December 13, 2006
Ants in the Garden, Ants in the House

It happens every year. Hordes of ants invade my kitchen when it’s cold and wet outside. They enter my home in search of food, water and shelter. Hold the panic button! A good cleanup and barriers can reduce household ant populations while still allowing ants to play their important and useful part in the environment.

Ants help control insect populations including termites (they think termite eggs are a nutritious treat). They are scavengers and an important part of the cycle of decomposition, breaking down organic materials to enrich our soil. Ants that nest in soil help turn and aerate it as much as earthworms.

Identify the type of ant you have and make sure it is not a termite. Ants are often confused with termites, especially during swarming when winged ant forms are mistaken for winged termites. Ants have narrow waists and bent antennae. Termites have broad abdomens with no waist and straight, beaded antennae. Ants’ hind wings are smaller than front wings. Termites have front and hind wings the same size.

The most common problem ant in our area is the dark brown 1/8-inch long, Argentine ant (Linepithema humile). Ants belong to the insect order Hymenoptera and are close relatives of bees and wasps. We usually see worker ants, the most numerous of the three castes: worker, queen and male.

Sprays don’t work
Since only a small amount of an ant colony's workers forage at any one time, pesticide sprays and dusts leave most of a colony intact and actually worsen the problem, causing the colony to split into multiple colonies.

Indoor remedies: clean, exclude and bait
After thouroughly cleaning and frequently wiping counters for several days, the kitchen ants have moved on to greener pastures. As long as they stay out of my kitchen I can coexist with these fascinating and beneficial insects.

Use a spray bottle filled with soapy water to wipe down kitchen and food storage surfaces and remove ant scent markers: chemical trails left by scout worker ants. Store food in screw top jars or other tightly sealed containers. If you must leave pet food out, create a moat by setting your pet’s food dish inside a shallow plate filled with water. If you can’t wash dishes immediately, rinse, then soak them in soapy water. Dispose of food waste and clean trash containers daily.

To eliminate an indoor nest, suck ants up in a HEPA vacuum and dispose of the bag immediately.

Borate, Borax or boric acid can be helpful if used properly and only when needed. Mop floors with one cup of borax per gallon of hot water. Make your own fresh borax or boric acid baits with 1 teaspoon (or less) of boric acid, one tablespoon of honey and one tablespoon peanut butter. Put in small vials or lids where you have seen ants. There are commercial baits that contain borate or boric acid. Keep all baits out of the reach of children, pets and wildlife.

Close visible entry holes with caulking. Fix leaky faucets, eliminate standing water. Check flower pots for ant colonies. Water indoor plants well and if ants are visible, flush them out of the soil with water or move them outside.

Outdoor remedies
Keep wood piles away from the house.

Trim shrubs and all plant material away from the outside of the house. Prune branches that are touching the ground or other trees.

Ants are attracted to scale insects and aphids and milk them for their sugary honeydew. Control the scale or aphids and use sticky barriers such as “Tanglefoot” around the base of trees.

Marin Master Gardeners Help Desk in Novato, (415) 499-4204
UC Online Integrated Pest Management Program “Pest Notes,”
Sign up for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides monthly newsletter of helpful tips at

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November 29, 2006
What are allelopathic plants?
Number 6 in the list of top 10 Stupid Garden Mistakes Anyone Could Make: Planted an allelopathic pepper tree

The days diminish in length as we approach winter solstice. Novato’s street tree mini-lights left from last year are fully exposed as the young sycamores drop their leaves. Shopkeepers dress their windows to entice trade and home fronts are decked with lights against the long nights.
The holidays’ relentless cheer and emphasis on conspicuous consumption can have special poignance for grieving families, normally self-sufficient singletons and lonely isolated seniors.
Pink nerine blossoms linger as narcissus leaves grow tall, right on schedule for December blossom; and so the sun dies and will be reborn.

