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Posts Tagged ‘plant peas’

Enough Peas to Preserve

You Can Grow That!

Shelling peas as leisure time activity

When you grow enough peas to stock your larder or freezer, it’s important to process them within a day of picking them. During peak season, I harvest about a gallon of pods each day. To keep up with them, I pod them while sitting in an easy chair and watching a show on TV.

Fresh garden peas have distinctive flavor unlike any you can buy in a grocery store. Remarkably, if you blanch and freeze fresh peas from your garden, they’ll hold much of that amazing flavor for you to enjoy throughout the year. Growing peas is easy, but I rarely see home kitchen gardens with enough pea plants to provide for a single meal much less for preserves.

Do you want a store of garden peas to get you through the year? You can grow that!

Pea-Growing Fundamentals

Peas thrive in cool weather, and cold only slows them down. Conversely, heat kills. Your goal as a pea gardener is to plant when the “days to harvest” are fewer than “days to summer heat.” Usually this means planting as early as you can work the soil—or within a few weeks of that.

Furrows for double rows of peas

I hoe 14’ long furrows 6 to 8 inches wide and set pea seeds every two inches along each side of the furrows. Last fall I covered my planting bed with autumn leaves so I had to rake them aside to make my furrows. The benefit of covering over the planting bed is that it emerges from winter with almost no weeds. Sadly, the leaves provide cover for slugs; I imagine I’ll be setting out bowls of beer to deal with that problem.

A rule of thumb in zone 6 is “Plant peas on St Patrick’s day” (March 17). It is rarely realistic; my garden soil is often mud in mid March. More importantly, when I plant peas that early, they grow at a glacier’s pace. I can plant more peas two to four weeks later and they’ll catch up with the ones I planted early.

Most years June offers up some stinking hot days, and by July the heat is relentless. It isn’t stinkingly-hot relentless, but it’s consistently hot enough that peas hate it; they wilt and die.

Peas grow from seed to harvest in about 70 days. Some claim 55 days—British Wonder and Alaska, for example—and shelling, snap, and snow peas may have widely differing days to maturity. I grow only shelling peas and I assume 70 days to harvest.

Counting back from late June, I need to plant peas in early April to give them their best chance. I also hedge my bets by selecting “wilt-resistant” peas. Wando is popular for late planting; it holds up well in early summer heat. Wando pea plants offer another advantage to older, rickety gardeners: the vines grow at least five feet tall. I wrote about this special consideration last year in a post titled Wisdom with Age.

Support Your Peas with Trellises

Pea vines are the most fragile plants in my kitchen garden. The stems flex a bit, but if I handle them too roughly, they crease and everything above the crease withers within a few days.

Pea sprout

The earliest sprouts you’re likely to see are tiny leaf sandwiches. In cold weather, a sprout may look like this for several days—or even weeks.

Some varieties grow only 18 inches long while others may reach two, three, four, or five feet in length. Whatever the length when mature, pea vines can’t support their own weight; they produce tendrils that can wrap around leaves and branches of other plants for support.

It’s important to provide trellises. I grew an 18 inch variety once without trellises and the vines grew together as a mat on the soil. This trapped enough moisture that many vines rotted; it wasn’t pretty.

Trellises needn’t be elaborate. Here are a few styles to consider:

  • Use dead tree branches pushed into the soil and leaned against each other.
  • Set fence supports at each end of a row and stretch strings or wires horizontally between them at 4- to 6-inch intervals.
  • Buy prefab lattice panels (home improvement stores sell 4’ x 8’ panels) and stand them along rows of pea plants.
  • Attach wire fencing (available on 25’ or 50’ rolls at garden stores—I use 48” fencing) to sturdy stakes that you can hammer into the ground over freshly-planted peas.

Plan to Preserve

Pea patches are among the saddest things I see in other people’s gardens. So many gardeners set seeds along a short row—two to four feet long—and that’s it! With so few plants, you’ll harvest several delicious handfuls of pods over a two or three week period. That’s great for snacking in the garden, but you won’t have peas for the dinner table. Growing enough to preserve requires a bit of commitment.

