Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

The Composting Condundrum

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Compost heap
A giant compost heap, like this one at West Dean, isn’t an option in my new garden

Clearing the allotment is no simple task – it’s now a 20-minute drive away, and as the weather has turned wet and the ground is sodden, it’s impossible to get the car anywhere near the allotment. Anything I want to bring home has to be carried down to the car park, and transported from there. As a result, there has been a certain amount of prioritising about the things that are worth rescuing, and those that can be passed on to the new tenant (whoever that will be).

I have three plastic compost bins on the allotment – two standard green hand-me-downs that deal nicely with garden waste, and a ‘Green Cone’ composter. The Green Cone is designed to deal more with food waste, even meat, and to keep it safely out of reach of rodents inside a buried basket. Unlike a regular composter, you don’t harvest compost from a Green Cone, it feeds the soil around it and occasionally you would need to move it as the basket fills up.

The Green Cone compost bin on the allotment

The question is what sort of composting I want to do in the new garden, and where to site the bins. It’s not a question of composting or not – as an organic gardener I would feel very remiss if I weren’t composting at all, and although most people think that sending off their food waste to be recycled is a good thing, I see it as sending away nutrients I have paid for that could feed my garden!

In the previous house I had two plastic ‘daleks’ at the end of the garden, and two worm compost bins that lived in the shed. One of those was abandoned when I moved out; the better of the two, my ‘Can-o-Worms’ is, I think, in Malvern. Worm composters need some shelter – like us, composting worms don’t like extremes of temperature. They need shade in summer and protection from freezing weather in winter. And rain, because worms can drown if the bin fills with water.

In the main body of the garden, the obvious spots for compost bins are out of sight, and hence in shade. I could put one in the ‘extension’ where it would be less obvious, but it would also be further from the house. Given our more rural location, rodents are likely to be more of a concern, and I think the worm bin (which is up on legs) might be a better bet than the Green Cone. We don’t produce a lot of food waste that would be unsuitable for normal composting, and I can still send that off for municipal recycling.

Worm composter
My worm composter might be a bit cleaner now, after a year off in Malvern!

The answer might be to build a shelter for the worm bin, and have that out of sight under the kitchen windowsill, where it will be in shade, and a regular compost bin elsewhere in the garden. Something more attractive than a plastic dalek would mean it could have a better location – but one of those posh wooden ‘beehive’ composters isn’t going to fit in very well with my idea for a ‘Middle Eastern’ theme. I’m trying to think of something else that might do the job, or someway I could give a compost bin a suitable makeover!
So it seems that the compost bins on the allotment could safely be bequeathed to the new owner… but nothing is decided, as yet.

What do you think?

Posted in Blog on Nov 25, 2014 ·

Tags: compost & gardens.

Why I'm breaking up with my allotment

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I wrote (but didn’t publish) this back in May, when the weeds took over the allotment and I realised I didn’t have the time and energy that would be required to get it back into shape. At the time I knew we were moving, but not where; even had things turned out differently, I’m now too far away to keep the allotment, and am slowly clearing it. I have updated the blog post to reflect the new situation, but my feelings are still the same :)

Autumn scarecrow
Sad scarecrow knows it’s nearly time to say goodbye

My allotment and I didn’t meet under the best of circumstances. The man formerly known as my husband had left, I was getting divorced, and I faced the imminent prospect of having to sell my home and the garden I had lavished attention on for more than a decade. The plants I had collected would soon be homeless. Heartsick and despairing, I knew that it would be a long time before I owned my own patch of land again.

When I met the allotment one sunny morning, it looked as though it provided the ideal solution. A place where I could store my plants until they had a permanent home – or perhaps the allotment would become their permanent home. In the meantime, I had somewhere to get my hands dirty, and mess around with pots and compost.

But I had a long-distance relationship with my plot. I was a student, essentially homeless myself and unsure about the future. My allotment had already had at least one careless owner, and with my focus elsewhere it became ever more unruly. When I had the time and energy I tried to make a go of it; when the weeds died down last autumn, it almost looked manageable.