Part of a continuing series of columns:
Number 6 in the list of top 10 Stupid Garden Mistakes Anyone Could Make: Planted an allelopathic pepper tree

As a new arrival to California I was properly awed by native Redwoods, shouting with joy and tears as I hugged my first. I enjoyed afternoon shadows flickering on tall eucalyptus and was intrigued by gnarled, willow-like pepper trees. I was determined to have a pepper tree in my own garden someday. I didn’t know anything about the rich habitat that had been displaced by eucalyptus or the damage caused by pepper trees to foundations or water pipes. Never heard of allelopathy, a relatively new study.

If you’ve ever visited the Mojave desert you noticed creosote bushes. They grow in perfect round shapes, sometimes shelter small wildflowers or cactus in their shade and are evenly spaced in their growing areas with bare circles surrounding them. You can smell rain in the desert before it arrives with the distinctive herbal odor of wet creosote from miles away. Creosote roots produce a chemical that inhibits the growth of most other plants around it.

Simply defined, allelopathy is a plant interaction through chemicals released by one plant into the environment that can harm or benefit another plant. It can involve plant chemical reactions with mycorrhizae (soil fungus) or nutrients.

Another good example is the Black Walnut, native to eastern North America and plentiful in my neighborhood. It produces a substance called juglone that interferes with plants in the nightshade family (such as tomatoes), causing wilting and yellowing foliage. On the other hand, fescue grass is allelopathic to the Black Walnut.

If you’ve ever tried to grow anything underneath an oleander you have met the allelopathic flavonoid called catechin that is produced by its roots as well as by the common garden plant called foxglove.

Allelopathic plants can be useful. In the search for environmentally friendly methods of weed abatement, extracts of oleander have been used in studies to inhibit weed growth in corn fields and to eliminate the invasive giant reed grass, Arundo donax.

Everyone is familiar with eucalyptus forests in California. Many native plants are easily crowded out and inhibited by eucalyptus’ allelopathic chemical terpenes and acids that tend to persist in the soil long after trees are removed.

I planted a California pepper tree about ten years ago as a thin stick. It now easily reaches 25 to 30 feet high with a trunk over twelve inches in diameter. Its roots rise to the surface, nothing grows directly underneath it, not just because it steals water where it can but because it is literally poisoning the earth. This was a serious mistake in our small yard.

What can I do now? Remove it? My family has become attached and would not be pleased. I’ve planted a few sturdy shrubs outside its dripline. The ground beneath remains dry for the summer when it sheds leaves that crunch underfoot releasing a sharp scent. It is great to hide under its pendulous branches and leaves in the hammock placed beneath the tree.

Untrimmed pepper trees tend to form long, somewhat brittle branches that often break off in storms. Trimming will limit its growth and prevent it from damaging the entire yard.
How I wish I’d planted a slower-growing and well behaved arbutus (madrone) or crape myrtle.

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November 22, 2006
Giving Thanks, Saying Goodbye

A touch of frost and yellow leaves appear overnight on the Texas umbrella tree. Birds pop out from the leaves, hang upside-down from branches, tap wet earth in search of seeds and insects.

My broken bones have healed and I can hike again. I’m walking, walking, walking the St. Francis Church labyrinth. I’m saying goodbye to Fred Santangelo, my children’s first generation Italian-American grandfather, WWII veteran, golfer and Mojave desert gardener who died this Veteran’s Day.

It’s a gray day with scudding mashed potato clouds. When I reach the labyrinth center and pause, the clouds part for a deep patch of turquoise sky, sunlight graces a rolling hilltop in the distance.

The first Thanksgiving in America was a feast before the long eastern winter settled in. It consisted of seasonal autumn bounty, organic and locally grown . In Novato, we gather in the last tomatoes, clean up and plant winter crops in our year-round vegetable gardens.

Two very different cultures collided in New England of the 1600s. For a brief time they shared common cause along with common ground.

As one of thousands of descendants of Miles Standish, a Mayflower passenger who settled at Plymouth, I approach the history with mixed emotions. He was considered short of stature, short tempered, a fierce mercenary soldier and commander. He formed alliances with indigenous leaders and also killed many native people.

The lasting harvest of our melting pot country is its people, its diverse, intertwined, intermarried cultures, something the early European settlers could not have foreseen. If my heritage is a “Heinz 57” variety, my children’s is even more varied.