First pea leaves of spring

In warm weather, pea sprouts can put out leaves in just a few days… but when the temperature drops, so does the sprouts’ growth rate.

For a sense of scale, I plant three 14 foot double rows of pea seeds, spacing the seeds about 2 inches apart.  To create a double row, I hoe a furrow six-to-eight inches wide and an inch or two deep. I press pea seeds into the soil at two-inch intervals along each side of the furrow and then fill over them with more soil, leaving the furrow slightly lower than the surrounding soil. Then I baby-step lightly along the furrow, compressing the soil onto the seeds.

Each double row holds about 160 seeds—if things go well I end up with close to 500 plants. Some years I buy too many pea seeds and save the extras till the next season. I plant these as described, but before covering the seeds with soil, I scatter extras along the middle of the furrow in case the older seeds don’t germinate as reliably as new seeds.

Simple sturdy pea trellises

Each of my pea trellises is a 13 foot long section of relatively sturdy, 48 inch wire fencing attached to three wooden garden stakes. I erect a trellis by setting the middle stake with a few whacks of a hammer, then pounding each end stake deep into the soil while pulling it away from the center stake to stretch the wire. Finally, I drive the center stake deep. By deep I mean 8 to 12 inches… I’ve attached the fencing so each stake protrudes about a foot below the bottom wire. In autumn, I pull the stakes and roll the trellis loosely to store in my garden shed. I’m fortunate: my garden shed could hold two or three dozen rolled trellises; with only three I’ve plenty of room for other gardening gear and much of our camping equipment.

I finish by erecting my trellises and watering heavily. I keep the soil damp until sprouts appear—sometimes I have to water each day, other years it’s cold and wet so watering isn’t crucial.

My point, though, is that number: 500. When I plant 500 seeds, we eat peas for a dozen or more meals during the growing season and I freeze between one and two gallons of peas for the rest of the year. I’m a lightweight. There’s a garden down the road from me that runs at least 30 yards long and the owners set three rows of peas and trellises each spring! These people grow at least seven times the plants I grow… I’m guessing they eat peas at dinner almost every day.

You won’t need as many plants to grow snow peas for preserving… but because I don’t grow snow peas I can’t guess how many meals’ worth you can harvest from a foot-long row.

Succession Planting After Peas

When your pea plants wither in late June, crush them to the ground and set seedlings of some other vegetables among them. I grow winter squash where my peas were, but you could try melons, cucumbers, beans and other vegetables that have short season varieties.

Sure, it’s a bit of work to plant peas and erect trellises; more work than for most common garden vegetables. Still, there’s nothing tricky about it. If you have enough garden space and you want enough peas to freeze (or to can or dehydrate), you can grow that!

Grape vine pea trellis

I love this pea trellis fashioned from sticks and wild grape vines. Sadly, this tiny row of plants will produce enough peas for only one or two meals. If you plan to preserve peas from your garden, plant plenty. With rows totaling 42 feet and double-planted, I harvest between 2 and 3 gallons of peas in a season. I freeze about one-and-a-half gallons, and always use them up before next season’s peas are ready.


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Peas are up in My Small Kitchen Garden

The planting bed went unattended for two weeks after I leveled the newly-added soil; weeds had already asserted themselves. The excavation for the rain garden lies beyond the planting bed in this photo, and you can see part of the drainage ditch I cut along the south side of the garden (left center in the photo). It has been so dry this winter and spring that soil was crumbly in March rather than moist.

On May 17 of 2011 I planted cauliflower and broccoli seedlings in the main bed of my small kitchen garden! On that day, I posted about how miserable the soil was—it had been rainless for a week, but still: big gobs of wet earth stuck to my hand trowel. I planted no other spring crops in the garden in 2011 because rain returned and there was standing water until almost June.

