past couple of years and been impressed with the quality), Carbon Gold Biochar Composts and SylvaGrow Composts (you can find your nearest stockist here or order online from garden stores such as Vale Gardens).

8. Book a Course at a Local Community Garden

There are hundreds of community growing spaces around the UK and many run short courses, like this one at my local community garden (the Triangle Community Garden in Hitchin) on growing fruit in the garden. Buying a course place as a gift is an ideal present as it leads to an accumulation of knowledge rather than ‘stuff’. Courses like these are great fun – not only do they encourage people to visit and get involved in local gardening initiatives, but they also support the community work as well. If you would like to find your nearest community garden, useful websites are The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, the RHS Communities, the BBC Community Gardening Projects and Garden Organic’s Local Groups and Gardens.

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One of our popular ‘Grow Your Own’ workshops

9. Wind Up/Solar Gifts

A wind-up radio will create some Christmas cheer in the potting shed without using any extra energy. This wind-up, solar charged radio from the Natural Collection can be charged by the sun, by rechargeable batteries or with good old elbow grease. Or brighten up the winter garden with solar lighting from Lights4Fun (a family run business based in Harrogate whose good quality solar lights all have removable and replaceable batteries so a battery failing doesn’t necessitate throwing away the whole unit). I can’t resist a few fairy lights in the garden and find there is enough sun, even in winter, to power lights for some of the evening and create a sparkly Christmas atmosphere.

10. Give the Gift of Time

Give time rather than money by writing an original nature poem, framing a beautiful garden photograph or making a voucher for a couple of hours helping on a friend’s allotment. Christmas should be about spending time with those we love and a little time spent creating a bespoke gift adds a personal sparkle to Christmas Day.

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Daddy’s Christmas poem written by my 7 year old with pictures coloured by my 4 year old

Most of the ideas and recommendations in this post are based on products or companies which have impressed me in the past when I’ve used them. The few which I’ve not tried myself have either been recommended by people whom I trust or have been internet finds (the only ones in this latter category are Green Books, Espresso Mushroom Company and Incredible Vegetables) where the online literature has impressed me and made me want to try their products myself. I hope you’ve found the ideas helpful  – now I’m off to buy a few for my gardening friends this Christmas.

What green Christmas presents have you enjoyed receiving? What gardening books would you recommend for others this Christmas? Do leave a comment below and share your ideas with other readers – thanks 🙂

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Product Review: Sciarid Fly Nematodes

Last year I started overwintering plants in style – or at least in quantity. As I discussed in Overwintering Tea, Coffee and Other Tender Edible Perennials a couple of weeks ago, this year there were even more tender plants knocking on the door once autumn’s hoary fingers reached our garden. I did seriously consider whether or not to overwinter chillies this year, but my tree chillies only started to fruit last week and with so many other tender plants to bring in, I decided to choose a selection of chillies to bring in as well.

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My first rocoto tree chilli – ‘Albertos locoto’

Two Sticky Issues – Greenfly and Sciarid Flies

I had a problem with greenfly in early spring last year and never really found a successful way to deal with this problem, so I’m not looking forward to a repeat of the sticky insect invasion this year. Any ideas on ways to deal with this would be most gratefully received. (I did use organic sprays and sticky traps to try and control them). But the main problem I had initially was with sciarid flies or fungus gnats. These are often also a problem with house plants – especially when the compost is high in organic matter like the green waste in the peat-free compost I currently use. (I have used other peat-free compost like the superb Dalefoot wool compost, especially in spring when I’m bringing a lot of seedlings into the house, but can’t stretch the budget to afford it for all my plants at the moment. Besides which, the plants often get infested with sciarid flies in the greenhouse in the summer anyway.) The sciarid fly larval stage can attack the roots of plants, but my main issue with them is the annoying clouds of flies in the house over winter. Conventional tricks to avoid them are to avoid overwatering and water from beneath, but I didn’t find this helped much. I also tried covering the compost with gravel, but this had very little impact on fly numbers.