Many of the WWII generation of Americans that are passing grew up on self-sustaining farms as Fred did before he moved to a small city in Ohio. Today we reconsider the notion of sustainability as it applies to an increasingly urbanized world. We learn the hidden costs of transporting mass produced food and increasingly value seasonal, organic, locally produced food.

The baton passes from one generation to the next. We consider what is best to take with us on our continued journey. We plant in remembrance of others, perhaps a single long-lived tree to help heal the earth or their favorites whether hot chile peppers, roses or hollyhocks. Our hollyhocks in our garden grow from seeds from Papa Fred’s flowers. My Kansas farm-raised mother showed us how she used to turn hollyhock flowers inside out to make hollyhock fairies when she was a girl.

The last time I saw Fred, an avid golfer, his favorite occupation was watching the hummingbirds and finches that came to feeders at his window by his bedside. He asked the children to sit by him while I pruned his beloved roses that bloomed in the same window in the brutal, sun-drenched desert climate.

We give thanks every day, though some are given so much and some have so little. We hope one day to leave the earth when our days are long in number with people we love around us.

Whatever we are given, we are grateful for our brief passage on planet earth and those moments when we can enjoy tumbling clouds that part on turquoise skies.

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November 15, 2006
Number 7 in the list of top 10 Stupid Garden Mistakes Anyone Could Make: Removed mature scale-infested citrus without trying alternatives

Investigate alternatives before you remove sick or infested plants

Part of a continuing series of columns:
Number 7 in the list of top 10 Stupid Garden Mistakes Anyone Could Make: Removed mature scale-infested citrus without trying alternatives
How sick or infested are your plants? Fully investigate Integrated (intelligent) Pest Management (IPM) options before you remove plants or apply pesticide.

When I became the owner of an established garden I inherited its problems as well as its blessings and inwardly groaned because the landscaping had been neglected. Anyone could see there was a great deal of work ahead.
The previous owner seemed enamored of cactus, rose and citrus varieties with more and longer thorns than I thought possible. Cactus and many roses were given away or moved to the middle of perennial beds where they would present less danger to our two small children.

I took a hard look at a 10-foot tall row of citrus. I like citrus fruit, adore their fragrant flowers and appreciated the screen their glossy green leaves provided. Citrus are particularly vulnerable to scale and I did spot scale and ant “scale farmers.”
Scale are often first noticed as nail-head sized brown bumps clustered along stems. In their young form they may be white, transparent or green and can still move on minute legs. Mealybug is somewhat similar and appears as white, flattened bumps that form cottony clusters.
I worked in the plant business for a number of years and had seen the damage scale infestation can do. I thinned out the plants, sprayed them off with soapy water and waited through winter and spring. No flowers whatsoever, more scale, more ants.
Since traditional pesticides can’t eliminate scale which spreads easily to nearby plants, I was very cavalier about cutting the infested citrus down.

Here are three IPM methods I wish I’d tried first:
1. After a positive bug identification, natural predators such as parasitic wasps or mealybug destroyers could have been introduced.
2. Remove the ant scale farmers. Ants help to spread scale. Regular hosing off with mildly soapy water will often be enough to discourage them.
3. Non-toxic horticultural or dormant oils will smother scale and mealybug. Don’t apply the oil unless you have a severe problem. Horticultural oil also smothers beneficial bugs and bug predators that eat scale and mealybugs.

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Alternate layers of:

  • 40% assorted green vegetation: leaves, grass clippings, chipped tree trimmings, food scraps (no meat or dairy), weeds (Exceptions: no ivy, bermuda grass, poison oak, eucalyptus or acacia)
  • 40% assorted dry vegetation: clean hay (no seeds), sawdust, grain hulls, ground up nut hulls, chipped bark
  • 20% manure (optional): chicken, horse, cow, llama, donkey, bat guano

Mix together in a container of wood, hay bales, wire, concrete blocks or simply pile on the ground.
Water to the consistency of a squeezed-out sponge.

Oxygen is provided by the mix of coarse and fine textured material and monthly turning.
Micro-organisms (similar to yeast) will feed on this mix of organic materials, water and oxygen. The center of the pile will heat up as it decomposes. Worms will find your compost pile if it is directly on the ground and add their nutrient rich worm castings to the mix.
Partially decomposed compost can be used as mulch. After several months finished compost should be dark brown, smell like sweet forest soil and crumble like chocolate cake.