The tide has turned! It’s no secret that winter forgot to wint this year (That’s a verb, right? A “winter” is someone who “wints,” yes?). Then, to confuse perennials, summer started in early February. If I’d been on my game, I could have planted spring crops in the garden then… but that’s not me. Confession: I usually plant peas so late that I consider altogether skipping them.

Preparing to Plant Peas

All that summer-weather-in-spring got me into the garden early. I’ve been excavating a rain garden and moving the soil onto my planting bed. The added soil depth should keep roots out of the mud even in very rainy years. By St Patrick’s Day, the planting bed was ready for peas.

It took a bit of weeding and hoeing to prepare furrows for the pea seeds. The bed is 14 feet from end-to-end along the furrows. Each is about eight inches across and two-to-three inches deep. I set peas about an inch apart along each side of a furrow—that’s right around 1,000 peas—and cover them with about an inch of soil.

Life got in the way, and it wasn’t until March 30 that I finally got the peas in the ground. That’s at least two weeks earlier than usual. I want to remove the pea plants at the beginning of July, and they’re usually done making peas after ten weeks, so they don’t need to be in the ground until mid April.

I’ve set the broccoli and cauliflower seedlings in the garden and they’re recovering from transplant shock. I’ve also planted onion sets which led me to want more onion sets to plant. Oh! And I’ve mended and erected the garden fence before rabbits nested in the planting bed.

Having planted peas in March should make me feel as though I have a huge head start on my kitchen garden—especially with all the other projects completed. But the crazy weather makes me feel as though I’m trying to catch up… and if it stays warm as it is, I really do need to catch up.

Here’s more from past seasons about planting peas:

  • Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 1 – Do you want to grow peas in your small kitchen garden? It’s a tough question. Peas require a lot of space for a modest harvest. On the other hand, garden fresh peas taste astonishingly better than any other peas you’ll ever eat…

  • Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 2 – You’ve decided how many peas you’re going to plant in your small kitchen garden, you’ve reserved appropriate space, you’ve prepared the soil, and you have some kind of trellis installed or ready to install. I hope you haven’t worked too far ahead. We’re about to plant peas…

  • Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook Video – I’ve planted peas as late as three weeks after the last frost date and still had terrific yields…..

One of my first pea sprouts of 2012! Peas are amazingly hardy. I once left some too long in the vegetable crisper of my refrigerator, and they sprouted! Cold nights and cool days keep pea plants vigorous, but when the temperature climbs into the 80s, pea plants wilt and die.

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Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook Video

For the past six installments, Your Small Kitchen Garden has been all about getting a garden ready for planting, and then starting seeds in the ground. If you’ve been following along, you’ve read about how I plant peas. I crowd my pea seeds, and provide a strong trellis for them to climb. By the end of the pea season, each trellis resembles a thick hedge of pea plants stretching five or six feet high.

Plant Peas Now

In hardiness zones six and lower, it’s not too late to plant peas. Especially if you’re still getting overnight frost, if you can work the soil, you can plant just about any variety of pea and expect success. However, as your region’s last expected frost date approaches (mine is but 10 days away), you’re flirting with “too late.” Your peas may start strong in the cooler weeks, but any significant early heat could kill the plants—or at least stunt their growth.

I’ve planted peas as late as three weeks after the last frost date and still had terrific yields. At that point I probably wouldn’t have planted at all if not for wilt-resistant varieties of peas. It’s a little sad to choose varieties for any characteristic other than flavor, but I’ve yet to grow a pea variety that was less than awesome. Around here, I can reliably buy Wando pea seeds, and they stand up remarkably well against the heat of early summer.

In this video, I wordlessly summarize how I prepare the soil in a row in my small kitchen garden. Then I narrate the steps as I plant a row of peas and erect a trellis for them. Please enjoy:



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Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 2

Pea Plant Babies

Pea sprouts in my small kitchen garden have made an excellent start.

You’ve decided how many peas you’re going to plant in your small kitchen garden, you’ve reserved appropriate space, you’ve prepared the soil, and you have some kind of trellis installed or ready to install. I hope you haven’t worked too far ahead. We’re about to plant peas, but there’s a final consideration especially for people planting where there hasn’t yet been a garden. Before we plant, let’s talk about nitrogen.

Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria

Dig back to high school biology class. You might recall that some plants—clover and beans are popular examples—are nitrogen-fixers. This means that they capture nitrogen in their roots… and that’s important for your garden. Other plants suck nitrogen out of the soil, so growing nitrogen-fixers (whose roots remain in the soil after harvest) helps prepare the soil for later crops.

I turned a garden-fork’s-width of soil, raked out the clumps, stretched a guideline, and hoed in a 3-inch deep furrow. This will become the first row of peas I plant this season.

But nitrogen-fixing plants don’t work alone. They enter into symbiotic relationships with bacteria that live in soil. When the bacteria and plant roots get together, nitrogen-fixing happens. Peas and other nitrogen-fixing plants grow best when these bacteria are abundant.

Chances are, wherever you plant peas, there are enough bacteria to make the plants happy—especially if you plant in a bed that has previously grown vegetables.

To be certain, you can inoculate the soil—or the peas—with store-bought bacteria. Depending on the brand you purchase, you soak the pea seeds in it, or you add it to the soil when you plant them.

I’ve never used an inoculant and have always been satisfied with my pea harvests, though I’ve read that using an inoculant can increase productivity by 50% or more… but compared to what? The bottom line: using an inoculant can’t hurt, and it might give you better results than you’d get without it.

Despite the planting instructions on pea packages, I set pea seeds about one-and-a-half inches apart along each side of an 8-inch furrow.

Plant Peas in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Every pea seed packet I’ve seen tells you how to plant peas. You’ll do fine to follow those instructions. I have an unorthodox approach that has always worked well for me. Here’s how it goes:

Squint, and you can see pea seeds on each side of this furrow. The parallel rows of seeds are about six inches apart.

1. I prepare soil according to the low-till method I described in an earlier post. Actually, I follow the entire regimen as shown through step 10 in that post. At step 7, I create a hoe’s-width furrow. Then I add compost and stir, and I’m ready to set pea seeds.

2. I lay pea seeds in two rows along the bottom of the furrow. I make these rows as far apart from each other as they can be and still be at the bottom. This means the rows of peas within a single furrow end up about six inches apart. I place a pea every one-and-a-half-to-two inches within a row.

Within a few days of planting, I stand a trellis that runs down the middle of a double-row of peas. You can see that the row is slightly depressed below the rest of the garden. My garden bed drains quickly when it rains, so I depress the rows to help collect rain water and spray from my garden hose.

3. I crumble the larger chunks of soil from the mounded sides of the furrow onto the peas, and gently pull the soil from the edges into the trench. I try not to move the peas as I cover them over. I’ve always planted peas about ½ to ¾ of an inch deep, and decided this season that that’s too shallow. Especially if you plant early, cover seeds with at least an inch of soil. When I plant, inevitably several peas wash to the surface after I water a few times. In warm weather, this hasn’t been a problem. However, this year an early spring freeze damaged peas I hadn’t buried well.

4. I walk on the newly-covered row of peas with my feet side-by-side. I take baby steps to ensure that I step on every inch of soil, compressing the soil and the peas so that the trench finishes about an inch below the surrounding soil.

5. I erect a pea trellis that runs down the center of the row and will provide support for pea plants up to about four-and-a-half feet. My plants usually grow a foot or more above the tops of my trellises.

6. I water the peas heavily, and I water them each day that it doesn’t rain until young plants have two or three sets of leaves. After that, I water if the soil becomes dry.

Ongoing Care of Pea Plants

Plant deep—I have a lot of experience planting peas too shallowly. This evolved starting when I switched from buying packets of pea seeds to buying pea seeds in bulk. The bulk seed comes without instructions, so I guessed how deeply to plant.

I tend to plant peas too shallow and some wash to the surface after I water a few times. I usually shove them under with my finger, or sprinkle soil on them if they’ve softened up much. Next season, my pea seeds are going at least an inch underground.

