Posted by: permamonk | May 2, 2012

Goliath Grow Beds: The end is in sight!

Well, whadya know?  The grow beds are built and up and running!  Just like the bottom tanks, the grow beds are constructed from 2x4s and 4x4s.  The insides are lined with pond liners, and the central tube for the bell syphons are 2″ pvc.  The input pipe into the grow bed is 3/4″ pvc with valves attached so we can control the water flow and timing of the ebb and flow cycle.

Bell syphon with center pipe of 2" pvc, bell pipe of 3", and outer screen of 4" pvc.

 It would be best to fill these entirely with the expanded clay pellets (we’re using Viastone brand), but that get’s pretty expensive.  So to help fill in the space and allow for adequate space for root growth, we filled the bottom half with lava rock.  Lava rock is light weight and porous, but because of the sharp edges, it’s not the best thing to use for the whole grow bed.  So on top of that, we filled it in with the expanded clay pellets and turned it on!

The filled grow beds

 Initially, the bell syphons weren’t kicking in.  So to fix this, I made sure the top of the bell pipe was airtight, I shortened it slightly so there would be less of a space between the bell and the top of the drain pipe, and then added an elbow bend on a reduction joint at the outlet point of the drain pipe (2″ to 1″).  All that together, and it started working like a charm.  I think the biggest thing was the elbow bend (which I didn’t need in the smaller mockup), because this allowed the water to pool somewhat and thus create the syphon effect.  When it was just straight down, it was allowing too much air back up in the pipe to create the necessary seal.  With the valve, I’m now able to adjust the flow of water into the grow bed and now have it cycling around once every 20 minutes.

As this is all about experimentation to see what will grow best, we’re putting in various kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, many kinds of peppers, strawberries, okra, apple mint, lettuce, and cantaloupe.  Soon we’ll add carrots and a sweet potato to see how well root plants can do.  Most of the articles I’ve read about aquaponics say that root vegies don’t work, but I came across one video of a guy that was successfully growing carrots, so we’ll see.

Under the grow bed we have some decorative fish as well.  The largest is an albino koi that Br. Jamie aptly named “Falkor the luck fish.”  He is accompanied by two smaller koi and a handful of $0.37 gold fish.

All in all, the system is working great and looks wonderful!

The solarium by night with the LED rope lights overhead.

A great place for Morning Prayer and morning tea!

Our first batch of seedlings. *crosses fingers*

Eventually I’ll add the waterfall setup for the raft system grow beds in the center, but for now, I think we’ll enjoy what we’ve got and get back outside with Br. Addison and Josh and help with their exciting projects!

Tune in next time for “Zum Zums” or “Sweet Jesus, we’ve got honey bees!!!”

I know I said we’d have an update on Br. Addison’s work, but as he’s swamped with end of term homework and finals, we’ll wait another week for him to resurface from school so he can tell us all about some of the new plants he’s tracked down.

In the meantime, thanks to our own local Atlanta Botanical Gardens, we’ve acquired some of the gently used orchids that they were selling after their Orchid Daze season. If ever there was a hint of Divine providence, one of the orchids that they offered is actually called “St. Anthony of Egypt!”


All the pretty flowers!

This bunch of orchids included St. Anthony (odontocidium), dendrobium nobile, pansy orchid, beallara tahoma glacier, cymbidium, and the pitcher plant nepenthes.  These will fill in around the aquaponics system and grow beds nicely, adding wonderful color and scent to the solarium.


Orchids arrayed

In addition to the orchids, we’ve put in a small test grow bed to be sure the automatic bell syphon works, as well as fountain pot in order to grow bog plants such as cattails (which are edible) and more pitcher plants to help with any errant flies.

Grow bed, lava rocks and strawberries

The basic makeup of the test bed is a small window box with lava rocks (though we’ll used expanded clay pellets in the full size grow beds) with PVC piping for the syphon.  For me, the syphon has got to be the coolest part of this whole system.  It simply consists of a center tube that runs through the bottom of the bed into the water tank bellow, a larger tube around it that is sealed at the top with holes at the bottom, and a third larger tube around that which is perforated to let water in and keep rocks out.  As the water level rises in the grow bed, it will reach the top of the innermost tube and create a syphon that will then drain the entire bed.  Once the water drains to the bottom of the second tube, air will come up through the holes and break the syphon, thus allowing the bed to refill.  It takes a little tweaking, but in the end, it’s remarkably simple.  You can see a basic video of this kind of syphon at work HERE.