Want to learn more about composting?
The Marin Master Gardeners, (415) 499-4204, often sponsor free classes.
“Let it Rot” is a great classic book on composting.


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Termite Solutions
IPM in action:
Termites are everywhere. As one of natures efficient decomposers, they are part of the natural cycle of life. No one wants to find evidence of these critters inside their house. If you notice them swarming in the spring or suspect you have termites in your home you must first identify the type. Pest control companies or the Master Gardeners desk can help you identify them as subterranean or drywood.
In addition to the health risks associated with pesticides, pesticides are not a permanent solution and always require reapplication. New methods using heat, cold, microwaves and electricity can all be used as spot treatments.
Ask your pest controller if they are familiar with biological baits that use insect growth regulators (IGR) instead of poisons. Bait stations require time to work. Baits are not effective when termites are dormant. They are often combined with other IPM methods such as the use of borate (a naturally occurring mineral) and habitat destruction.
In new construction, fine sand and wire mesh barriers have proven to be good deterrents to termites. Borate impregnated pressure-treated wood can be used in problem areas.
Termites want two things from us: food and water. It is our job to keep these out of their reach. Pest control companies can help you identify problem areas.
Simple things to do that help prevent termite infestation
Remove all wood debris from the foundation and roofline of your house including bark chips and mulch. Crawl spaces underneath should be well-vented and clear of debris. There should be 18 inches of space between ground and any wood.
Trim all plant material a minimum of six inches from the outside of your house. Branches and vines can provide termites with a pathway directly into your home.
Destroy termite tubes, they act as termite freeways.
Fill foundation cracks. Termites walk up these like stairways.
Vent. Foundations and rooflines should be kept dry. Vents should be screened.

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February 22, 2006
Easy care Summer Bulbs
Splendid golden joy, a host of daffodils dance in the breeze. As leaves begin to fade, leave them on, to build up photosynthized food harvested from sunlight that it stores in the bulb for next year. Remove dried foliage when it pulls away easily.
Summer blooming bulbs can be planted now. Be adventurous and try a few new varieties this year. Follow planting instructions carefully especially for water and drainage. Keep your summer-dry climate bulbs separate from your summer-water bulbs. If they are successful they will return year after year with little or no effort on your part.
Deer or gopher resistant bulbs
Planting flowers and bulbs is like setting out hors d’oervres for deer and gopher. You can grow your treasured bulbs in gopher cages or screen-lined flower beds or you can choose resistant plants. These plants generally have sharp flavors or may be poisonous.
Ornamental allium, full sun lovers in the onion family, can be found in many sizes. Six-inch blue-flowered A. cyaneum perfect for rock gardens, two-foot tall lilac-flowered Christophii (Star of Persia) to four-feet tall A. giganteum with six-inch wide blue pom-poms may bloom from early to mid-summer.
Most allium flowers are blues, reds and whites. After blooming, their flower stalks dry as pale star shapes that can be used in dried arrangements. They will naturalize and may need to be controlled. Allium make excellent border plants and will grow in almost any kind of soil.
Amaryllis belladonna has proven a hardy survivor of poor soil and dry summers and is found along fence lines and the foundations of old California homesteads. Its wide strappy leaves die back to the ground in late spring. When the ground is at its dryest, it pokes flower stems out of the ground that announce waning summer when they open. We call its sweetly fragrant hot-pink trumpets “naked ladies.”

Hemericallis Daylilies
Spotted and speckled orange and yellow flowered daylilies require only occasional summer water to look their best. Many bloom in late summer into fall when much of the flower garden has passed its peak. Big green clumps flower in Novato median strips where they receive little care.

