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Apr. 25, 2017
10:27 am


Curb Appeal

Eat what you grow in your back yard

April 15. It’s more than tax day. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, it’s the last day we need to be worried about frost in north Georgia. And that’s good news for your refrigerator and your stomach. If you play your cards right, you can forsake store-bought tomatoes for some real ones this summer. So, are you putting in a vegetable garden this season? Do a little research while you’re waiting for April 15 to roll around. It will set you on the way to fabulous tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers and all kinds of peppers and a bountiful harvest.
Check out “Build a Better Vegetable Garden,” filled with DYI projects to make your gardening more successful. Written by Joyce Russell, with photos by her husband Ben, the soft-cover full-color book has loads of photos, detailed instructions and tips for growing all kinds of crops. The first part of the book describes tools and materials needed and gives practical carpentry information that will help even novices get it right. 
Start with raised beds, and you can put them in even before the date of the last frost. Use 1-by-8s, 10s or 12s, landscape timbers or rough-hewn lumber to build the sides, bracing from the inside to provide stability of the structure. Raised beds can be as tall as you like. Typically, people build them between 10 and 12 inches high. They’re great for minimizing back aches as you plant and cultivate your plants.  Fill the beds with good quality garden soil, not potting soil. Mix in a soil conditioner and mushroom compost to add nutrients. Go ahead and put in some slow-release fertilizer, even before planting.
Purchase seedlings and starter plants at a local nursery or box retailer, especially for tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. Start squash, melons, beans and cucumbers from seeds, planted directly into the soil after April 15. Follow the instructions on the seed packets. Be sure to check the “freshness date” on the seed packets you purchase to ensure they’re intended for the 2017 growing season. When planting tomatoes, gently pinch off the lower leaves and then bury the now-bare stemmed plants deeper into the ground. This will promote more root growth. Also, if there are blooms, pinch these off to allow the plant to use its energy to become established.
Peppers are fun to grow and offer many varieties including mild and colorful bells, sweet to hot banana peppers, and prolific jalapenos or “pants-on-fire” cayenne. They’ll reward you with a long harvest season, often producing peppers until the first hard frost of the fall.
Plant a few herbs, such as basil, rosemary or dill. However, avoid any kind of mint in your garden. It is very invasive and can take over an area in just one season. If you want mint, plant it in a large container.
If you’ve not food-gardened before, give it a go. It’s a fun family activity with great yields. And home-grown tomatoes with a little mayonnaise on soft white (or wheat) bread ... Yummy! There’s nothing like it on a hot summer day.

Pamela A. Keene is our senior staff writer and a Hall County Master Gardener.

March 2017 column

Be the sharpest tool in the box; save money and time

A little equipment maintenance can make your spring, summer and fall garden chores much easier. When was the last time you sharpened the blades of your lawn mower or your pruners and loppers? Is it time to change your oil? Here are some tips from the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, based in Virginia, for keeping your equipment in top working order and prolonging its life, saving you money and hard work.
  • Inspect your equipment. Check for loose belts and missing or damaged parts on your lawn mowers, tillers and other power gardening equipment. If you find anything concerning, replace the parts or take your equipment to a qualified service representative.
  • Clean your equipment. If you did not clean your equipment before storing it, there may be dirt, oil or grass stuck to it. A cleaner machine will run more efficiently and last longer. And clean the equipment after each use; a little dirt is easier to remove than a whole season’s worth.
  • Review your manual. Read the operator’s manual and re-familiarize yourself with the controls and what they do. Make sure you know how to stop the machine quickly if needed. 
  • Check the fuel tank. If fuel has been sitting all winter long in the fuel tank, drain it (responsibly) and put in fresh fuel. Dispose the old fuel properly. Don’t leave fuel sitting in the tank for more than 30 days. Untreated gasoline (without a fuel stabilizer) left in the system will deteriorate, which may cause starting or running problems and, in some cases, damage to the fuel system. Use only E10 or less fuel in outdoor power equipment. Do not use gas with more than 10 percent ethanol (E10) in outdoor power equipment. Some gas stations may offer 15 percent ethanol (E15) gas or other fuel blends, but this higher ethanol fuel can damage – and is illegal to use in – small engine equipment not designed for it, such as lawn mowers, chain saws, generators, and all other lawn and garden equipment. Consider purchasing “non-ethanol” fuel for your power equipment, just like you would for your boat.
  • Drain out the old oil and put in fresh oil. Refill the engine with oil recommended by the product manufacturer. Properly dispose of the oil you drained. 
  • Install clean air filters. Your engine and equipment will run much better with clean filters. Paper filters need to be replaced, while some foam filters can be cleaned and replaced.
  • Sharpen your cutting blade. Have the lawn mower’s cutting blade sharpened to get a clean cut on the lawn. Your lawn will be healthier and the lawn mower will operate more efficiently. 
  • Special note for hand tools: Pruners, loppers and other hand tools such as shovels and rakes should be cleaned, dried and properly stored after each use. Periodically wipe them down with a bit of light oil, such as a 3-in-1, to deter rusting and to keep them in good working order.