But when spring sprung again the allotment once more continued on its chosen path, a journey that leads through meadows and shrubs to its ultimate goal – returning itself to its ancestral forest state. It swallowed my plants in pots. It became impossible to find a safe path from one side to the other. The weeds conquered every inch of soil, and madly seeded in the hope of gaining new territory on my neighbours’ plots.

I have a job now, my days are not my own. I have chosen this town to be my home for the foreseeable future, and have found a place where I can settle permanently with my plants. My days, and my mind, are overfull. I don’t have the time, or the energy, to deal with the intransigent succession and turn my plot into the haven I would like it to be.

I love allotments. I think they’re an unimaginably important resource for gardeners without gardens. The good ones develop a welcoming, community spirit. Allotments encourage us to take exercise outside in the fresh air, to eat more fruit and vegetables, to reduce our food miles. To stay off the couch.

But they’re not for me. I am an introvert, and contact with other people drains rather than energizes me. My leisure pursuits tend to be solitary, ‘me’ time where I can recharge my batteries so that I’m ready to re-engage with the world. Popping out into the garden and playing with my plants is one of my favourite things, but it’s not so simple with an allotment. I have to make the effort to get up and go to the allotment, which is far from easy when I’m settled at home. There are gates to grapple with (an unfortunate necessity to protect the site from thieves and vandals), and the potential for running into people who want to chat.

I don’t want to chat. I don’t want to weed and weed and weed. I don’t want to strim. I don’t want to dig. I need peace and solitude in which to tend my plants. I need freedom from the guilt of a plot that’s out of control, and the worry of a strongly-worded rebuke from the allotment committee. Instead, I can commit to a long-term relationship with my new garden that gives as much as it takes.

And that’s why I’m breaking up with my allotment.

Posted in Blog on Nov 24, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 24, 2014

Tags: allotment & gardens.

Review: Graze (with discount code!)

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Gone Graze
This one was too tasty to photograph uneaten ;)

Whilst I was at university doing my Masters degree, my food options were a bit limited. The shared kitchen was quite often monopolized by two of my flatmates – two Chinese guys who loved to cook, and fill the kitchen with their friends, for hours. If you were very lucky, they also filled the kitchen with chilli fumes, an experience which I think must equate to being tear-gassed. They also monopolized the shared freezers with an amazing array of ingredients, some of which I even recognised! My slow cooker was well-used, as I set it up whilst the kitchen was quiet and came home to something I could just quickly scoop into a bowl. But with a limited budget, and any decent food shops a bus ride away, my diet was reduced to a handful of dishes, and I rapidly lost weight.

To relieve the monotony and give myself an affordable treat, I signed up for a weekly Graze box. Their tagline is ‘healthy snacks by post’, and I thought they might make a nice change from my daily packet of crisps and a Twix finger (and yes, I was still losing weight!). They have a large (and expanding) range of options, of which four are packed into each box they mail out. You build up a set of personal preferences by rating each snack – ‘bin’, ‘like’ or ‘love’. They’re all listed on the website with their ingredients, so if you have special dietary requirements you can eliminate any that contain things you can’t eat when you start.

Part of the draw was that their selection contains a lot of things I wouldn’t normally choose for myself. I don’t spend a lot of time in the snack aisle of the supermarket, and I don’t tend to like dried fruit, or nuts. I thought by trying some more exciting things I could expand my foodie repertoire.

And it worked, really well. It was lovely getting a little ‘gift’ each week, even if I was paying for it myself. The little snacks are eminently portable, and I could take them with me onto campus. I arranged them on my desk in order of ‘eat by’ date, and worked my way through them. And some of the things I liked/ loved surprised me, although there were some I couldn’t stand. They generally send a mix of sweet and savoury snacks, so you can choose something that suits your mood.

Graze box
One of my early Graze boxes, mostly intact

But then my Graze boxes started disappearing from the communal post area. It’s obvious what they are, they have very distinctive packaging. And apparently one or more of my fellow students thought that stealing a Graze box was an acceptable way to get ‘free food’. With no other options, I cancelled my order rather than pay for someone else’s snacks.