As for the fountain pot, all this required was an expensive ceramic pot with a hole in the bottom.  We piped an irrigation tube up through it and filled it with river pebbles.  Tada!

Our fountain pot

For those that want to produce edible water plants, you can make a submerged grow bed the same way.  Right now, this just has some reeds and flowering bog plants, but soon I’ll add some cattails and see how well they turn out.  Can’t wait to try some!

Tune in next time for “Goliath Grow Beds: The end is in sight!”

Posted by: permamonk | April 16, 2012

Construction Junction: monks with power tools

So back to the aquaponics…

With a consistent scale, the new and accurate plans for the system look like this:

Blue prints, take two...

As you can see, the unit fits into the corner with two grow beds running along either wall, and the water tanks creating the triangular shape underneath.  The tank is divided into two sections for two main reasons.  First, it provides a biofilter section in the back which will be filled with inexpensive door screening to provide lots of surface area for bacteria to grow.  Second, by drawing the water from the back and in filling from the front, that will leave the front portion with the fish at a constant level, even when the grow beds drain into it.  In order to get good circulation of water, the drain pipe from the front to back will start at the bottom of the tank, go straight up and then empty at the top of the water level through the divider.  Makes a lot more sense when it’s done, I promise.

The frame-work of the tank uses stacked 2x4s for the sides and 4x4s for the vertical posts.  I was concerned about the amount of pressure this volume of water would create, so I had to make sure the corner joints would hold.  By placing the vertical posts on the outside (mounting the 2x4s with three 4″ screws apiece), the force of the pressure is put against the post as opposed to pulling away from it if the posts were on the inside.

And remember, this has to be aesthetic too!  To give it a nice simple look, I opted for a red stain and sealer for the vertical posts and top boards, and a blond sealer for the 2x4s.  Also, because this was going directly on the rubber floor, I didn’t need to cut a base for the tank portion since the rubber floor is well insulated and doesn’t have any sharp edges.  Once the frame was constructed, I put in pond liner in the two tank portions and secured them to the upper edge with screws and 2x12s that I used for the upper edging.  I made sure that the inside of the frame was free from splinters and jutting screws so that the liner wasn’t punctured.  The drains from the front to back were two drains of 2″ PVC  that were sealed at the edges around the pond liner with a special expanding sealant used for water features.

Once all was said and done, we filled it with water and started the pump.  We’re using a 300 GPH pump to be sure we get adequate flow to the two grow beds and center waterfall system.  I put some river pebbles in the bottom of the front pool so that the eventual fish won’t be able to swim up the PVC.  And in the back around the pump, there is 25′ of screen.  Roughly, the front and back tanks combined are around 400 gallons.  As they say, “Ta da!”

What a great place for breakfast, non?

Chess anyone?

From here you can just see the draining system. Along the sides here and opposite will be the two main growing beds.

I’m going to let the water circulate for a while before adding any fish and aquatic plants.  I really should have rinsed the stones before putting them in, but I didn’t realize just how much particulate grit was in the bags.  Nonetheless, the sound of the flowing water adds a nice ambiance to the space, and can’t wait for my next free afternoon to sit out there and read!

It’ll be at least another week or more before I can have the grow beds put together (though the lumber is already cut).  And I still need to purchase the expanded clay pellets that will serve as growing medium for the plants.  When working on a budget, some things just take time.  Thank God for monastic patience!

Tune in next time for “Back out in the wild:  What has Br. Addison been up to out there?”

Posted by: permamonk | April 16, 2012

The Exorcism of Linoleum Flooring

Before I jump back into the making of the aquaponics system, I thought I should catch you up on the work that went into making the solarium (where the aquaponics is going) into the enjoyable space it is now.  All of this was done in the later Fall and Winter months when we couldn’t work in the yard.  Several Brothers and Sisters of the Order and our dear friends put in a lot of back breaking effort to make it what is.  To give you an idea, since I don’t have a true “before” picture, this solarium was floored with old, peeling, molding linoleum.  Before we moved in, the solarium had not been cleaned for some time (we’re talking years) and the layers of dirt and grime were astounding.  Before we could do anything, the floor just had to go!  After a good solid weekend and some hefty chemicals and hand scraping, we got the linoleum out!

