Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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Farmer Uses Manure The use of animal manure in organic farming has been significant in the sustainable agriculture movement. Manure is a great source of many crop nutrients, including both micronutrients and macronutrients. Nitrogen is typically the nutrient with the most value, as well as the greatest potential for soil and water pollution. Quality and potential for contamination are both factors when learning how to use manure and selecting a manure source. Similarly, there are concerns with food safety when applying manure, and specific application guidelines have been designed to reduce the risk of pathogen contamination. 

Nutrients are essential to proper growth of all plants, and farmers carefully plan to provide them, including finding the best source of manure for their nitrogen needs. Different animals produce manure with variable nutrient content, and some manure sources are more readily available and cost effective than others.

Manure from layer poultry, for example, provides nearly four times the nitrogen per ton as that from lactating cows. It also contains upwards of 12 times the potassium and phosphorus content of dairy manure. However, poultry manure is more costly than dairy manure — sometimes running twice the price. Poultry manure can also burn plants because of the large quantity of nitrogen it contains, so it’s generally composted or aged before being applied to a garden or farm. Another option is to apply it to a fallow field months before planting, so the soil microorganisms can break down the nutrients and make them more available to the plant. Whatever method is used, it’s important to note that under the best conditions only about half to three-quarters of the nitrogen in the manure is available to the crop in the year it’s applied. The remaining nitrogen will become available over a period of years. That’s why it’s important to regularly sample the soil to determine nutrient needs for the year. It’s also key to monitor crop nitrogen needs so that manure isn’t over-applied, contributing to contamination of water by ammonia, organic matter, nutrients and bacteria.

Another factor to consider when selecting a manure source is potential contaminants. Some contaminants, such as heavy metals, can be avoided by requesting a laboratory analysis. Heavy metals are a concern in manure, since there can be high potential content and farmers may also use high application rates. Heavy metals present in manure may include cadmium, lead, zinc and arsenic. Poultry manure is particularly at high risk for arsenic contamination, because nonorganic chickens are often fed arsenic to promote growth and weight gain. For this reason, poultry manure from organic sources is popular.

Another way to avoid heavy metals in manure is to select an Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) Listed manure product. OMRI requires heavy metals to be below a certain threshold before listing the product for use in organic production. Although other contaminants are present in manure, heavy metals are the easiest to avoid. Contaminants such as hormones and antimicrobials are difficult to even identify because they are so pervasive in the conventional manure supply, and there are no guidelines in place to control this contamination. Finding an organic source of manure is therefore the best way to avoid many potential hazards.

The application of manure also has implications for food safety. Pathogens such as Salmonella and fecal coliform are the main concerns when applying manure to edible crops. The USDA organic regulations require that a harvest interval be followed after applying manure, where crops in contact with soil (carrots, potatoes, lettuce) may be harvested only after 120 days, and crops not in contact with soil (blueberries, apples, peppers) may be harvested after 90 days. The logic behind this harvest interval is that pathogens will likely be rendered unviable by soil microorganisms after a certain time period, and will no longer pose a threat to food safety. 

Another way to avoid pathogens from manure is to compost it first. One can purchase raw manure and compost it, or it can be purchased already composted. Both methods are effective at reducing the risk of pathogen contamination when applying these materials to an organic farm. However, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a purchased compost product may pose a contamination hazard. The organic standards require a specific time period and temperature for composting, in order to ensure that any pathogens are, in fact, eliminated. Compost that does not meet these requirements is considered to be the same as raw manure, which means that application rates must meet the 90/120-day harvest interval requirements listed above. OMRI Listed products may fall into either category, so it can be helpful to research compost products on the OMRI Products List. OMRI’s restriction text will indicate whether the harvest interval periods must be observed.