Summer water: Tuberous begonias, canna, gladiolus, dahlia and lilium
These flowers provide long bloom periods from late spring to first frost. Exciting new bi-colored varieties will not remind you of grandma’s garden. They do require some summer water and prefer good drainage.
Hanging basket tuberous begonias are perfect for a shady patio. Their butterfly shaped, bold colored flowers sparkle with iridescence.
Canna can add a tropical accent with lurid reds, yellows and orange flower stems, bright green or striped foliage that grows on four to eight-foot tall stalks . Tolerant of bright sun or semi-shade, grow them in clusters or at the back of a bed. Canna are also tolerant of poor soil.
Excellent as cut flowers
Gladiolus, dahlia, Asian and Oriental lilies like plenty of compost and raised beds. They will not be successful in clay soil. They will look their best planted in rows among other summer flowering perennials or annuals.
Gladioli reach two to four-feet tall and can display at the back of a flower bed. Oriental or Asian lilies are spectacular accents that may need some staking and shelter from Novato’s hot afternoon sun and wind.
While most can be left in the ground or container each year, dahlias will produce their largest flowers only when dug out in late February, early March and divided. Replant after about two weeks. Space them out and give them plenty of air circulation, many are quite shrubby.

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February 15 2006
Success With Seeds
Cool weather, fast maturing seeds such as lettuce radish and bok choy can be planted directly in the ground. Warm season plants such as tomatoes and peppers should be started indoors in pots or flats.
Counting back from Mother’s Day planting, we arrive at late February early March as an ideal time for seed starting of summer vegetables and annuals.
Successful seed starting has four basic requirements: healthy seeds; sterile planting medium (soil); even moisture; warm sunny location with plenty of air circulation.
Seed viability
Viability is the percentage of seeds that will germinate (sprout). A few simple tips make a big difference. Start off with new seed packs purchased from a garden center or nursery. They have selected seeds that will be most successful for our area and have high viability rates. Your seed packs left from last season will not be as viable.
The old stand-bys such as Burpee, Thompson & Morgan or Parks are good choices. Renee’s Garden Seeds, ( are grown in Northern California and feature cottage and heirloom organics. Territorial Seeds ( are grown in the Pacific Northwest and include a huge selection of Asian vegetables, peppers and heirloom tomatoes.
Seeds of Change ( are organically grown and open-pollinated. Native Seed/SEARCH ( features Native American traditional and heritage plants well-suited to hot, dry climates. If you can’t find them in stores, there is still time to order online.
Sterile well-drained growing medium
Whatever mix you choose to use make sure it is sterile and drains well. The soil or potting medium has been heated to kill bacteria and fungus.
You will be keeping the medium evenly moist and warm which is a perfect environment for nurturing damping-off fungus. This appears as rotted patches of seedlings in a flat or a dark shriveled area at the base of the seedling stem. Make sure your containers, tools and hands are clean as well. After sprouting, young seedlings are vulnerable to bacteria which may first appear as black spots on the leaves.
Sterilized potting soil, peat moss, vermiculite or perlite are all good for seed starting. Start seeds in paper cups or peat pots and you can plant them directly in the garden without disturbing their roots.
Even moisture
The growing medium should be kept evenly moist but not wet. A seedling does not need or use a lot of water. Too much or too little water equals seedling death. Too much water will suffocate the roots, cause roots to rot or encourage the growth of bacteria and fungus. Not enough water will cause the seeds and seedlings to dry out.
Commercial nurseries have overhead misting systems. Recreate the same effect by watering the growing medium well before planting, allow it to drain, then water as needed with a misting bottle.
I use a mini-greenhouse tray with a clear fitted top, lift the lid regularly and remove the lid when seeds have sprouted. Make one using a baking tray covered with plastic wrap or a sheet of glass for a lid.
Warm sunny location
Commercial propagators have the advantage of heated planting beds and unlimited sunlight. You can choose a warm spot in the house, near but not on a heater or in a sunny window. Give them plenty of air circulation and protect from baking sunlight, you don’t want to cook your seeds or seedlings.

