Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Groundbreaking food gardens

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On 4th June 2012 I received an email from Niki Jabbour, a garden writer in Nova Scotia in Canada. She said that she was working on a book of edible garden plans and would like me to contribute a design for a composter’s garden. Niki continued on her quest to collect interesting plans for food gardens from writers and bloggers around the world, including Amy Stewart, Roger Doiron, Amanda Thomsen and our very own VP.

A month later, I sent her my idea – the Circle of Life garden. As you can see, my artistic skills are in need of some development:

Emma Cooper's Circle of Life garden design

The idea behind the Circle of Life garden is that it is fuelled by returning waste products to the soil. Chickens have a run around the outside, where they can be fed any suitable garden waste (and will help with pest control). Their coop is right by the compost bins, where their poop will make the composting process go with a bang. A rhubarb patch soaks up the nutrients right by the compost bins, and there’s plenty of garden beds to make good use of all that lovely compost.

To find out more you’ll have to buy the book. Niki has done a lovely job of writing up my idea, and a small team of illustrators have turned all of the designs into beautiful, instructive illustrations. They’ve really brought all of the gardens to life.

One feature of my design that caused a bit of a stir was the comfrey tower. It’s a simple system that uses a vertical length of tubing to rot comfrey leaves down into a liquid feed without that pesky stench. I didn’t attempt to draw one; Elayne Sears has done a lovely job with the image:

Comfrey tower

Illustration courtesy of Storey Publishing, © 2014

To recreate the Circle of Life garden in your own back yard, you’ll need a copy of Groundbreaking Food Gardens, which is available now. When you buy one you’ll also get 72 other wonderful edible garden plans for free ;)

Posted in Blog on May 10, 2014 ·

Tags: books & compost.

Bored with Card

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This opinion piece was first published in the June 2011 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine. Things haven’t changed much since then ;)


Although the world keeps changing far more rapidly than many of us can keep up with, there seems to be at least one constant in modern life – much of it comes wrapped in cardboard. It’s almost impossible to buy anything without having to peel off several layers of packaging, and if you don’t have access to decent recycling facilities then a good deal of your bin gets filled with cardboard every week.

On the face of it, this can be a boon to gardeners. We can get our environmental brownie points by taking all that cardboard waste and using it as a carbon-rich material to help us turn our kitchen waste and grass cuttings into life-enhancing compost. By doing so we cut down on the amount of rubbish going to landfill, the fuel used to get it there and the nasty methane gases it makes when it rots down underground. We can be smugly virtuous and bring home our groceries in abandoned cardboard boxes, then turn them into plant fuel – ditching the plastic bags and saving ourselves a packet into the bargain.

Except… it’s not the simple, is it? The boffins that design this packaging are gradually making it all completely indestructible. If you build your heap carefully, nurture it, turn it and then wait several months for the compost to reach perfect maturity then when you come to use it you’ll find that all that innocent-looking cardboard has been contaminated it with plastic.

There’s the cardboard lids from take-aways, and paper plates from picnics; they both have a thin layer of plastic in the mix, which is left behind when the card rots away. And those paper cups you chose for the allotment get-together, precisely so you could compost them? They’ve been coated with something that prevents them from degrading at all. They come out looking, at most, slightly squished.

And although it’s perfectly possible to buy a well-known brand of tape (at least here in the UK) that’s made from cellulose (the same stuff plants are made from) and that disappears without a trace on the compost heap, you’ll find that most companies use plastic tape that just clumps together in a horrible mess.

You’ll have less trouble with plain corrugated cardboard, and it even adds some air into the mix, which can only be a good thing – but watch out for the glue strips used to hold boxes and parcels together, as you’ll be fishing them out later if you don’t.

Clearly eternal vigilance is necessary if you want to keep your heap uncontaminated – which is fine for old hands and composting ninjas, but how to we get people into composting when it’s no longer as simple as ‘cardboard good’, ‘meat and fish bad’?

Compost sticker

Have you read these?
Learn to love leaf mould
Biodegradable packaging
Dig deeper, the archaeology of the compost heap

Posted in Blog on Nov 2, 2013 ·

Tags: compost & environment.