"Goodbye Mr. Linoleum Chips!" or "On this concrete I will build my church..."

We batted around a lot of ideas for replacing the flooring, including stained concrete or decorative ceramic tiles.  In the end, we discovered decorative rubber tiles that were made from recycled tires!  How cool is that?!?  Not only green and recycled, but soft on the feet and relatively easy to install.  Josh and I managed to knock out the whole floor in one weekend.  In the end?  Pretty damn happy!

The new recycled tire flooring!

Our antique, late 19th century statue of the Blessed Mother has even found a good home in the corner by the door going out into the back gardens.  Eventually she’ll have a small pedestal on which to stand, but one step at a time.

Hail Mary, full of grace, hurry up and bless this place!




Posted by: permamonk | April 13, 2012

Best laid plans of mice and monks: an exercise in humility

After being bitten by the aquaponics bug, I dove in head first and started reading as many articles and watching as many videos as I could find.  While the practice has been around in different cultures for ages, it’s a relatively new field for urban agriculturists.  Needless to say, the closed system fits in line perfectly with the permaculture principle of a no waste system, so this goes hand in hand with Br. Addison’s work in the outside gardens.  Home aquaponics at its best can provide fresh produce and edible fish in a space no more than 6ft by 6ft.  It can even be adapted for smaller set ups, including existing fish tanks and aquariums.

Since we had just finished refurbishing the solarium, stripping out the old linoleum and replacing it with tiling made from recycled tires (cool, non?), and stringing up energy efficient LED rope lights on the ceiling, we had a great space to add a meditative water feature.  So why not use it to grow plants as well?

There are several very useful DVD series and books out there on the detailed requirements for building an aquaponics system.  There are even companies that offer ready-made kits of various sizes.  Needless to say, these can get pretty pricy.  But for monks with a vow of simplicity, if we can figure out how to build it ourselves, that’s the route we’ll take.

In its very basic form, an aquaponics system needs a fish tank and a growing bed for plants.  Beyond this, you can add settling  tanks and biofilters, as well as have different kinds of growing beds.  These can include ebb and flow in which you flood the bed that is filled with aggregate and then drain it out, raft systems in which the plants are floated in the water at all times, or even flowing water systems that have the roots submerged in constantly running water.  The type of growing bed you choose will determine, to some degree, the plants you can grow.  Woody plants, for instance, don’t do well in submerged systems but are better suited for ebb and flow.  Seeing as how this was all a grand experiment, I figured we’d create a setup that had a bit of each to see what works best.

Now, for those working on a very limited budget, there are a good number of designs out there that employ found items.  Wood pallets, big blue barrels or water totes, and even kiddie pools can make great tanks and growing beds.  So if you’re not worried about aesthetics, then all this can be done fairly cheaply.  But because ours was going to be part of the meditation garden, we had to create a design that was functional and aesthetically pleasing.

What I came up with was a corner unit that would have a fish pond in the front, biofilter in the back, with ebb and flow growing beds on the sides and a cascade raft system in the center.  By having the grow beds filled from the biofilter tank in the back, which itself is filled by run off from the fish tank, this leaves the level of the fish tank at a constant instead of rising and falling with draining of the grow beds.  The whole structure would be built from 2x4s and 4x4s, with pond liners in each section.  Keep in mind, this whole thing could also be made from salvaged wood from used delivery pallets.

Well, the long and the short of it is the sketch turned out well.

Now, somewhere along the line, I don’t know where, a gear shifted in my head.  There are a lot of numbers going on that don’t show up on the page that led to the final tally of lumber that’s indicated.  Height of bottom tank, height of grow bed, length of tank and grow beds, size of boards divided into said height, size of boards understanding that 2×4 actually means 1.5 x 3.5 inches (I’ve never understood that), 4×4 means 3.5 x 3.5 inches, cost effectiveness of using wider boards instead of 2x4s, how many 2x12s which are actually 1.5 x 11.5 could make a reasonable height, anticipated height of tank is 24in., how many boards to get that close, grow beds have to be at least 12in. for root depth, repeat quandary, etc., etc.