Anaerobic digestion is a new technology that has been used to process manure into a composted product. The use of anaerobic digestion is especially growing on conventional livestock farms, where large amounts of manure are produced and increasing regulations require proper disposal. Typically, manure is gathered in a lagoon or tank, where microbes break it down in an oxygen-free environment. Some anaerobic digesters have external heating systems to achieve pathogen reduction, similar to traditional composts. Although anaerobic digestion is similar to composting, it must achieve the same time and temperature requirements in order to be used without a harvest interval. Before using an anaerobic digestion product, one should verify whether it was heated to at least 131 degrees Fahrenheit for three or more days. If not, the harvest interval must be observed. The resulting components of the digestion process include a liquid effluent rich in nutrients, and dry matter that is great as a soil amendment or even as biodegradable planting pots. Methane is captured as a by-product and used as a renewable energy source, instead of being emitted into the environment as a greenhouse gas. 

There’s no doubt that learning how to use manure and applying it amply is one of the best steps toward providing nutrients in a well-managed organic farm or garden. Animal manure has many positives that make it worth the trouble of seeking out the best source and applying it with care. Manure use also contributes to the recycling of resources, which further reduces the environmental impact of livestock production in general. So, the next time you bite into an organic tomato, pepper or ear of sweet corn, be sure to also thank the animals that provided the nutrients used to grow your delicious food.

Photo by Fotolia/Jack: An organic farmer works with manure in a field. 

Thank you to OMRI Technical Director Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador for providing this guest blog post for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. She holds a B.S. from Oregon State University in Natural Resource Management and an M.S. from University of Florida in Geography. She has more than 10 years of work experience on both conventional and organic farms.



Tomato sauce in Weck's jars

Canning is a great way to preserve your own harvest. You can also buy organic produce that is on sale from your local grocer or from your local farmers market. When the produce is in peak season, it is the most healthful and the least expensive of the year.When you can, you have to follow the recipe exactly to make sure it is safe to eat. When canning acidic foods like fruit or tomatoes, or anything using vinegar or sugar, you can likely use only a water bath. All other canning requires a pressure canner to get to high enough temperatures to kill off the bacteria that cause botulism.

Home Canning Resources

Here are some web pages and resources to use:
Mother Earth News How to Can app 
National Center for Home Food Preservation
USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning
Home Canning website
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving

I bought a 1946 canning booklet from Steamliner Pressure Cooker-Instructions for Cooking and Canning so I could learn how to use the old fashioned canning jars. It was fun to read, complete with recipes! Okay, I thought, could I do some canning? My Granny canned during the summers I spent with her when I was little. We were growing tomatoes in our little flower/veggie garden. My handy Ball canning book revealed that tomatoes and fruits are high acid so they do not require a Pressure Canner; only a water bath was needed. Makes it an inexpensive experiment. I read that many canning lids also contain BPA. So, what other options were there? I found these glass lids in an antique store. I also bought the jars with the wire closure. All I needed now were the rubber seals and some directions!

I searched the web to see if I could find any instructions on how to use old-fashioned canning jars. No luck. Then I went to Amazon to see if there were any books on it. I found a 1946 pamphlet “Steamliner Pressure Cooker-Instructions for Cooking and Canning.” Success! It was great fun browsing the pamphlet. It was also very thorough in its instructions on how to use the old fashioned canning jars.

I went on line and ordered a variety of seals, sticking with ones that were not made in China and were natural rubber. I wasn’t able to find any that fit well with my cool, old fashioned jars. I also learned that the glass lids needed very tall rings. The modern ones were too short to close properly. Back to square one!

Choosing the Best Canning Jars

Old fashioned canning jars, 1946 canning pamphlet, Weck's glass canning jar

Then, I ran across an advertisement for these beautiful glass jar with glass lid made in Germany-Weck’s (it is the second from the right in the pic). Finally, a non-toxic jar! Later I discovered a plastic lid that is also BPA-free that can be used with modern jars made by Tattler, made in the USA since 1976. They are a seamless replacement for the metal lids. I was able to can a few using the old fashioned jars. The Weck’s work great. Easy to use, easy to know that the seal is good, and beautiful to look at. I highly recommend them.

All you really need when canning high-acid foods is a tall stock pot with lid, a jar lifter, a stainless steel spoon, a towel to put the hot jars on, and your canning jars.