Februay 2017 column

Crape 'Murder' and a reader's question answered

February seems to bring an onslaught of “crape murder,” that merciless pruning of last year’s growth – or older – from the crepe myrtles in your yard. Walter Reeves, the Georgia Gardener, says: “Don’t do it!” It’s just that simple. 
There’s a time and a place for cutting back these blooming Southern landscape staples:
  • If the crapes’ branches are hanging over your home – they can provide a way into your attic for squirrels and even roof rats.
  • If you haven’t pruned in a while and your crepes seem to be in decline. See below for a reader’s inquiry. 
  • If, and only if, you remove the “spur branches,” those that are the diameter of a pencil or smaller.

With all the new hybrids – from tree forms to dwarf shrub types – the best approach when choosing these summer bloomers is to pick the right plant for the spot. If you need a tall anchor for the corner of your house, a tree form is best; if you want to have mounds of blooms in a side flower bed, select any of the fairly new Razzle Dazzle varieties. Developed by horticultural expert Michael Dirr, retired professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia and renowned horticultural expert.
Lakeside reader Jim Callison of Cumming recently emailed to ask about his 30-foot-tall crape myrtles. “We’ve got crape myrtles that have grown very tall, 25 to 30 feet. We want to cut them down to 8 to 10 feet. What is the best time of year to do this and how should we go about it? 
After a few other questions, like why do you want to cut them back – not many blooms, leggy plants and they’re just too tall to enjoy the blooms; how much sun are they getting – not more than a couple of hours, because other trees have grown up around them; and how long have they been in your landscape – all plants and shrubs have a lifespan and as plants get older, many decline.
A little research led to my response:  Honestly, the practice of “crape murder” – severely pruning these lovely Southern shrubs – is not recommended, so good for you for letting them grow naturally. Severe pruning year after year reduces the health of the plant, makes it more susceptible to disease and reduces its bloom output. 
Certain varieties of crape myrtles left to their own devices without being pruned can get really tall. If you want to reel them in, anytime between January and early March is best to begin a pruning program. With trees this tall, you’re looking at a 3- or 4-year process, gradually reducing the height each growing season. The first year, take the height down by about one-fourth. You’ll still have some blooms this summer. Next year, take another one-fourth of the height in the late winter, targeting those trunks that you cut back last year. Repeat the following year and your crape will be closer to a manageable height. 
However, if the plant has overgrown its space and it’s a hindrance, maybe it’s time to take it out and replace it with a newer smaller variety or another type of shrub altogether. Winter is a great time not only to remove plants that are not in the ideal locations but to install new plants and trees. Fall and winter are the best times for planting; the plants require less water and the cooler temperatures are less stressful than the summer heat. Water new plantings regularly and well this spring and summer. Newer varieties provide more flexibility in planting the right tree or shrub in the right place. As Walter Reeves frequently says on his Saturday morning radio show on News 95.5 and AM750/WSB, “a plant hasn’t truly found its home until it’s been moved three or four times.”