I have a whole new appreciation for Noah.  As God is calling out figures, I wonder if Noah ever shouted back, “Could you just write that down?!?!”  So with all these numbers in my head, I divided, added, and tallied until I thought I had it all figured out.  Even double checked my sketch that was drawn up “to scale” to be sure the measurements were right.

Only after going to Home Depot and purchasing the lumber, and then cutting according to the sketch that was “to scale,” did I realize that somewhere along the line, I went from thinking 1:4 to 1:2.  That’s right, I was reading the sketch at half the size it needed to be.  I had half the lumber I actually needed.

God offers us many chances to see ourselves plainly.  Many chance to take a step back and laugh.  I remember a wonderful plaque that my mother had hanging in the house growing up.  It read, “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.”

As they say, it was back to the drawing board.  This time, with a constant measurement scale the whole way through!  Maybe this time, if I made a giant wooden badger…

Tune in next time for “Construction junction: monks with power tools!”

Posted by: permamonk | April 9, 2012

Greens in Spring!

Back in the Fall, Br. Addison put in seeds for cold weather plants.  These included oats, bean sprouts, collards, arugula, and carrots.  After the VERY mild winter we had (it is Georgia, after all), the greens kept growing all the way through Spring.  Now as we’re planting for the Spring and Summer, we got to cultivate some delicious edibles!

Fresh Greens

Fresh greens from the garden!

We have various kinds of collards, and the arugula is absolutely delicious!  Buried in there is even a tiny purple carrot.

Having never fixed collards before, I opted to cream them like spinach with some glazed onions (you can’t go wrong with butter, cream, and sweet Vidalia), and then combine that with diced and grilled chicken breast and a vegetable and chicken stock combo.  Altogether, it made for a tasty and easy soup that was rich and healthy.

In the meantime, some of the other collards that we planted actually flowered when spring arrived, so what was a nice green border in our lawn during the winter, turned into beautiful yellow flowers for Easter!  Once they finish going to seed, we’ll collect the pods and use them for next Fall.

Posted by: permamonk | April 3, 2012

Aquaponics – because a closed system is a happy system

OK, so here’s the deal:

Aquaculture is a contained system of farm raised fish.  Of course, anyone that has ever kept even the smallest fish tank (remember that gold-fish your son won at the church fall festival, and you had to secretly replace a week later with one from the pet store before said son got home from school…) knows what happens to fish water.  Even with the best filters, the water has to be changed as the fish just keep doing what God intended fish to do.  In commercial fisheries, this water can get dumped out into rivers and lakes, creating all kinds of fun environmental problems. One thing that fish are reeeeaaaallly adept at producing is ammonia.

Hydroponics is a contained system of vegetable farming that grows plants in soil-less mediums, either directly in water or in aggregate that is flooded and then drained to keep the roots wet and supplied with nutrients.  In order to keep these plants healthy, fertilizers have to be constantly added to the water to keep the proper chemical balance suitable for the plants.  What plants reeeeeaaaallly love is nitrogen (the N in the NPK triumvirate).

Bacteria are fun little microscopic creatures.  They can do many, many things like help you digest your food or give you food poisoning.  What’s the difference between good bacteria and bad bacteria?  Well, at the risk of simplicity, good bacteria is simply in the right place at the right time.  Now let me introduce you to two very important bacteria for the purpose of our experiment here.  First, please say hello to Nitrosomona!  This little guy loves ammonia and converts it into nitrite.   Next up is Nitrobacter!  This industrious little fellow loves nitrite and oxidizes it to create nitrate.  Want to guess who likes nitrate?  That’s right!  Our hungry, hungry plants just love this stuff!

Have you, as an adult, ever sat down with a toddler appropriate jig-saw puzzle?  I’m talking about those toddler puzzles with pieces so large you can use them as coasters for your adult drinks.  You know, the puzzles that have a staggering six pieces?  Well, as adults, we look at these puzzles and think, “Wow! That’s easy!”  Well, industrial growers have been staring at this big ole puzzle of only six pieces for quiet some time, and instead of putting it all together, they’re chewing on the pieces because they think it’s a cracker.  Now, I don’t want to discredit these industrial farmers too much, because until only recently, I hadn’t put these pieces together either.  But after watching my first youtube video on it, I had that “Well HO-LY SH*T!” moment.  (That would be the adult maturation of our toddler “Yay!” experience.  Teacher’s call it the “Ah ha!” moment, but that seems far to reserved for the experience I had.  “Ah ha!” is something you say when you look around the door and finally catch you cat nibbling the house plants that have been growing progressively leaner over the past month.  “HO-LY SH*T” is what you say when you discover something that should change the world.)