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January 25, 2006
Cut back Ornamental Grasses and Woody Perennials
While you are shopping for bareroot roses and fruit trees or contemplating where to add one more camellia, be on the lookout for bargains on ornamental grasses and perennials at local nurseries or garden centers at this time of year.
The gardener may use ornamental grasses as accents in perennial beds, they may cascade down a hillside, provide a backdrop for summer color, create a screen, line a pathway or soften a rock garden. Short bunchgrasses are included as part of a meadow plan and may be useful for an interesting, uneven lawn area. Easy care plants, they add texture and contrast to the landscape and can be successful in containers.
Many ornamental, feather or bunchgrasses that were bronzed and gilded in their fall glory are, in late January, the epitome of sadness; limp and beaten by the rains. Cold nights have nipped penstemon and salvias and left black leaves and shriveled stems behind. Look closely at the base of the plant clumps. There you will see bunch grasses sprouting bright shoots and small buds forming below blackened stems.
You may be tempted to rip out these pathetic remains. Instead, dig out your clean, sharp pruning shears and cutting knives and go to work.
Woody perennials should be cut back at least two-thirds while still somewhat dormant. Leave a bit of green growth at the bottom and do not cut into hard wood or they may not grow back. If you don’t cut back perennials such as penstemon, they will thin out in the middle and stems will break off. If you delay and cut back late in the season you will be cutting off their spring blooms.
Tattered and faded bunch grasses should be sheared back to the level of new growth. You will be amazed at how fast they grow back. Some grasses may need shearing every winter, others may need cutting back every third or fourth year such as Mulenbergia rigens (deergrass).
Perhaps you have short tufts of festuca (blue and red fescue) that require a little clean up beneath and between their clumps or shoulder high Calamagrostis foliosa (leafy reedgrass) that should be cut back and renewed every two years.
If you’d like to learn more about the types and cultivation of California native grasses, sedges and rushes look for the book “Wild Lilies, Irises and Grasses: Gardening with the California Monocots” published by UC Press. The writers demystify some of the confusion that surrounds the various classifications and naming conventions of grasses and makes it possible to match the most successful native ornamental grass for your soil, light and water conditions. Novato photographer Saxon Holt’s work is featured.
Non-native ornamental grasses are not recommended for use near open space. Some popular varieties can become invasive such as the delicate, pale Nasella tenuisama (Mexican feather grasses), tall stipas, glorious striped or dark green sprays of Miscanthus. These may be appear green year round yet still require some thinning out. Cut them back hard to renew. Pennisetum fountain grasses have different needs. Pennisetum setaceum (purple fountain grass) may die back completely, but look for it to send up new shoots if it hasn’t already.
The best idea book for landscaping with ornamental grasses is “Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design” by Nancy Ondra with captivating photos by Saxon Holt. From cultural basics to design planning, many popular non-natives and natives are photographed in the landscape and in closeup.

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January 18, 2006

A pomegranate question
Dear Lazy Gardener,
Can you give me your opinion on growing pomegranates here in Marin? I read in the Sunset Western Garden book that the standard pomegranate does not set fruit in cool coastal climates. Are we in a warm enough zone here in Novato for it to be worth the chance of putting one of these in my garden? When we used to live down in Fresno, we had many of these from an ancient looking tree. I'd love to have them again. Also, is it possible to keep the height down to about 6 ft. either by careful pruning or just choosing the right tree variety? Regards, R. H.

Dear pomegranate lover,
Full size pomegranates will set fruit in Novato. Most of our summers have plenty of hot afternoons. Summer heat or cold effects tomato yield much the same way. Dwarf pomegranates do not set fruit dependably and if they do, the fruits are much smaller than standard. Do not plant a dwarf pomegranate if you want fruit.
Pomegranate trees respond well to pruning but you will have trouble keeping a pomegranate to 6 feet. They make an excellent screen reaching 15 to 20 feet tall. Even the dwarfs can get out of hand quickly.
Try the Ambrosia, Ruby Red or Wonderful varieties. Granada needs heat to mature, Eversweet prefers a cooler coastal climate. All will tolerate clay soil but prefer well-drained loam. You can plant in a slight berm and dig in plenty of mulch and compost to improve drainage.
RE: the cold
Mulching under the dripline will help protect roots. We get few hard frosts in Novato and any frosts are usually short-lived. You may want to protect a pomegranate for the first year or two. After the plant has established its root system it should survive the cold in our area. If you can, plant it on the South side of the house or in a relatively sheltered area. Trim off any frost damaged foliage when the weather warms in January.

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