January 2017 column

Winter chores make for a happy springtime

If your holiday were like most people’s you’ve finely tuned your “couch-potato” posture and settled in with all the creature comforts so that you can hibernate until the first sign of spring. 
But, no, don’t let a little chilly weather keep you from the outdoor chores at hand. January’s an excellent time to survey your landscape and decide what changes to make in 2017. Do you have trees and shrubs that have overgrown their space? Are there plants that really aren’t thriving in their current spots around your yard? Be critical about your sun gardening space, especially if you’ll be growing your own vegetables this spring and summer.
So? Still not quite motivated to bundle up a little and head outdoors? Maybe you can take it in stages Spread the work out over several weekends, naturally picking those without the prediction of rain. An hour or two outdoors is good for the soul and your health. Just think about our friends in the Midwest and the Northeast who are dealing with feet of snow. 
Start by evaluating your landscape clean-up and change needs from the inside out, surveying your yard from the warmth of your home. Make a list of priority areas, then pick one area each weekend for a short work session.
Check out your vegetable gardening area and clean up last year’s leftovers. Scraggly dead plants and the winter weeds that have taken over should be removed. Contact your local Extension office to get a soil test of your garden patch. It costs less than $10 and will guide you about the amendments you’ll need for the crops you intend to grow. 
Typically, most North Georgia soil is on the acidic side. Plants like azaleas, camellias and blueberries like a lower pH, which stands for potential for hydrogen. Plants absorb nutrients better when they’re growing in soil that’s the right pH. But don’t just blindly toss in lime; a soil test will accurately tell you what you need to add.
That view from your window can also identify ways to create more sun in your yard. This winter, mark overhanging limbs that block sun in the spring and summer. It’s a quick trip outdoors to tie some flagging tape that will remind you to trim them in march, just as they’re greening up.
Assess your hardscapes as well. Does your driveway, deck or patio need to be pressure washed? Call your “power guy” now to get on his schedule for March or April. If you firm up a date now, it’s one less thing to worry about in a couple of months, when other more pressing chores are piling up. And you’ll be able to pick your time before his schedule gets hectic. 
Remember how you sweated out the summer heat to garden? Take the time now to cross some of these chores off your list. Then you’ll have more time for boating when the temperatures get back to “normal.” After all, the warm weather is made for getting out on the lake!

December 2016 column

Energize your home this winter to save bucks

Although the word is out that we’re expecting a warmer, drier winter in the next four months, now is a great time to check out your home’s energy price tag. From some simple do-it-yourself fixes to a whole-house energy audit, you can save a bundle.
Are you still using – and buying – the old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs? They’re being phased out in favor of the energy-efficient CFLs and LEDs. Technology has greatly advanced to make these newer bulbs more compatible with specialty lights, such as bathroom globes and chandeliers, by mimicking the shapes and color-spectrum glow of the lights. 
The color “temperature” of light is measure in degrees of Kelvin on a scale ranging from 1,000 to 10,000. You don’t need to be rocket scientist to pick the right “color” of light bulbs, but here’s a simple chart that can help you make the perfect selection. 
• 2000K to 3000K – warm-white light, appearing orange to yellowish white
• 3100K to 4500K – cool or bright-white light, more neutral or slightly bluish
• Above 4500K – “daylight,” giving off a blue-white color
Don’t worry about remembering the Kelvin scale. Just look on the packaging that will tell you whether a bulb is warm-white, cool-white or daylight. Most people prefer lighting at the lower end of the Kelvin scale for interior residential space. The brighter lights are often chosen for commercial and residential work spaces and for use outdoors. 
The Good “Seal” 
From installing outlet and switch-plate sealers on every faceplate in your home, you can prevent drafts and heat loss. Your local hardware or box retailer sells them and can also offer guidance on the safe way to install them. These seals can block cooler air from coming into your home, especially when it’s windy.
Check the exterior of your home and seal the places where vents and other mechanicals come outside along your siding. Great Stuff is a good sealant. Be sure to read the label for safety precautions and use instructions. Caulk around windows and doors. Even if your home is fairly new, caulk can shrink and needs to be touched up periodically.
Heating and cooling 
Bring in the professionals to service your HVAC system twice a year to inspect units, lubricate parts and perform other routine maintenance. While you can easily change your unit’s filters, having regular service will help spot potential problems and extend the life of your systems. They can also clear your condensation pipes and check your drain pan to make sure your unit is operating properly. 
Home Energy Audits
Your electric company wants you to save money. Check out your company’s website for an online energy check. Once you’ve completed that do-it-yourself assessment, your company may offer a free in-home energy audit. That audit can include walking through a checklist with a professional from the company or even doing a home-blower-door test that can identify air leaks.
Any of these suggestions can help you save money this winter. It may be only a few cents here or a dollar there, but over 12 months, these savings add up. 