For more tips on organic small space and container gardening, see Melodie's blog at www.victorygardenonthegolfcourse,com


Stages of growth

Garlic is rich in lore. It has been reputed to repel vampires, clear the blood, cure baldness, aid digestion over the ages. Today’s studies have shown is garlic antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral. And, it tastes great! Garlic has been around for thousands of years. It originated in Asia, was cultivated in Egypt and has been a Mediterranean staple for centuries.It is easy to grow and has few pest issues. All you do is throw them in the ground in the fall in late September/early October in our Zone 6 garden and by early summer, they are ready to harvest.

The clove puts out roots in the fall. Depending on how warm the winter is, there can be green shoots showing through the cold months. Garlic will be some of the first to start growing. The stems resemble onion greens. The garlic flower, or scape, has a cute little curl in it. It grows on hard neck varieties. They are great in salads. Harvesting them also gives you bigger bulbs.

You should choose the biggest cloves to plant. The bigger the clove, the bigger the harvest! Cloves like other root vegetables like loose soil, compost and steady fertilizer. Like carrots, radishes and beets, you can add sand to give a looser soil structure in your garlic bed. Compost and mulch well in the fall before cold weather sets in. Plant the cloves root side down, 1-2” deep, and 4-6” apart. For planting by the cycle of the moon, garlic should be planted during the waning cycle of the moon. For our Zone 6 garden, this is September 9-23 and October 9-22. After the greens sprout to 6”, add compost or fertilizer as a side dressing. Garlic does not need a lot of nitrogen so compost is a good choice.

Harvesting Garlic

Garlic ready to harvest

Garlic is ready to harvest then the tops fall over and die off. They are ready to harvest about a week later. Typically this is mid-summer.

Be careful when you go to harvest. If you cut the bulb, it will not keep and needs to eaten soon. The garlic should be left in dry shade for 2-3 weeks or brought inside and stored in a cool, dry location with good air circulation. They can be hung or placed in a perforated bin to dry and store. Store-bought garlic has been treated with chemicals to keep them from sprouting so they are not a great choice for growing your own. A great option is to buy cloves from your local farmers market. You know they grew well in your area. Just separate out the bulb(s) into individual cloves and plant the biggest ones.

Distinguishing Different Types of Garlic

Garlic can be mild or hot. Elephant garlic is very mild and not really true garlic at all. It is a type of leek. It has a great garlic flavor and produces huge bulbs. The ones I am growing this year are from the previous year’s harvest. 

You can tell the difference in the two by looking at the flowers. Leeks and soft neck garlic have a onion type flower while garlic has a curly scape flower. There is soft and hard necked garlic. For storing, soft neck garlic is the ticket. It is also the strongest flavored. Hard necked is milder, easier to peel, more cold hardy and the first to mature.Leek and soft necked garlic

Everyone knows of garlic in sauces and on cheese bread. A couple of years ago, we tried roasted garlic. It dramatically mellows the flavor. I just put a few heads in a small baking dish, add chicken stock to just about level to the cut heads, and let bake covered at 350 for 30-45 minutes, until soft. It is a great spread on French bread!

If your garlic dries up over the winter, I grind it into garlic powder. If you have great tasting garlic that doesn’t store well or you have a bountiful crop, another preservation option is pickled garlic. Just peel and cover your fresh garlic cloves in organic apple cider vinegar. You can add a couple of hot peppers if you want to add some extra zing!

Of course, you can also add garlic to the tomato sauce, pickles or peppers you are going to can. You can flavor vinegars or oils by popping crushed garlic into them. Many options for utilizing your garlic harvest!


How To Grow Ground Cherries 

Aunt Molly’s ground cherry preserves may have occupied a privileged spot in your great-aunt’s pantry, but you’ll be hard pressed to find them nowadays. Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are an endangered heirloom. Their recorded heritage traces back to 1837, when they first appeared in Pennsylvania horticultural literature.

Once commonly grown in backyard gardens, ground cherries somehow lost their way. Though they are ridiculously easy to grow and store, ground cherries are difficult to transport.  Urbanization and the movement away from growing one’s own food led to the demise of this golden gem. The good news is that they can be grown in containers or raised beds, they’re relative pest-free, and they produce abundant fruit from mid-summer through frost.