When I started work last year, I considered restarting it – but I was living in a flat with a tiny post box, and it didn’t seem right to have them delivered to work, where the post room people do a sterling job of delivering the mail but shouldn’t be overburdened with personal stuff. But now that I live in a proper house with a proper post box, I have restarted my Graze deliveries, and am thrilled by the service once again (as is Ryan, as I’m nice and I share!).

My first box contained lemon curd flapjacks, which Ryan put on his ‘love’ list for the future, Thai crackers with sweet chilli sauce (a favourite from before), a mixture of chocolate buttons with brazil nuts (which is yummy, although not one I would have selected for myself) and a ‘herby bread basket’ selection of tasty little crackers.

The second had honeycomb flapjack, which is divine. I have yet to eat the ‘mango chutney with black pepper dippers’ and the ‘natural vanilla seeds’, but they’re old friends and I know they’re good. As you can see, I’ve just eaten the ‘olive and rosemary bruschetta’, and that has been given a ‘like’ as well.

Waiting for us when we get home is one with toffee apples (love!), apple and cinnamon flapjack (love! They’ve got me sussed…) and two new ones. I’m not convinced I’ll like the ‘super kale and edamame’, but the ethnobotanist in my will give it a go. ‘Pomodoro rustichella’ is earmarked for Ryan, as it contains cheese croutons I shouldn’t eat; if he likes it then it can stay on the menu. Ryan said to me yesterday that he’d never before seen a Graze box in which there wasn’t a single snack he didn’t think he’d like – but that’s the beauty of the ‘rate or slate’ system, you can tailor your subscription to your taste.

This isn’t a glorified advertorial for Graze, I genuinely do think this is a wonderful service, and it’s really brightening my afternoons to see what I’ve got to nibble on with my cup of tea. I would class it as an affordable treat – the current price is £3.99 for a box with four different snacks, including delivery. They send you a little leaflet with the ingredients and the use-by date for each snack, and they have little symbols that show you which ones count as a vegetable portion, are ‘lite’ bites or sources of protein, etc. If my review has inspired you to try your own Graze subscription then you can get your first, fifth and tenth boxes free if you sign up using my reward code (EMMAC663U). They’ll also give me a £1 off my next box, so it’s a win-win situation.

Once you’ve set up your account you can order a regular box, or one-offs (you can even send them as gifts, I sent Ryan a special Valentine one last year!).

Mmmm… snacks :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 23, 2014 ·

Tags: reviews & food.

My lumps, my garlic clumps

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Garlic clumps
Planting garlic ‘in the green

I went to the allotment this morning. There has been quite a lot of rain over the last few days, and I didn’t expect it to be dry. But I didn’t quite expect to come home covered in mud, either! I had to wash it out of my hair….

I was digging around in the mud because I wanted to rescue a couple of things. Enough oca tubers for propagation (they were tiny, and few and far between, but there’s enough to start again) and some of the garlic that Owen gave me last year. Of course, the garlic is ‘in the green’ – the unharvested bulbs have started sprouting from every clove, creating little clumps. I dug up half a dozen, brought them home and resettled them in a pot. Again, there might not be enough for a good harvest next year, but assuming they survive they can be the basis of an ongoing population. The other garlic varieties were shop bought, and can safely be abandoned (the garlic patch is now pretty overgrown).

I also brought home some more things in pots, including the horseradish I couldn’t find last time, two Chilean guavas, and what I think is the last of the goji berries (lots of things are, sadly, unlabelled!). And my sweet violet, and a Japanese wineberry that’s in a small pot and still a single whip.

It was too wet to take the car up onto the allotment site itself (the grass was sodden, and very slippery), so carting that lot back down to the car park has worn me out!

Posted in Blog on Nov 22, 2014 ·

Tags: allotment & gardens.