Generally, my seeds ended up deep enough, but especially shallow ones gave rise to a post-planting ritual: after watering two or three times, I walk along my rows looking for peas that I’ve washed out of the soil. When I find them, I press them into the ground with a fingertip.

Don’t fall into this pattern. Make sure you get your pea seeds at least an inch under ground. It will reduce the chance that they’ll wash to the surface, and it will protect them from adverse weather that’s common in early spring.

Train the vines—There’s no guarantee that pea vines will grow toward the trellis you provide for them. Help them by gently moving the vines as needed… but don’t rush them; pea vines are quite weak and if you bend them too much they’ll crimp. Ideally, rest tendrils against part of the trellis they can encircle and they’ll curl around it in less than a day. I often push the end of a pea branch through the trellis and hook a pea flower or a pea pod on the metal wire. Whether this works for you will depend on the design of your trellis; wire fences work really well.

Small Kitchen Garden Pea Tendril

I love the shapes of pea tendrils as they wrap around wires in the trellis.

Pick peas often—Pea plants make more flowers and pods when you harvest the ones they’ve already produced. So, pick peas when they become ready. Don’t let pods expand into thick cylinders with peas crammed together inside. Rather, pick pods that have just filled out… it’s OK if the peas aren’t quite touching each other in the pod, or if they just touch. But when they flatten out against each other, they become woody, dry, and starchy; they aren’t nearly as fun to eat.

Pick gently—Pea vines are weak, so don’t just yank pods off the vines. Rather, hold the vine still, and gently pull the pea pod from it. With practice, you can pick one-handed without damaging the plants: Grip a pod in the palm of your hand. Use the thumb and forefinger of that hand to push the stem away from the pod until the stem breaks free. I’ll try to post photos or a video demonstrating this when I start harvesting peas in May.


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Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 1

In a few days, this pod will plump up and provide, apparently, five peas for the pot. It’ll take several dozen similar pods to produce enough peas for a meal.

Do you want to grow peas in your small kitchen garden? It’s a tough question. Peas require a lot of space for a modest harvest. On the other hand, garden fresh peas taste astonishingly better than any other peas you’ll ever eat. If your kitchen garden is space-challenged, there are so many other vegetables that will produce more in the same space as peas.

That said, I plant peas every year. In fact, I dedicate a significant chunk of garden space to peas—about a third of my planting space. But that’s not as big a liability as it seems because pea plants don’t live long. They prefer cool weather and tend to die off as days get hot. I usually remove my pea plants in June, and plant the same area with other vegetables—most often, squash.

Don’t Rush to Plant Peas

If you buy pea seed in one of those envelopes from a seed display in a store, read the package! They can’t print much on those envelopes, so what they do print is probably useful.

One thing you’ll learn is that you can plant peas as soon as the soil thaws in your garden bed. You can, but there’s no need to rush. Peas will sprout when the soil temperature is around 40F degrees, but they won’t grow much until the temperature increases. Give your soil a chance to dry out a bit and warm up. Except in very warm years, peas that I plant in mid-March in hardiness zone 5/6 might mature a week earlier than peas I plant in mid-April… so I try to find other gardening tasks for March such as pruning and grafting in my fruit trees.

Prepare to Plant Peas

When it’s time to plant peas, you must first prepare the soil. Depending on your planting bed, this may be a monumental task, or it may be a non-issue. In my slightly raised-bed layout, I need to walk in the garden bed to be able to till, plant, weed, and harvest. This means that each spring I’m dealing with compacted soil; my vegetables, I know, will be happier growing in loose soil. I feel compelled to loosen the soil before I plant.

The pea plants in this row have just produced their first flowers. I set peas so close together that they grow into a hedge. Notice that the pea trellis runs down the middle of the row – which is actually two rows of plants spaced about six inches apart.

When your planting beds are narrow enough that you can work them without walking in them, the soil remains loose from year-to-year; you can be a “no-till” gardener.