So let’s put the pieces together.  If we have a tank for our fish (whether decorative fish or edibles), we now have a supply of ammonia concentrated water.  Feed that water into another tank with a lot of surface area for bacteria to grow and do their thing, and you wind up with nitrogen rich water.  Run that water through a growing bed of plants and the plants are fed and filter out the water, all the while reducing the amount of water loss due to evaporation or infiltration.  Now you have clean water which is run back into the fish tank.  Be sure to aerate the water and you have happy fish that will happily start the whole thing over again.

To be fair, it’s not an entirely closed system.  The biggest ingredient that you have to keep feeding into the system is just that: food.  Granted, I’ve seen some setups that produce algae in order to feed the tilapia, but I’m not up to that yet.  The other ingredient that needs to get added periodically is iron for the plants.  That aside, this is a pretty self-contained system.

To check out just how complex it can get for a “home” project, here you go:DIY Aquaponics

Needless to say, our’s won’t be anywhere near that complicated.

Tune in next time for “Best laid plans of mice and monks really need to double-check the scale of their blueprints before buying lumber…”

Posted by: permamonk | April 3, 2012

Back into the swing of things

For every season, turn, turn.  A season to plant, a season to harvest, and a season to get swamped by “life.”  Ah, this is the true struggle of being a monk in the modern world.  All the same, spring has sprung once again, and the monk house is abuzz with activity.  Br. Addison continues his plans for the permaculture gardens, and I’m working on an aquaponics system for the newly refurbished solarium.  With warm weather here (welll, hot weather really: Georgia doesn’t have seasons, it has mood swings…), we’re back outside, carting in compost, and planting away.  So stay tuned!  This is what we have to look forward to in the next few months in the Alleluia Garden:

Fishes and flooding – what on earth is aquaponics?

Zum zums – honey bees, please!

And of course, lots more of urban organic gardening!

Posted by: permamonk | June 6, 2011

Thar’ be compost in that yarrrrrd!

What a busy time these past several weeks!  The terracing is finished and waiting to get filled in, and we’ve started work on the path that will lead down to the patio areas.  But with scheduling as it is, the back path has been put on hold for work in the front yard.  We finished putting in seeds in the front garden, with rows of leafy greens in front and tomatoes starting the back.  We’ll finish up the side with blueberry bushes.

Front garden

Front garden growing


The leafy greens have come up fast, while the camomile and english daisies are taking their sweet time.  All the flowers in this portion are edible or used for teas!  The camomile runs along the stepping stones while the english daisies (little red powder puff flowers) are planted around the bird bath.

The biggest show of work, however, is the front yard down towards the street.  Being respectful neighbors, we’re taking care to keep up curb appeal (even if that appeal is based on classist standard that came from 18th century French nobility and was most widely spread in the U.S. in the 1950’s…).  So, yes, we’ve given in to sod.  But still with permaculture in mind!  Rather than kill of the existing weeds with chemicals, we’re sheet mulching with cardboard and compost.  We you see below is the product of free cardboard from local stores and five pickup truck loads of free compost from our county.

Prepared for sod


We’ve scheduled three pallets of zoysia to be delivered next Saturday.  We’re still short compost though, because we’re planning on sodding the other side of the driveway as well.  Just goes to show, you can never have too much compost.

Aside from that, we’ve put some flowers here and there to liven up the yard.  When I saw the calla lilies at the hardware store, I had a Katharine Hepburn moment and couldn’t resist!

Flowers at the mail box. Asiatic lillies and some other flower I can't remember.


The calla lilies are in bloom again....


Join us next time for “The grass is always greener when you lay the sod right-side up.”



Posted by: permamonk | May 17, 2011

An old fashioned wall raising party

Well, the ivy was removed and that left the hill clear for the next ambitious step: Terracing!!!