A kitchen garden for aliens

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Himalayan balsam
Himalayan balsam, an ‘alien invader’, growing in the wildlife garden at Birdland

Following the news that homeowners who fail to control Japanese knotweed in their garden could face fines or ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders), I thought it might be a good time to think about non-native plants. Now, I am definitely not suggesting that anyone should choose to grow Japanese knotweed, or allow it to spread further than it already has – it’s a problematic plant in the UK. But it’s easy to clump all non-native plants into the same category, when the reality is considerably more complicated.

My latest book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, is all about unusual edible plants, and the people who grow them. It looks at some of the history of crop introductions from the ancient world right through to the modern, and explores some of the reasons why people might choose to grow something to eat that they wouldn’t expect to find in their local area. Towards the end of the book I touch on the debate about whether we should plant native or non-native plants, ending with the suggestion that “there’s a place for native plants in gardens, but it’s not the veg patch”. It’s a somewhat controversial suggestion, made for very good reasons. As the previous chapters of the book explain, most of what we find growing in our farms and gardens has made a very long journey to be there – our favourite foods are all native to somewhere, it’s true, but that’s not likely to be your local area. The UK, in particular, has rather a limited native flora, due to a history of being either covered in ice or cut off from the rest of the European continent by a body of water. So how do you determine whether a species is native? By its length of stay in a region, or how it arrived there? If you go back a few thousand years, all of the ecosystems on Earth would look substantially different….

Here’s another controversial suggestion – the whole native v non-native plants debate is pointless, because it misses the point. There are very few ecosystems left on the planet that could be said to be ‘natural’, in that they haven’t been disturbed by humankind. We should be taking care (or at least an interest in) which species we’re moving around the planet and why, but the basis on which we decide whether a species is useful or not changes over time. We’re not the only things moving species around the planet, and ecosystems aren’t static – they evolve as conditions change. The changes to the climate and ecosystem that our lifestyles are driving are likely to have much more of an impact on which species grow where than anything else we do.

‘Alien’ is not a synonym for ‘invasive’. Although some introduced species can take over, most are perfectly well-behaved. We don’t hear about those because they’re not causing any trouble. Money is spent on the control of invasive species, in some cases without scientific evidence that they’re causing harm. Although there are clearly some places where conservation matters, in many others ecosystems could be left to rebalance themselves.

In terms of wildlife, there are some animal and insect species that have very specific feeding habits, and rely on a particular plant, but most are more generalist and don’t distinguish between native and non-native plants (as anyone fending off pests in the vegetable garden will have noticed!). Although native species are good for wildlife, non-native species can be too – biodiversity is what we should be aiming for.

“Classifying biota according to their adherence to cultural standards of belonging, citizenship, fair play and morality does not advance our understanding of ecology” (Davis et al), which is a complicated way of saying that we have allowed ourselves to become prejudiced against all non-native species, rather than judging each one on its merits. When we’re choosing a new plant for the garden, we should put that bias to one side and make a decision based on which plants will thrive in the location we have available, which ones are unhappily invasive and which ones will deliver the benefits we’re looking for. Chances are, we’ll find ourselves with a happy mix of native and non-native species.

What do you think? Are you firmly on one side of the debate, or do you have a good mix of plants in your garden?


Davis, M. A., Chew, M. K., Hobbs, R. J., Lugo, A. E., Ewel, J. J., Vermeij, G. J., … & Briggs, J. C. (2011). Don’t judge species on their origins. Nature, 474(7350), 153-154.

Holmes, B. (2014) Loving the alien: A defence of non-native species. New Scientist, 2962, 54.

Posted in Blog on Nov 21, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 20, 2014

Tag: ethnobotany

Trendy Pond

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Trendy Pond front
My new Trendy Pond, still in its packaging

The nice people at Swell UK have given me a trendy pond to play with – as you can see, I haven’t managed to take it out of the box yet, but might manage that this weekend. I’m hoping that it will make a nice water feature in the garden next year, and that I can plant it up with some edible plants.

Ryan has already said that he’s not keen on the idea of an indoor pond (one of the suggestions made on the packaging!), so we can safely assume that it’s going to live outside. It will hold up to 30 litres of water, and isn’t really suitable for fish, so I can just go nuts with the planting. The website gives the dimensions as approximately 45 cm wide by 30 cm high.