Biodegradable packaging

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Back when I was on a quest to compost as much as possible, I put some paper plates on the compost heap after a garden party. The result was not good – they, like so many apparently cardboard products, had a layer of plastic that was left behind and that I had to fish out of the finished compost. It’s very hard to find truly compostable packaging; I get bizarrely excited when the avocados or apples that I bring home from the supermarket turn out to be packaged in a kind of pâpier-maché tray. It’s not quite as easy now that I have to trot down to the allotment with my compostables (as opposed to to the bottom of the garden), but I’d still rather compost my waste than have to send it off for recycling.

Be Green's compostable packaging

Image credit: Be Green

Which was why I was interested to learn that an American company, Be Green Packaging LLC make food packaging that is not only compostable, but tree-free. It’s made from fibre plants – bulrush, bamboo and sugar cane. So I thought you might be interested to learn more about their raw materials; which, as it turns out, are also edible plants.

Sugar cane sets

Sugar cane, of course, is one of the plants that has changed the world. A plant of Empire and slavery, and a source of empty calories that we could do – but apparently cannot live – without. This picture of sugar cane ‘sets’ is from the Economic Botany collection at Kew. Sets are a method of propagating sugar cane; freshly cut sections of cane root very easily.

Sugar Cane

On my travels through Asia I remember big vats of boiling sugar cane on street corners. IIRC, it was so that the sweetened water could be sold as a drink, but that’s a few years ago now ;) This picture illustrates a less traditional use – sugar cane being grown to produce bioethanol for fuel.

So sugar cane is a very useful plant. What about bamboo? Grown in the UK mainly as an ornamental plant, it gets a bad rap a lot of the time because it spreads. And spreads. And can send shoots up through concrete. Bad plant!

Bamboo shoots

But when we’re not trying to corral it into an urban environment, bamboo is very useful too. The larger varieties are used as a source of timber for building, and even scaffolding poles. Its fibres can be processed (although not particularly easily) into cloth. And those bamboo shoots you find in your Chinese take-away (or in a tin at the supermarket) are actually shoots from bamboo (unlike the crispy fried seaweed, which is just cabbage.) There are a lot of bamboo species that produce edible shoots – some are more palatable than others. I have a Phyllostachys aurea that I bought as it’s supposed to be one of the best. It’s under control in a very large container, but as of yet I haven’t tried the shoots. Phyllostachys edulis is reportedly a popular choice in Chinese back gardens, and the clump is earthed up to blanch the new shoots.

Snowy bamboo

And, of course, I’m sure you all have a few bamboo canes lurking around the garden. A few years ago I read a lovely article in the Eden Project Friends magazine, which was all about the history of commercial bamboo production in Cornwall. Yes, Cornwall. Wars had caused a shortage in the supply of bamboo garden canes, and an enterprising chap in Cornwall with some land and some inherited bamboos, started cutting them and selling the poles. Demand was high, and he went around the south west cutting canes in other gardens. People used to ask him to grub up unruly clumps; he took them home and started a bamboo plantation. His homegrown industry supported (ha ha!) the Dig for Victory campaign, and the business was hugely successful until the post-war calm allowed cheap imported canes to arrive once again. There’s even a Pathé news video of the Cornish bamboo harvest.


Image credit: Be Green

So… now you’re wondering about the bulrushes, yes? Thinking about how they don’t look very tasty? Well bulrushes (Typha species) have lots, and lots of uses. They’re all aquatic, or bog, plants. They range in size. Some species are widespread across the world (except Africa), and others are more localized in Asia. They are noted for their wildlife value, have medicinal uses, and can be used for biomass, for stuffing, for thatching, for tinder and for weaving. Apparently the pollen is highly inflammable and has been used for fireworks! Most have edible roots, stems and leaves. Some produce an edible oil. And the explosive pollen is edible, too. In fact, it’s quite wondrous and something I have been fascinated with for quite some time. It’s a traditional food in the southern Iraq marshes – the ones that Saddam drained and which are gradually being restored (although there’s not enough water to go around in the region, so probably not to their former glory). There’s a lovely post on My Iraqi Kitchen, if you want to know more. Pollen is high in protein, so it makes a really good food. If you’re in the US you might be more familiar with Cattail (Typha latifolia), which is also known as ‘Cossack asparagus’.