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Return of my little ‘friends’…

Biological Control

So last year I tried nematodes (microscopic worms) as a way of controlling the flies. I’ve previously used nematodes outside very successfully to control pests like vine weevil in pots, but had never tried them in the house. The nematodes worked in about a week and my plants were fungus gnat free for the rest of the autumn and winter. As long as no other plants are introduced into the house with fungus gnats to re-infest cleared pots, this should be a one off treatment each autumn. This year I was sent a free pack of nematodes to trial by The Green Gardener and I treated my plants at the end of last week.

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First tray of plants in the bath ready for nematode treatment – bit like sheep dipping

It doesn’t take long to apply (unless you drop a tray of cacti on the floor like I did and thus need to get the vacuum cleaner and cloths out…) The compost needs to be moist before application and the house above 10ºc, with pots out of direct sunlight. One pack (costing £12.50) treats up to 15 sqm of compost – far more than I needed even for 5 full trays of plants, but the solution with the nematodes in can’t be made too strong, so as long as there isn’t more than 15sgm to treat, one pack is ideal.

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Small pack – big results

Once again, my pots were cleared of flies within the week and I hope to keep them that way until it’s time for the plants to return to their summer homes. Now I just need to crack the greenfly issue and I’ll have this overwintering lark sorted…

If you’d like to try nematodes to keep sciarid flies off your houseplants, the product can be found on here on The Green Gardener’s website…

Product Reviews

Just a note on product reviews on the blog – I’ve discussed many plants and products over the past few months which have not been free trials. Any reviews of free products or plants will always be a reflection of my honest experiences, good or bad. I don’t review anything which I don’t consider to be of use to my readers and only choose products which I already use and find helpful, or those which I want to try as part of my ongoing garden and allotment development. I will always make it clear where a product has been sent free for me to trial and I hope that the reviews will be useful for other gardeners.

If you’d like to follow the blog, you can do so below and do leave me a comment – especially if you know of any good ways to get rid of indoor greenfly. 🙂

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Plot to Plate: Cinnamon Poached Quinces

The whole house smells of Christmas and mulled wine – sweet, spicy and aromatic. We’re trying to make each of our quinces count as we harvested ten and after sending a couple to a friend, we were left with two for stewing with our apples and six for poaching. There will be none for jelly as we made tonnes of crab apple jelly in October and still have one pot of quince jelly left over from last year. I’ve also been trying to avoid using excess sugar, so I’ve created the syrup in this recipe with just a tablespoon of honey.

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Can’t beat local honey for flavour and low food miles

In its first year in the side garden, the quince (Meeches Prolific) was covered in delicate pink blossom. I’m a soft touch with fruit – rather than removing all the fruitlets as probably would have been advisable, I left eleven on the tree. So I’m expecting to have no fruit next year and I’m stocking up on quincely pleasures while I can.

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Quinces and apples from the garden

Ingredients

3 quinces

1 cup of water

1 tbsp honey

1 cinnamon stick

1 clove

1 tbsp lemon juice

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Quinces ready for poaching

Method

Peel, core and quarter the quinces (take care as the flesh is hard to cut). Place the quinces in the casserole dish with all the other ingredients.

Put the lid on the casserole dish and place in the oven at 160c for 1.5 hours until the quinces are soft.

Serve topped with yoghurt and a drizzle of runny honey.

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The yellow flesh turns the most beautiful light pink – we served the quinces with our homemade natural yoghurt and local Hertfordshire honey

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Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge

A cosy window seat has to be the best place to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book. As a child, I preferred to read near the top of our tall Scots Pine, with a Famous Five and an apple from the garden. Now I favour the cushion strewn window seat in the lounge  which overlooks the front garden. When we redecorated, I wanted to recreate the feeling I had as a child reading endless stories on a little sheepskin covered window seat overlooking the fields and woods in a Scottish holiday cottage. I’ve recently discovered there’s a word to describe that feeling – ‘hygge’ – a Danish word roughly translated as an atmosphere of warmth, relaxation, security and love or even ‘cosiness of the soul’¹. Snuggled in the corner of my window seat, I am connected to the outside world but protected from cold winds and rain (increasingly important with winter looming), there’s room for a selection of books and magazines, and a cup of tea and piece of cake on the window ledge. I have my own secluded nook, a hyggekrog: a place to relax and find inspiration, before re-entering the frenetic, demanding, yet delightful world which revolves around my two young children and my work.