Ground cherries are really not cherries at all. They are members of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes and tomatillos. Like the tomatillo, ground cherries grow inside a papery husk. When ripe, ground cherries turn bright yellow and fall to the ground. Though several varieties are native throughout the Americas and Eastern Europe (‘Aunt Molly’ is a Polish variety), ground cherries taste like tropical treats. Their pineapple — vanilla flavor brightens pies, jams, and chutneys. They are equally delicious eaten raw, dried, or cooked. Squirrels and small children are keen to ground cherries’ charms, so gardeners should keep a close look-out for ripe, fallen fruit.

How to Grow Ground CherriesHeirloom Ground Cherries

Ground cherries are frost tender and should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before spring planting in cooler climates. They’ll produce prolifically beginning 70 days from transplant, through the first fall frost. Good drainage and humus-rich soil ensure an abundant crop. Two to three plants grown in raised-beds or large pots will provide enough ground cherries for a season of tasty jams and pies, with a few left over for wildlife. Staking helps keep branches and fruit off the ground. Though they are sometimes susceptible to flee-beetles, ground cherries’ weed-like nature makes them fairly disease resistant. In addition to ‘Aunt Molly’s,’ tasty varieties to try include: Physalis pubescens ‘Cossack,’ Physalis pubescens ‘Goldie,’ and Physalis peruviana ‘Cape Gooseberry.’

Once harvested, ground cherries will continue to ripen, if placed in a well-ventilated container on the countertop. They will store for up to three months in a cool (50 degree) environment. They also store well when dried like raisins, either in a dehydrator, or by placing them in the oven on its lowest setting for several hours.

Ground Cherry Crumb Pie



6 c. ground cherries
1 c. granular sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
3 Tbsp. flour
¼ tsp. salt
prepared pie shell or crust


3/4 c. flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
¼ tsp. salt
3/4 c. unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine ground cherries with filling ingredients: granular sugar, almond extract, flour, and salt.

For the topping: mix the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, using your hands or a pastry knife to blend butter into the dry ingredients.

Pour ground cherry mixture into the pie crust, and sprinkle crumb topping evenly on top.

Place the pie on top of a cookie sheet to catch any drippings.

Bake for 1 ½ hours, or until the fruit is bubbly and the topping is brown.

Cool for several hours before cutting.

Brenda Lynn is the author of, a blog devoted to small-space, organic vegetable gardening, native plants, and beekeeping. She is a free-lance writer, garden coach, and outdoor educator in northern Virginia, where she lives and gardens in her suburban backyard.


josh aliciaWhen it comes to solution based ideas about self sufficiency and what each of us can do in our own back yards, the closed loop system is high on the list. With grocery stores making it effortless to get unseasonal produce and convenience foods lined up throughout dozens of aisles and stacked on hundreds of shelves, its no wonder why humans have lost their connection with food. Luckily there are many young farmers hoping to change our reliance on overpriced and over-packaged foods loaded with chemical preservatives and artificial ingredients. New farms are popping up all over the world. Innovative food growing methods being put into practice every day. From vertical gardens to rooftop gardens; from aquaponics to aeroponics, young farmers are setting roots in their own communities worldwide, helping to localize food systems and circulate funds back into the local economy.

Aquaponic Farming: A Closed-Loop System


The closed loop system is an idea that I have been intrigued by for many years. The closed loop system has been popularized recently through stories of individuals and families turning their backyard swimming pool into a full functioning aquaponics garden. Green Finned Hippy Farm is changing that in their community in Pocahontas IL. They run an aquaponics farm.

Aquaponics involves utilizing the closed loop system for both fish and food production. The closed loop or closed cycle system is essentially aquaponics which combines hydroponics and aquaculture to achieve both fish as a food source and a free nutrient rich fertilizer siphoned from fish waste solids to feed the plants. There is virtually no waste in this process.

Green Finned Hippy Inc. started in 2010 as a licensed tilapia hatchery in Belleville, Illinois by Josh and Alicia Davis. A few years later, they moved to a 10 acre farm in Pocahontas IL, where they stay on the cusp of new and innovative sustainable farming techniques.