It’s always fun to take a fresh look at a plant you think you know, because – like people – they often have hidden depths. Here I have just touched on the obvious, tangible, uses of three plants that you might find on (or in!) your plates. I’m sure they make valuable ecosystem contributions, too, but that’s a topic for another day :)


Posted in Blog on Oct 15, 2013 ·

Last modified on Apr 29, 2014

Tags: ethnobotany & compost.

Learn to love leaf mould

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Fallen leaves

There might be a new chill in the air, but autumn is a beautiful time of year, when the leaves change color on the trees and the sun shines through a million little stained-glass windows. But once the leaves fall to the floor then it’s a different story. If they fall into ponds they can foul the water, on the lawn they can cause bleached patches and they make paths slippery in the winter. Gardeners everywhere spend the autumn raking up leaves to prevent these problems, but did you know that you can turn them into free soil improver for your garden, rather then sending them off with the rubbish?

Leaf mould is known to horticulturalists as a low fertility soil improver, meaning that it’s great for improving soil structure, helping to improve both water retention and drainage and promoting a healthy environment that helps plants to thrive. Leaf mould makes an excellent mulch, suppressing weed growth and evaporation whilst the earthworms work hard to incorporate it into the soil for you. You can also use it as part of a home-made potting mix, perfect for raising seedlings – try equal parts of leaf mould, loam and garden compost for a good multi-purpose potting compost.

And if you have bare soil in your beds over winter, considering piling your leaves onto the soil surface to protect the soil from heavy winter rains. You’ll have a better soil structure in spring (you can rake the leaves off if you need a seed bed) and fewer weed problems too.

Making leaf mould is easy. All you have to do is to collect wet leaves (from deciduous trees) into one place and leave them to rot down. You can make a leaf mold bin with 4 stakes and some wire mesh, or you can just put leaves into a plastic bag. The container doesn’t matter, as long as it either lets in rain or you use wet leaves. You’ll also need a few air holes – if you’re using plastic bags then trying stabbing them with a garden fork a couple of times.

All you need then is patience. Some leaves take longer to break down than others, but after a year you’ll have partially rotted leaves that make good mulch material. If you want properly composted leaves you’ll have to wait at least another year – but once you start making leaf mold each year you’ll soon have an annual supply.

Want to know more? Listen to episode 32 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show.

Posted in Blog on Oct 11, 2013 ·

Tag: compost

Activate! Activate!

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There were some really good guesses about yesterday’s mystery object, and a couple of you were spot on – it’s the basket at the bottom of my Green Cone composter. It arrived in several pieces, and needed to be assembled before it could be taken to the allotment.

Green Cone - interior

In a slightly What Not to Wear moment, this is the Green Cone in its underwear. The basket at the bottom is designed the buried in the soil and not seen. The black undercone helps the whole thing heat up nicely in the sunshine.

Assembled Green Cone

Properly dressed, it looks like this. The green outer cone is screwed on to the basket and undercone; the lid is screwed on. The next step is to dig a big hole:

A hole in the ground

I cannot recommend doing this in a heatwave, even if someone else is doing most of the digging.


And this is the finished article, all ready and waiting to be fed. I have put it at the top of the allotment, near the rest of the compost bins, but also close to the existing fruit bushes. The Green Cone will feed the surrounding soil, rather than producing compost that needs to be dug out. The nutrients should be sucked up by the fruit bushes; any that get leached a bit further will feed the plants further down. That’s the theory, anyway.

The Green Cone has been in place for about a month now, and I have been feeding it our food waste. We don’t produce that much, and everything that is compostable in a normal bin goes in a normal bin, but so far there is no evidence of rodent attacks and there’s no horrible rotting stench or swarms of flies when you open the lid, so it’s so far so good. I will keep you posted on its progress.

Posted in Blog on Sep 13, 2013 ·

Last modified on Sep 13, 2013

Tags: allotment & compost.