November 2016 column

Think spring: Check out the flower bulbs now

The online flower peddlers are on the move. Not a day goes by that I don’t receive an email about all the specials on spring bulbs. From daffodils to tulips, hyacinths to crocus, my inbox has been flooded with offers. And I played right into their hands. 
The tulip photos are gorgeous and tempting, but practicality dictates that the daffodils, grape hyacinths, globe allium, freesia and crocus are better suited for our milder Georgia winters. Snow drops and Lily of the Valley are also pretty in North Georgia landscapes. 
For the best bulbs, explore the websites of reputable quality growers, such as Longfield Gardens, Brecks of Holland and White Flower Farms. Many sell bulk packages at lower prices; All offer premium-sized firm bulbs that ship at just the right time to plant.
If you buy bulbs from a local retailer or nursery, check that they’re firm, free of mold and mildew. Look for bins of loose bulbs, rather than bags; you’ll be able to hand-select the ones you want. Look for bigger bulbs and/or those that have multiple bulb clumps. 
Get them in the ground before we have a hard freeze. The general rule of thumb is to plant the bulb twice as deep as it is tall. For instance, if the bulb measures two inches, plant it so that the base of the bulb is four inches below the surface. Avoid planting in straight lines. For the best display, “naturalize” bulbs by tossing a handful of them into the air and planting them where they land.
If you’re mixing different bulbs, plant the deepest ones first. Then come back and naturalize the smaller bulbs and plant them less deep. Good combinations include daffodils and grape hyacinths, crocus – which are early bloomers – with grape hyacinths, white or yellow narcissus with their smaller blooms with daffodils.
Work a bit of bone meal into the soil before filling the holes. That’s all you’ll need to do. Mother Nature takes care of the rest. Depending on what you’ve planted, you may have blossoms as early as February, especially with crocus. 
Consider the bloom times of various bulbs. Daffodils are available in early boomers, mid-season and late blossoming. If you’ve been to Gibbs’ Gardens in Ball Ground in March and April, you’ve certainly enjoyed the seemingly long season for daffodils. Long before Jim Gibbs opened the world-class garden to the public, he and his crew were planting hundreds of thousands of daffodils of all kinds. 
Not only are daffodils easy to grow, they multiply year after year, producing even more color. They’ll do just fine to stay in place but for maximum performance, they should be dug up, divided and replanted every five years or so. Plant now and get ready for a spectacular show in your yard. 
A word about Amaryllis: After last year’s profusion of giant amaryllis blossoms in my sunroom, living room and dining room, they are at the top of my list for this holiday season. It’s so hard to choose from all the wonderful varieties. They’re easy to grow in pots filled with pebbles and water; and if you buy them now, they’ll be blooming in time for the holidays. Google Amaryllis bulbs to find the best selections, and don’t skimp on the prices. You get what you pay for. Most bulbs run between $15 and $20 each, and they are worth every penny.

October 2016 column

Mastering the art and craft of gardening

For more than 20 years, a group of volunteers has worked quietly behind the scenes to bring gardening education and the joys of gardening to Hall County. The Hall County Master Gardeners, a program of the University of Georgia Extension, has nearly 125 active members who donate their time and talents to youth gardens, community projects, plantings and clean-ups across the county.