I was talking a couple of years ago (doesn’t time fly!) about wanting an edible water feature of some kind in the garden, and started a list of potential plants then. Of course, in the intervening time I had forgotten, and so started a new list when the pond arrived. The only plant I came up with this time that didn’t make it onto the last list was Water Pepper, Persicaria hydropiper.

I do have a book on Edible Water Gardens, which I never got around to reading when I bought it, so now that it is back from storage I can read that once I’ve finished Homegrown Tea. Given the small size of my new pond (which is purple, btw :) I’m leaning towards a bog garden rather than a full-on pond, but I might change my mind before spring. I’m also wondering whether I could combine two obsessions and have a pond filled with aquatic tea plants! But so far there’s only water mint on that list….

Have you got edible pond/bog plants in your garden?

Posted in Blog on Nov 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 20, 2014

Tags: gardens & unusual.

Feed round-up

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Sparkling dew
Dew baubles

Today, for a change, I thought you might like a glimpse of the things that have appeared in my feed reader (Feedly) that have caught my eye and been saved to read later….

  • Nature’s Poisons has been pondering how people come to eat poisonous plants, and advises you not to eat anything with death in its name. A perennially-useful reminder that not all plants are benign (but that taking reasonable precautions mean we don’t need to fear them).

  • I follow From the Kitchen Of Olivia because she blogs recipes involving tea (my current obsession, in case you hadn’t noticed). Being from the UK, rather than the US, I’ve never had campfire S’mores, so I find this indoor recipe intriguing.

  • Another foodie one, and a recipe that might come in handy for Christmas – DIY Cranberry Gin from the Telegraph.

  • The Odd Pantry has been making chutney from sorrel leaves – a common name that really needs clarification as it is used for different plants in different parts of the world. In this case, Hibiscus sabdariffa, aka Roselle.

  • Ethnobotanical Pursuits, based in America I believe, has been investigating Cinnamon vine or air potato, although naughtily the scientific name is not mentioned (it’s Dioscorea oppositifolia, or Dioscorea batatas). You can buy your own from Real Seeds if you want to give it a go.

  • And Alys Fowler explains how to grow Mediterranean myrtle in our less than Mediterranean climate.

That should give you plenty to read and chew over :) What’s the most interesting article you’ve come across this week?

Posted in Blog on Nov 19, 2014 ·

Tags: food & ethnobotany.

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouse appeal

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Last week I showed you the unusual cucumbers I found in one of the glasshouses at West Dean Gardens. West Dean has an impressive array of Victorian glasshouses, lovingly restored to be home to tender fruits and vegetables.

Indoor vine
The vinery at West Dean Gardens

Me being me, I was so engrossed in taking pictures of the pretty plants that I forgot to take any of the glasshouses themselves, which is a shame (or an excuse to visit again!).

Indoor fig
A fruitful, indoor fig

A trained peach

As well as the strange cucumbers, there are also plants that the average home gardener might have in their greenhouse :)

Impressive tomatoes

West Dean is famous for its annual chilli fiesta

Of course, glasshouses are expensive things, and as they get old they need maintenance. The team at West Dean have started an appeal to raise money for essential restoration work on two of their glasshouses. You can donate online or print off a donation form to mail in with a cheque (although when I tried it, it wasn’t designed to print on A4 paper, which caused no end of printer confusion…).

£10 could buy 1kg of nails

£25 could buy 2 litres of paint

£50 could buy 50 metres of timber

£180 could pay for a day of joinery

£500 could pay for 3 days of painting and glazing

In the absence of photos (sorry!) you can see the glasshouses in the Sussex episode of Christine Walkden’s Glorious Gardens from Above on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK). The series is well worth watching for Christine’s enthusiasm for horticulture and willingness to get stuck in. You might also enjoy looking at the gardens :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 18, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

Raymond Blanc at Kew

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Long view
Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew

Ryan and I stumbled across Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew during our visit a few weeks ago – we hadn’t known it was there in advance. There’s a notice that informs you that this is being grown for a television programme (it’s ‘Kew on a Plate’, four programmes to be broadcast next year, with an accompanying book) and that it is being constantly filmed. It also asks you not to pick anything….