The Green Cone

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David Mitchell made me laugh at the weekend, with his piece in the Observer about how intolerable a British summer can be. There’s a particularly lovely line…

“the waters temporarily recede from the streets of Tewkesbury to reveal a letter announcing a hosepipe ban on every sodden doormat, and our big cities come to smell ever more pungently of bins”

…which will strike a chord with most people. Of course, many councils now offer food waste collections, which really just means that it’s a different bin that stinks. And, if you’re lucky enough to have a communal one, you get a free face full of flies when you open the lid….

I’ve talked a lot in the past about solutions to the food waste problem, from more sensible shopping to using a Bokashi system to compost your waste (a process I have to admit I didn’t enjoy). My favourite solution so far is worm composting (although my worm bins are currently decommissioned), which is great for processing kitchen waste. Worms can munch their way through some of the cooked stuff you wouldn’t put on a normal compost heap, but a wormery is not the place to dispose of fish, meat and dairy waste. Hence the stinky bins.

Like many ardent composters, I sigh a little when I empty the food waste bin. All those goodies being sent off for municipal composting, and then feeding the soil elsewhere. It’s not ideal, and my thrifty side wants to save them. Enter the green cone (AKA the Food Waste Eater).

Green cone surrounded by nettles

I’ve coveted one of these for years, since I saw one hard at work in the RISC roof garden. It has a deep basket that’s buried in the soil, and a dual-walled plastic cone that sits on top and looks much like a regular compost bin. The idea is that you put all kinds of food waste into the cone, and as bacteria go to work on it the waste decomposes and returns its nutrients to the soil. If the bacteria need a kick-start, it comes with accelerator powder. And you don’t empty the basket, although you may occasionally need to move the green cone to a new location.

Green cone

That’s the theory. And now I get to try it our for myself, as the company who makes and distributes the green cone has given me one to trial and review. It arrived a few days ago, but I haven’t yet had a minute to set it up on the allotment – and it’s too hot for digging! Hopefully I can do that soon, though. It needs a sunny position, which shouldn’t be a problem, but I want to set it up amongst the fruit bushes, so that it feeds the soil for them. I have regular compost bins for garden waste that will provide me with mulching compost for the rest of the plot.

So… stay tuned to see how I get on. Have you tried using a green cone?


Posted in Blog on Jul 16, 2013 ·

Tag: compost

The Composting Obsession

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Compost heap
A composter’s dream heap

We’re coming to the end of International Compost Awareness Week, an annual event designed to promote composting on all scales, due to the important environmental benefits it brings. Removing biodegradable waste from landfill, and returning it to the soil, solves pollution problems and increases soil fertility in one fell swoop. As a newly reinstated Master Composter (now that I’m home from university), I am fully qualified to tell you about the benefits of composting ;)

But what the press releases won’t tell you is that making your own compost can become a bit of an obsession. The problem, for a gardener, is that you just can’t get enough of the stuff. There are pots to fill, and plants to feed, and although you’ve got the space for another heap, you’re just not sure how you’re going to fill it….

You’ve rifled through the bins and removed anything remotely compostable. You’ve begged your neighbours to give you their lawn clippings, and even their used tea bags. You drive out of your way to visit that coffee shop that will happily load you up with their waste coffee grounds, and you’re travelling around with a bucket and spade in the boot in case you happen on an untended pile of horse manure.

And now you’re eyeing up any other potential sources of organic matter with which you can feed your heap. You know all about the importance of balancing our your ‘greens’ and ‘browns’, and have been keeping your cardboard to one side to add to the heap as necessary. So I don’t need to warn you about that, but there are other potential hazards you need to bear in mind as you wander the streets in search of fuel for the compost bins:

  • Firstly, you should never remove material from wild spaces. It might look out-of-control, and as though you’re doing the environment a favour, but other beings live there and you’re disturbing their home. Humans produce plenty of waste products, so look for those instead.

  • Avoid material that is likely to be contaminated – those piles of autumn leaves by the roadside may look appealing (you have plans for a special leaf mould bin) but they are likely to be polluted and won’t add anything good to your garden.