According to Alicia, co-owner, they operate an Aquaponics barn where over 3,800 gallons of water flows to 12 grow beds. The tilapia fish are bred on site and are grown in fresh water tanks. The water in the tanks is pumped into the grow beds, providing natural fertilizer for the plants. The plants are grown in rock grow beds which eliminates the need for dirt or pesticides. Green Finned Hippy Farm also produces over 1,500 pasture raised broilers per season for Nathalie’s Restaurant (owned by Overlook Farms) in St. Louis, MO. Using the Joel Salatin pasture raised poultry method, the broiler chickens live outdoors and are moved to fresh grass everyday using mobile chicken tractors. “Following in line with our All Natural theme, our flock of laying hens also spends their days roaming our pastures. Our fresh eggs cannot be beat with their rich orange yolks and health benefits that surpass any store bought egg! Haven’t heard why pasture raised eggs are the best? Check out this article!”, says Alicia.


Free Tours: Even with all of their projects, they make time to teach the public about what “Naturally Grown” really means. According to Alicia, “It’s our mission to teach people what it means to Put a Face Back on Food! We always welcome people come to our farm to see how we grow everything, and then we recommend they watch food documentaries such as Food Inc. to see what the Industry Standard is for where their supermarket food comes from. It’s an eye opening experience and we encourage everyone to take the challenge of thinking twice about WHERE and HOW their food was produced!”

The Locavore's Diet

One stop shop for simple clean eating. They feel going straight to the farm should not be seen as “inconvenient.” They offer a diverse array of products to supplement the Locavore's diet:

Aquaponic Produce (Basil and Kale – all year round!)
Fresh Ground Peanut Butter
Freshly Baked Breads
Pesticide Free Produce
Fresh Goats Milk
Instruction on How to Pickle Produce
Instruction on How to Build Solar Panels

In their quest to become a sustainable farm, they also added two goats to provide the farm with milk and weed control! Since Aquaponics is how it all started on their farm, they offer consultation services to help others get their own aquaponic systems up and running. Their past consultations include Overlook Farms in Clarksville Mo, and Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

Visit their facebook page or website to learn more.

It is young pioneering farmers like Josh and Alicia Davis who are reshaping the future of food in the United Sates. Folks like these surely do inspire others to think differently about their food.


MusroomsA woman called me for some gardening advice a couple of weeks ago. She talked about various projects... fruit and vegetables, trees and shrubs... ...and then she said something so horrible I stopped in my tracks. "I have mushrooms growing all over the place," she related. "They're everywhere!" "Really?" I replied, "That's great!" "GREAT? Seriously? I hate them! I've been pulling them all and throwing them over the fence!"

Oh, the horror! The horror! I've heard this before, particularly with meticulous gardeners. Mushrooms pop up in the middle of a green lawn and they're immediately hunted down and destroyed. Does that describe you, oh enlightened reader of Mother Earth News? I hope not!

The Underground Network of Mycelium

The average gardener sees mushrooms as if they were individual plants. He spots them in the yard and assumes they're simply a single organism, or a group of organisms in a ring or a cluster. Rarely does he stop and wonder how deep their mycelium run. The truth of the matter is that mushrooms are simply the fruiting bodies of a creature that may be much larger than it appears at first, second or third glance. Their deep underground network may have been around long before you arrived on the scene.

Have you ever turned over a log or some mulch and seen wispy white fibers running through the wood? That's the main body of the mushrooms, i.e. NOT the part getting thrown over the fence. In your garden, or better yet, your food forest, mushrooms and other fungi are tireless creators of soil and recyclers of hard-to-compost organic matter such as roots, logs and tough vegetable material. They digest rocks and release nutrition that plants can only dream of accessing.


Some mushrooms even have beneficial relationships with your plants. A tree can photosynthesize and create sugars mushrooms in a way mushrooms can't. They trade these sugars to mycorrhizal species of fungi and in turn are rewarded with minerals often carried to their roots from far beyond the tree's reach.

Innovators like Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running and other books, are now spreading the word. Entrepreneurial companies are even selling living fungal cultures you can add to the soil when you plant trees, giving them a leg up (or a "root" up) on the competition. Many of these products have been shown to help; however, you don't need to resort to buying fungi to get them running happily through your soil and enriching your homestead.