Members also staff the telephones at the Hall County Extension Office, answering tough gardening questions from callers and walk-ins. twice a year, the organization hosts a Garden Expo at the Chicopee Agricultural Center with dozens of vendors selling plants, shrubs, garden tools, garden art and trees. 
The group is currently seeking applicants for the 2017 class. It’s easy to apply. call the extension office at 770-535-8293 to request an application before the middle of October. Once you’ve submitted your info, you’ll be contacted for an interview. If you’re accepted, you’ll get 40 hours of University of Georgia training at the extension office between January and March of 2017. Classes are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Check with the extension about the cost of the training. You must pass the written exams and complete 50 hours of volunteer service to become certified. 
After becoming a Master Gardener, you must complete 25 volunteer hours each year to remain certified. These projects can include volunteering for the twice-a-year Garden Expos/plant sales, participating in the every-other-year Garden Walk tours of local private gardens, working with youth gardeners, assisting with community projects or serving at various demonstration gardens and organizations, including the Elachee Nature Center and the Gardens on Green at the Hall County Board of Education. Members also staff Ask a Master Gardener booths at local home shows and other public events.
Volunteers train new Habitat homeowners in gardening. They present programs to school groups of all ages and they donate their time at the Atlanta Botanical Garden Gainesville and the Linwood Nature Preserve.
The group holds monthly programs with horticultural and gardening experts as speakers. Additionally, there are many opportunities to socialize with other Master Gardeners throughout the year, including a summer picnic and an annual Christmas party.
Hall County Master Gardeners typically lead the state in the number of volunteer hours donated annually. In 2015, trained volunteers log more than 18,000 hours – yes, 18,000. 
Hall County Master Gardeners are a fun and welcoming group who share a common thread – a love for gardening. Check it out today by calling 770-536-8293 or visit For more information about the University of Georgia Extension, visit The University of Georgia offers free publications and information via its statewide website.

September 2016 column

Wildflowers in Georgia: Now there's a book for that

For nearly a decade, there’s been serious talk about creating an official book about Georgia wildflowers. Now it’s a reality, thanks to State Botanical Garden Botanist Linda Chafin, well-known nature photographers Hugh and Carol Nourse and the University of Georgia Press. With 777 entries, full-color photographs and a color-grouped index of thumbnails, the “Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia and Surrounding States” is a must-have for hikers, photographers, serious gardeners and plant enthusiasts.
The 6- by 9-inch trade soft-cover book is chock full of just about every type of wildflower you can imagine: 16 different varieties of violets ranging from white to yellow and green; seven varieties of goldenrod, five types of meadow-beauties and a plethora of plants that the “uneducated” would classify as blooming weeds. It shows orchids that bloom in the wild in Georgia, a pink Columbine that grows in the northern part of the state, waterlilies, Solomon’s seal and there’s a section all about asters. 
The book is designed for the average Georgian, using English measurements instead of the standard metric ones used by scientists, and each plant’s common name is prominently featured with the botanical name in smaller type. “I choose about 700 or so of the species that the average person is likely to encounter if they are out on a hike or a walk through the woods or even driving along the highway,” Chafin said. “Most people know cornflower or goldenrods. I tried to include a whole range of plants that just an average wildflower lover might run across.”
While Chafin worked on the book for two and a half years, the Nourses have been photographing wildflowers for decades. I first met them 10 years ago when they spoke to the Hall County Master Gardeners’ monthly meeting. Armed with several trays of slides – this was before digital photography really caught on – they entertained the room full of Master Gardeners with their stories of exploration and discovery.
Actually, the Nourses have published two of their own books, “Wildflowers of Georgia” that contains 86 photos of diverse and in some cases endangered plants and “Favorite Wildflower Walks in Georgia” that details five walks in four different regions of the state, including maps, bloom seasons and length of walks. The walks highlight plants that are native to Georgia. 
Chafin’s guide includes contiguous states’ blossoms as well. The book is organized alphabetically by plant family; checking out the thumbnails can expedite identifications, then you can flip to the proper page for a full description, including type of plant (i.e., perennial, annual, deciduous herb, evergreen shrub or vine), peak flowering season, the most likely places to find them, and a description of the leaves to further aid in identification. 
The book would make an excellent gift for the gardeners on your list. It’s available through and the University of Georgia Press websites. It was published in association with the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens.