  • Anything spiny can cause problems – the prickles seem to take much longer to rot down than anything else, making it hazardous to handle your compost without thick gloves.

  • Plant material from unknown sources could be diseased, or contaminated with herbicides.

  • Perennial weeds, and seeding weeds, are only killed by very hot heaps. If in doubt, leave them out, or at least compost them separately and for a very long time.

  • Cooked food, meat and dairy attract vermin. If you really, really, want to compost them yourself instead of sending them off in your municipal food waste collection, then invest in a pair of Bokashi bins to treat the waste before you compost it.

  • Pet waste from carnivorous animals (e.g. cats and dogs) is another no-no unless you can provide a separate system (a wormery can work) and keep the finished compost separate and away from your food crops.

So, those caveats aside, what else can you use to feed your soil and compost heaps? I have collected litter from pet bunnies (who lived on a houseboat, no less) that consisted of sawdust and bunny poo. I’ve investigated collecting hop waste from local breweries (another reason to celebrate the return of microbreweries!). And when I worked I brought home the coffee grounds from the coffee machines in the office, although that got me funny looks.

Gardeners tend to jealously guard sources of organic matter once they have found them, but have you got any generalised tips you can share with avid composters?


Posted in Blog on May 10, 2013 ·

Last modified on May 28, 2013

Tag: compost

Biochar compost is as good as gold

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Earlier in the month I received a press release from Carbon Gold, whose biochar compost products have been through the first commercial trials in the UK with professional horticulturalists. Apparently, biochar “helps to boost root growth, reduces the need to water, improves germination rates and results in stronger, healthier plants which are more resilient to disease and changing weather conditions” (you can read more in the trial highlights PDF available from the Carbon Gold website; a more detailed report on the trials will be available at the end of the month).

Carbon Gold is a UK-based company, producing peat-free biochar growing products that are approved by the Soil Association. It’s great news that their composts perform well, but to me it’s more interesting that in the trial they performed as well as, or better than, peat-based composts. Comments from the trialists included:

“Excellent peat substitute, better than green waste. Would not hesitate to use as part of a John Innes mix.”
Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener & CEO of Great Dixter

“Switching from our usual compost brand to Carbon Gold has cut water usage by a third. The GroChar compost is less prone to drying out.
Jez Taylor, Market Gardener at Daylesford Organic Farm

“Despite a rather sketchy year, due to the weather and erratic temperatures, I’ve seen excellent root growth in the seedlings I’ve grown with Carbon Gold Soil Improver, I’ve had to water less and it also works well in my own compost mix.”
Mark Diacono, author, smallholder and garden designer at Otter Farm

Although biochar works well in the Amazon (where it’s known as Terra preta and is a traditional soil management technique), we need more trials examining whether it has a role to play elsewhere – there are too many variables involved in environmental problems to assume we can find a one-size-fits-all solution.

In the meantime, it’s good to know that there’s some more high quality, peat-free products on the market for gardeners, so that we can leave peat where it belongs, in the ground.

If you’re pondering the change to peat-free gardening, then have a look at The Peat-Free Diet, my latest book. It’s available to read free here on the website, or to purchase as an audio book.

Posted in Blog on Nov 20, 2012 ·

Tags: peat-free & compost.

Zombie Plants

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This blog post has been very kindly sponsored by Linda from Linda’s gardening journey. It’s not commercial content – click for more information on my sponsored blog post policy.

Zombie Plant - by Phil Jones

Zombie Plant – by Phil Jones

Happy Halloween!

I recently read an entertaining blog post on Claire’s Crops about the easiest way to get plants to self-seed in your garden that gave me the idea for this blog post. So today, in honour of the year’s creepiest day, I bring you Zombie Plants – plants that rise from the dead.

Not literally, of course. I can’t give you a spell that will resurrect that house plant you forgot to water for 6 months and which your Auntie Mavis gave you and will expect to see alive and kicking in a prominent place when she next comes to visit. You’re on your own there.