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My hyggekrog

Bookish Hygge

Looking along the window ledge, my book selection currently includes H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, The Well-Tempered Gardener by Christopher Lloyd, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking, The Twins at St Claire’s by Enid Blyton (I’ve been raiding the children’s shelves again), A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and RHS Plants From Pips by Holly Farrell. The last title was a happy chance find in the library with the kids last week, lost for a while between Harry and the Robots and Emily Prickleback’s Clever Idea and finally resurfacing a few days ago. Its subtitle is ‘Pots of Plants for the Whole Family to Enjoy’ and I like the rustic style of the images, the range of ‘pips’ which can be nurtured into interesting house plants (from avocados to dragon fruit and pomegranates) and the clear instructions, equally suitable for the beginner or the more experienced grower.

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A little light reading

 

Childhood Hygge

My children (4 and 7) enjoyed looking at the pictures in RHS Plants From Pips showing how seeds grow and how they are dispersed. We chatted about which fruits they were familiar with and which new ones we might try (since then they’ve tasted their first pomegranate and both enjoyed it very much.) Several of the pips appealed to them – avocados, olives and lemons, but we decided to start with a peanut in a clear container so we can watch the new peanuts develop beneath the surface. Farrell rates each pip for ‘easiness’ (of growing) and the ‘patience’ required. The peanut scores 1 for each, which is good because the kids are neither patient nor particularly adept at growing plants yet. The method is relatively simple – soak the peanuts in water for 12 hours, sow in pots in pre-watered compost and place in a warm, sunny spot. Germination takes 2-3 weeks. As the kids watch the plants developing, they should be able to see the leaves folding up at night and the flowers growing downwards into the compost where they will produce new peanuts. They will be nurturing a new life and learning about the ingenuity of the plant kingdom.

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Shelling and soaking the peanuts

Botanical Hygge

As well as the chapter on ‘How Plants Grow’, RHS Plants From Pips also has sections on how to grow your pips successfully, how to repot, plant out and what pests, diseases and other problems you might encounter. There is also useful advice on how to restrict growth – particularly relevant as some of the plants would grow to a considerable size in natural conditions. A plant like the papaya (Carica papaya) is suggested as suitable as a ‘novelty plant for a single season’² due to its fast growth habit and full height of 3.5m, whereas mango (Mangifera indica) can be restricted by removing the top bud/leaves and tips of stems to keep it well below its natural height of 2m. By differentiating in this way, it is easy to choose a plant which will suit the position and space available. Most of the plants from pips are unlikely to fruit because their natural habitats differ greatly from household conditions, but they can make unusual houseplants which will give pleasure for many years and the act of experimentation is a valuable and interesting one, especially for children.

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The peanut in its homemade transparent plant pot

Community Hygge

In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking describes five ways to achieve summer hygge, number three being ‘Join or Build a Community Garden’. This acknowledges the hyggelig (hygge-inducing) aspect of taking the time to tend crops, get together as a neighbourhood and develop a sense of community spirit. Hygge is about relaxing with friends and loved ones after a day’s hard work outside, eating hearty food and having a drink together. These are all things I value about gardening, whether in the community garden or with my own family in the garden or allotment.

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Hygge, when it’s cold outside, is a cup of assam, a stack of novels and botanical books, and some time to devour them…

Family Hygge

Not everyone has access to a garden, allotment or community growing space, but anyone can have a go at growing a plant from a pip – a free resource which would otherwise be thrown away. Everyone can experience the excitement of seeing an embryonic shoot emerge and the seed leaves unfurl. Watching such miraculous beginnings can spark a lifelong passion for plants and establish the foundation for plant hygge in adulthood. When my children experience the natural world as adults, I hope they will have just such a store of memories to draw upon. The call of a buzzard, eating raspberries with red fingers, the smell of apples stewing and the first spring bulbs emerging have all created moments of hygge in my life. In the same way that I get the kids involved in cooking with crops from the garden and allotment so they can share the satisfaction of producing a tasty meal for the family, so I want them to share the pleasure that I get from watching plants grow. Plants From Pips is a great, accessible way to share this experience and create warm family memories for the future.

1. The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, page 6

2. RHS Plants From Pips, Holly Farrell, page 68

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge are both available in hardback and The Little Book of Hygge is also available in a Kindle edition (aff. links).


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