Front Yard Food Forest

For the last few years I've been dropping tree company mulch, logs, leaves and other scrounged organic matter around my front yard food forest garden. When I go on walks I seek out mushrooms in fruit and bring them home, burying them and spreading their spores here and there. 

(My wife realized how badly I had fungi fever last week on the drive home from church. In an empty field by the highway, I saw a big fairy ring of large mushrooms and pulled a U-turn to pick a few. Turns out they were the lovely [and unfortunately inedible] Chlorophyllum molybdites. To my wife's slight irritation [she was faking... I think], I pressed three good specimens into her hands and said "Don't let them get damaged! I need to spore print these!")


We've had a good wet summer this year and as fall approaches the sheer number of mushrooms in our front yard has been marvelous. We're talking at least 30+ species that I've seen thus far, all on a half-acre. I took a bunch of photos and posted them on my blog - you can see the beauty here.

Since adding wood chips and gaining the resultant fungi I've seen a lot of improvement in plant growth. Plus I get to look at beautiful mushrooms. One of these days I'll start deliberately cultivating edible varieties... but that's a topic for another day.

Now if I can just convince my lawn-loving neighbors to chuck their mushrooms over my fence, I'll be all set.

David Goodman is an avid naturalist, gardener, writer and teacher as well as being the creator of, a daily gardening resource for people serious about growing food in tough times while still taking time to enjoy creation in all its abundance.


cornstalks and macheteThe vegetable gardening season is coming to a close, or soon will be, for many gardeners. I look at this time, not as an ending of the season, but as a transition. For me, there is always a gardening season. The summer annual crops that have not yet finished their cycle will soon succumb to the first hard frost. I have seen gardens that were left in that state all through the winter—a mass of tangled and spent plants with cold-tolerant weeds popping up as soon as the depths of winter have passed. On the other hand, I have seen gardens (mine) that are green and vibrant all winter, planted to cover crops that will provide food for the soil and for the compost pile through the next year.

You already have the makings of a compost pile with the spent crops from this year’s garden. Harvest them for your compost pile as you do your fall clean-up. You can chop the stalks of corn and sunflowers into lengths appropriate for your pile with a machete to facilitate your work. My machete is shown in the photo with the cornstalks I used it on.

Beware of 'Killer Compost'

Spent garden plants and weeds have long been part of compost piles, but gardeners generally need to bring in more materials to produce a larger quantity of compost or to use as mulch. However, bringing in materials from outside sources can be disastrous to your garden. In the 21st century, there are some herbicides that are used in the landscape and agricultural industries that don’t break down in the composting process. It used to be that organic gardeners could gather any leaves, straw, or hay to put on their gardens and it was safe, even if it hadn’t been grown organically. The thought was that by the time it composted there would be no danger from the chemicals, if any, that had been used to grow it. It turns out that these new herbicides are still active in the resulting compost and can be detrimental to your vegetable plants. I wrote a blog post about killer compost in 2011. Google “killer compost” and you will find many more informative articles, some from Mother Earth News, with updated information.

Grow Crops for Composting

Rather than worry about these outside inputs, you can grow crops specific for compost making—enough to provide all your compost needs. Cover crops that you plant now will keep your garden vibrant all winter and will be harvested in the spring and summer. The good news is that you don’t need a tiller to manage them. Let them grow to maturity, or almost to maturity, to give you the full benefit of all the biomass they have to offer (including the quantity of roots they will leave in the soil). These crops can be cut with a sickle, so no matter how small your garden might be, you can fit cover crops into the rotation. Common cover crops planted in the fall include winter rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas. Winter rye can be felled with a sickle when it is shedding pollen and left right in the garden bed to become mulch for the next planting. Or it can be grown to seed, with the resulting straw as mulch for your garden or carbon for the compost pile. Wheat can be grown for the same purpose. Leave it grow to seed and you can have your own homegrown grain, plus straw.

You will find tips on growing cover/compost crops at Homeplace Earth. Knowing which crops to plant when, and how to harvest them, may take some study and some planning. If you haven’t grown cover crops before, or tried them and just didn’t have the timing or the crop right for your situation, keep an open mind and please try again. Your garden will love you for it!

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she is up to at

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