Raymond Blanc statue
Side view of the kitchen garden

It’s quite a formal layout, complete with a scarecrow statue that comes from the kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. But the planting is less traditional – you can see there are lots of herbs and flowers amongst the vegetables. In fact it was here that Ryan first encountered lemon verbena :)

South American crops

A bed with crops from the Americas was drawing a lot of attention from passers by, mainly because they couldn’t identify all of the plants! As well as familiar squashes and sunflowers, the bed included quinoa and amaranth:

Colourful amaranth

and some healthy-looking yacon:

Yacon foliage

So I was able to introduce Ryan to yacon’s adorable furry foliage :)

There were also some mushrooms growing in Kew’s Ice House, but the low light conditions made it very hard to get a decent photo.

Will you be watching when the programme airs next year?

Posted in Blog on Nov 17, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 17, 2014

Tag: gardens

Bring on the Birds

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When we moved into the new house, Ryan and I were keen to entice some of the local birds into the garden. We didn’t know what they might be – early on I spotted a robin hopping about in the shadows of one of the shrubs. So far it hasn’t been brave enough to make an extended appearance, but hopefully it will once I get down to doing some proper gardening, and digging around in the soil.

There are plenty of crows in the area, but they don’t seem to come into the garden. I have seen a pair of pied wagtails flitting around the local rooftops, but that’s the closest they’ve come.

Bird bonanza
A selection of goodies for wild birds, available from Homebase

And so I was pleased when Homebase offered me the chance to review some of the products from their wild bird & pet care range. As I didn’t know which birds we had a chance of attracting, they sent me a variety of things to try. When the box arrived, the contents proved so exciting that Ryan unpacked everything and assembled the bird feeder while I was having a nap, so these photos are his :)

Bird feeding station
Assembled bird feeding station

The bird feeding station has proven to be very useful. The garden is currently featureless, and we had nowhere to hang any feeders. Ryan has put it up in a temporary location, near the plants that were rescued from the allotment. The birds are enjoying hanging around on those as the wait their turn for the feeder :) As you can see, it has several hooks plus a dish for loose food and a water dish, that is currently being kept well-filled by the weather.

Ready to go
Waiting for diners

Ryan set it up with one of the suet blocks, the smaller feeder filled with robin mix, and the larger one filled with winter warmer mix. The robin mix was immediately popular, and we’ve had to refill it – we’re not 100% convinced that the birds have figured out how to get to the seeds in the larger feeder. But it’s not the robin that we see having a meal…

Blue tit
Blue tit on bird feeder

I thought we had a pair of blue tits that were eating all of the food, but yesterday I saw three, so that’s good news. I have also seen a bird that looks like a house sparrow, but appears on its own – mum thinks it might be a dunnock, but I don’t have a photo and I have yet to get a good look. It was hopping about in my pots, and may well be taking chunks out of my new chard plants, rather than the bird food. There’s also a little brown birds that hops in and out among the pots, and which might be a wren.

Our mystery guest, now identified as a weren

I couldn’t recognise this one from the photo, but several of you have identified it as a wren. Thank you!

The birds are still wary of us, but it’s clear that there are more than we thought that we may be able to entice into the garden, so we will be watching progress around the bird feeder very carefully. When the weather turns colder we have some fat balls we can put out, as well, and Ryan put a few dried mealworms on the feeder tray yesterday. Hopefully they will attract the robin, although the tray may be too high. Fortunately it doesn’t seem as though any cats make their way into the garden (fingers crossed!) to disturb the birds.

Our new location is considerably more rural than the old garden, so I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife we can attract* :)

*I’m a little wary that the local bunny population might find their way in – if they do then we’ll be into rabbit-proof fence territory!

Posted in Blog on Nov 16, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 17, 2014

Tag: wildlife

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