August 2016 column

Bug off this summer

Buzzing biting mosquitos have added to their repertoire of issues with the evolution of the Zika virus. While no cases have been reported in Georgia to date, health officials and landscape companies are upping the game when it comes to minimizing these pesky insects. 
More and more pest-control firms offer to mosquito-proof patios, decks and back yards, a temporary and sometimes-costly process. As a homeowner, there are some things you can do on your own to reduce the presence of mosquitos so that you can enjoy your back yard in the early evenings.
The No. 1 way to keep mosquitos away is to eliminate standing water on your property. Perhaps you’ve got buckets by your garden, empty flowery pots, or even areas that puddle after a heavy rain that collect water that stagnates. Be vigilant about turning over containers that may hold water, because that’s where mosquitos lay their eggs.
For ponds and water features, use a mosquito “dunk,” a tablet that’s available at big box retailers, such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, and at garden stores including Pike Nurseries. They look like little beige/gray bagels and come in multi-packs that last about 30 days and treat about 100 square feet of water. The chemical in the dunks kills the tiny little squiggly eggs before they hatch.
Combating mosquitos 
Check out the three most popular plants that are known for repelling mosquitoes and add them to your landscape. All three are available at Pike Nurseries. Citrosa-scented geranium is a main source of citronella oil that’s used in many repellents. It is a true geranium that looks good planted in containers or flower beds. However, for it to work, the leaves should be crushed to release the citronella scent. You can rub the oil from the leaves on your skin.
Lemongrass is a lime-colored grass that’s also used in cooking, in tea and in lemonade. It contains citronella oil as well and can grow in well-drained soil and full sun. You may be familiar with lemongrass if you eat Thai food. 
Lavender, a member of the mint family, is often used because of its calming aroma. One of my friends makes cream-filled lavender cupcakes, and garnishes them with a sprinkling of delicate dried lavender blossoms. They’re edible. The smell of lavender, which is pretty easy to grow, repels mosquitos and keeps bugs away. 
Citronella candles and Tiki torches filled with citronella oil both repel mosquitos, although their range is fairly compact, typically a radius of about 15 to 20 feet. 
Don’t keep slapping, scratching
With the variety of personal repellents on the market, there’s no reason to keep slapping and scratching. Different products affect people in varying ways. Some people swear by the pleasant-smelling Skin So Soft by Avon that’s available in lotion and individual wipes. REI sells a number of products, including a DEET-free organic brand called Repel. It’s made with lemon eucalyptus and also has a nice non-chemical smell.
Brands such as Off and Bug Off! have been around for years. Johnson & Johnson recently introduced a clear anti-mosquito baby lotion. For me, anything that’s safe enough for babies, especially lotions and sunscreens, is a safe choice. 
If you’re bitten 
The age-old remedy of rubbing alcohol or witch-hazel on mosquito bites works for some people, but not others. Try an antihistamine cream or gel applied to the bite, or use a bit of aloe lotion to soothe the bump. Cool damp green tea bags or a cool cloth can also help ease the itching. 
The internet is filled with home-remedy suggestions, but here’s one that sounds reasonable: travel guru Johnny Jet has a recipe for all-natural mosquito repellant, 30 drops of lemon eucalyptus oil, 1 tsp. vanilla extract and 4 ounces of witch hazel. I haven’t tried it yet, but it surely sounds like it smells better than DEET or other repellents.

July 2016 column

Yard and garden solutions for this hot, dry summer

In this blistering heat and high humidity, it’s unlikely that you’re spending your time outdoors minding your garden, perennials and trees. But if you’ll take a few minutes around midday to explore your yard, annuals, vegetables, and shrubs, you may just hear them crying out in thirst. If the leaves look dull, rather gray-green or droopy, it may not be too late to put a survival plan into place this month. Think about the right kind of watering and adding a good layer of mulch to your landscape. If you’re industrious you can avoid the heat and humidity by rising early or waiting until dusk to do the heavy lifting that mulching requires. 
The benefits of mulching far outweigh the work involved. Helping plants and soil retain moisture, protecting roots from the heat and adding some nutrients to the soil offset the time and energy it takes to spread bales of pine straw or wheelbarrows and bags full of the best kind of wood chips. Popular materials for mulching include pine bark, aged wood chips, shredded cypress or pine straw. You can buy these products in bags at a local retailer or in bulk from a nursery or garden supplier. Many people choose colored mulches, but they don’t look as natural in your landscape. Avoid the darker mulches, especially black, because they will absorb extra heat and could bake the shallow roots of your plants, shrubs and trees.
The proper depth for mulch is usually between two and three inches, but make sure you’re not covering the stem of the plant or tree. Leave about a two-inch space between the plant and the mulch. Use either bagged or aged bulk mulch; if you’ve recently had trees removed and the mulch from limbs was left behind, allow it to age for several months before putting it
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