When I decide a plant is dead, and give up on it, it goes on the compost heap. The plant may not have the same idea. I had a lovely fern once, which I planted out in the garden. It promptly died, as my garden is pretty sunny and dry and it didn’t like the conditions. After a suitable mourning period (I love ferns) I tossed it onto the compost heap. When I next emptied the compost heap, the fern was alive and kicking. A little pale from lack of sunshine, but then you’d expect that from a zombie plant. I planted it out in a shadier spot and… it died. Sadly the magic of the compost heap was not enough to resurrect it a second time.

One of the creepy things that happens quite often with wormeries is that potatoes start to grow in them. The first you know is when those giant, white and fleshy tendrils start poking out all over. There’s a triffid in there, growing from a tiny scrap of potato peeling that had an eye on it. It’s tempting to hack at the thing with a machete until it dies, but there’s no need – it will run out of energy and decompose in due course.

As Claire mentions in her blog post, plenty of plants come back from the dead by distributing their seeds in the compost heap. Some of them are weeds, and that’s unfortunate. But unless you have a hot heap you can use your compost heap as a way to distribute self-seeding plants in the garden. It’s what happened with opium poppies in mine – I tried sowing them the recommended way, by scattering the seed myself, and it didn’t work. When I nurtured seeds inside I managed one or two plants; it was their composted seeds that helped to bring an army of zombie poppies into my garden. Other zombie armies that have arisen include parsley (in paving cracks!), Welsh onions and tree spinach.

The middle of winter can be a pretty desolate time in the garden, unless you’ve been super-organised and planted a lot of winter crops. Frosted, bare soil and stark branches make everything look dead. But, come spring, lots of things will be rising from the dead. Again, some are weeds, but the more impressive growth comes from tubers that have survived the winter underground. These zombies send out shoot towards the light, all the while decomposing as they sacrifice themselves to new growth. Volunteer potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and Chinese artichokes can all rise from their wintry graves with no warning. Garlic is also great at this, as you can plant cloves in late autumn and see nothing poking above ground until early spring.

What rises from the dead in your garden?

You can find more spooky goings-on in The Zombie Garden and Fantastic Fantasy Flora. I also have a Squidoo lens on Scary Plants :)

And if you’re worried about vampires, you’ve got until midnight to take advantage of a 10% discount at The Garlic Farm. See the offers and coupons page for more details.

Posted in Blog on Oct 31, 2012 ·

Tag: compost

My Fair Trade-y :)

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With the house now up for sale, it was time to smarten up the window boxes at the front – I have left them planted with low-maintenance succulents for the last few seasons as they survive everything (including me forgetting to water them). But they’re not very eye-catching and so I bought some patriotic (red, white and blue) petunias instead. It seemed like the perfect time to test out a product I’ve been sent for review – the ‘UK’s first fair trade coir compost block’, sold by Traidcraft online and also in Oxfam shops for £2.50 per block. The timing is very appropriate, as it’s World Fair Trade Day tomorrow.

Fair Trade garden goodies

They also sent me a pair of their fair trade gardening gloves, which I have included in the picture because of their great slogan – “I’m weeding out unfair trade” :)

Fair Trade coir block

Coir blocks are lightweight and easy to store and transport. They’re made from a waste product – the hairy bits on coconuts – and make a great peat-free compost, or bedding for worms in your wormery. They’re not very photogenic, however.

Soaking coir

This one is the size of a large brick. The instructions are to soak it in water for up to 24 hours, until the block crumbles and the water is absorbed. I left mine overnight; if you’re in a hurry you can speed up the process a bit with warm water.

Coir compost

Once you’ve forked it over to break up any small lumps or dry patches, you’re left with 9 litres of compost – just enough for me to freshen up my four long troughs for the window boxes. It’s lovely clean stuff to handle, too.

I’m sure the petunias will love it. They’re sitting in the sun room at the moment, as some cold nights are forecast. But they will soon be making the front of my house look pretty.

There aren’t many composts you can just pop into your shopping bag when you’re walking home from town, but coir blocks do give you that option. You can read more about coir in The Peat-Free Diet.

Posted in Blog on May 11, 2012 ·

Last modified on Aug 31, 2014

Tags: peat-free & compost.

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