After a great deal of research and watching lots of how-to videos, we felt confident enough to tackle this.  I’m sure there are some of our fellow permaculturists out there asking why we chose to use pre-fab bricks instead of recycled objects like tires or timbers.  Well, here’s the rub.  When you know you’re going to live in a house (or Abbey) for a long, long time, you may feel free to be as resourceful as you’d like.  Unfortunately, as this house is not permanent for us and will be sold down the road, we have to keep yard appeal and resale value in mind.  When we have 20+ acres for gardening for the Abbey, then I promise you there will be tires as backfill and rocks as facing.  There will be reclaimed timbers and bamboo screens.  There will be adobe hermitages and straw bale chapels.  Until then, we have to keep the status quo in mind and be curteous to our neighbors view of our yard.  While I and many other like minded individuals think tires can be beautiful, we must accomodate.  We will take the middle road and use permaculture principals with excepted landscaping design.  The middle road.  It’s what monks are good at. 

Back to the terracing.  After the hill was cleared, we marked out the lines for the walls with marking paint.  Anyone who is going to try to design their own landscape should, by all means, mark out the whole design on the ground first before starting.  This will give you a far better feel for the spacial requirements and layout.  At this point, fixing something means marking a new line.  Fixing something after you’ve already put four walls in is something entirely different.  We marked out the walls, the lines for the porch, the path and the patios.  Sure enough, once it was all on the ground, we had to make adjustments and balance space.  But once it was all marked, we were ready to go.

For our hills, it was only 8 ft in height, which means four terraces covering that space would only have to be 2 ft. a piece if lined edge to edge from bottom to top.  Ours overlap a bit, so they would be just over 2ft.  This is important because if your terracing is going to be any higher then you have to build a foundation or sink the bricks into the dirt for stability.  The stones we found at the hardware store have lips on the back so that the bricks slope backwards and lock onto each other, so our short walls would be very secure. 

Beginning with the lowest point of the wall (ours would step up and dig into the hills as they curved), we dug horizontally into the hill and moved out from there.  The whole process, while strenuous, was fairly straight forward.  The only trick is to be sure that each brick is level and even as you sink them in.  We opted for a simple design using two colors of bricks that would alternate harlequin fashion from wall to wall. 

First (top) terrace

Here's the first terrace at the top of the hill. Easier to start there and work down.

Second terrace

The second terrace around the tree.

Third and half of fourth terrace.

Third and half of fourth and final terrace. (we ran out of bricks)

We managed about one wall per Sunday, with the third and fourth this past Sunday. Had we not run out of bricks then we could have capped it all off before dinner (though some people seem to like the turrets). With each wall, it was important to back fill with gravel. Luckily the awful steps from earlier in our story finally came in handy. We were able to rake the gravel out of the clay and use that. This is very important as it will help with drainage from one terrace to the next.
The final step will be to put landscaping cloth along the inside edge and fill in with compost. We’ll also finish the walls with caps along the top edge. These will have to be cut to fit and cemented down, but it will give a nice finished look to the whole project.
Speaking of compost, Br. Addison was busy in the front yard prepping additional garden space. The area along the walk way leading to the front door was a nice open and flat spot. It is in fact one of the few flat spots we have. Using the sheet mulch technique, he laid down cardboard and covered it with the two truck loads of free compost that our postulant Jamie and I had gotten earlier the week. For those of you looking for compost, check with your city/county to see if they have free compost sites. Ours does, and I’d hate to think how much all that compost would have cost had we gotten it retail.
By laying down the cardboad, this will smother the grass, weeds, and moss underneath without having to use chemicals or tilling. Eventually, the cardboard with biodegrate and mix in with the soil. The compost layer on top gives us a rich, ready layer for planting.
As luck would have it, in our excavation of the back yard, we discovered a fair number of hexagonal stepping stones. These we laid down to create a path into the garden so we can create key hole beds radiating out from the center. Around the bird bath we’ll have potted herds and such. The space outlined by the rough stone (also salvaged from the back yard) will provide space for a bench and lounging. 
On the other side of the walkway we have a steep slope which Br. Addison has started to sheet mulch and plant sweet potatoes.  Still keeping curb appeal in mind, this will give a lush green cover to the hill as the slips start to vine and the flowers of the sweet potato look like morning glories.  Awesome, non?    
The front garden

Walkway, birdbath, and compost. What a beautiful sight.

 Tune in next time for “Paths a plenty and compost ahoy!”   God’s Peace. 

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