My last three posts discussed soil preparation for various types of planting beds. Whichever style and approach you use, this discussion about planting peas starts where those posts end: I’m assuming you’ve prepared your soil for planting, and you’re ready to put seeds in the ground.

Space Considerations

Peas grow on vines. Pea stems are slender and can support very little weight. So, as the plant gets taller, it extends tendrils that curl around whatever they touch and support the plant. In my experience even “bush” varieties of peas are vines… they just happen to be shorter than typical pea vines.

When you plant peas, it’s important to provide a trellis. This can be a garden fence, a roll of chicken wire stretched above the planting area, strands of twine hanging from above… whatever suits your fancy.

Pea plants I’ve grown reach about six feet before they wilt in the heat of late spring. I built pea trellises that provide support for about 4 and a half feet, so the tops of the plants sometimes topple under their own weight when they grow above the trellises. Before I’d made trellises, I tried bush peas. The package promised 18-inch plants, and I got 24-in plants. Thinking bush I hadn’t provided a trellis, so the plants lay on top of each other. I plant peas densely, so there was a heavy load of plants that trapped a lot of moisture; the plants on the bottom rotted.

The point of the story is that even if you find a short variety of peas, you should provide something for the vines to climb.

Pick Your Pea Variety

I’ve noticed only three significant differences between pea varieties: size of plants, palatability of the pods, and wilt-resistance. We talked about the sizes of plants.

Palatability of pods—if you’re growing peas, the pods don’t matter. You’ll find varieties that claim more peas per pod than others, and you’ll find varieties that claim you can eat the pods, or let the pods mature and then eat the peas. And, of course, you can find snow peas—varieties intended to grow pods but don’t even think of letting them fill with peas.

Wilt-resistance—Pea plants don’t like heat. When they experience several sequential days of temperatures in the 80s and above, their leaves curl and their tendrils shrivel. If the temperatures hold, the plants die. Wilted plants will recover if the temperatures falls, but a mid-spring heat wave can seriously decrease your pea yields.

There are wilt-resistant peas that handle hot days far better than other varieties. Which brings us back to when to plant.

This pea pod sat for a month too long in the produce drawer of my refrigerator. All the peas in it sprouted, despite the refrigerator’s temperature being close to 40F degrees.

When to Plant Peas

You can plant peas as soon as the soil thaws. Peas will start growing in soil that’s above 40F degrees. I’ve had peas sprout in the produce drawer of my refrigerator which runs right around 40 degrees.

If you choose to plant that early, plant the peas deep. I learned this season that I tend not to plant peas deep enough. I planted in late March, and peas I’d left shallow softened up and then froze during a sequence of crazy cold nights. 10-15% of my seeds failed. (That same freeze would probably not have harmed pea plants had any already emerged above the soil… pea plants don’t mind nippy, frosty nights.) In most years, I’ve planted in mid May, and even peas that ended up on the surface because of my carelessness rooted and grew.

So, as I said: if you plant early, plant deep. I suspect my peas would have been fine had I set the seeds ¾ inch underground.

How do I get away with planting peas in mid-May? I buy a variety called Wando. These are amazingly wilt-resistant, and I’ve seen them suffer only in one very hot spring out of about a dozen.

Here’s my recommendation for when to plant peas in your small kitchen garden: Sow directly in the ground from two to four weeks before the last frost date.

How Many Peas to Plant?

A single pea vine may produce a modest single serving of peas. But you won’t get those peas all at once. Rather, as the vine reaches about 12 inches, flowers emerge. The vine continues to grow, and those flowers produce pea pods. As the first pods develop, more flowers emerge higher up on the now taller vine. This sequence continues… but you must pick the fully-developed pods as they become ready or the plant will stop making new ones. Once the vine starts producing peas, it may develop two-to-five pods every three-to-five days. So, you might harvest twenty, thirty, or forty pods from a single plant… but when you harvest the last pod, peas from the first one will be thirty days old.

A pea flower in the dew has inspired many a poet and playwright. OK, I made that up. But pea flowers are delicate and exotic: beautiful harbingers of the coming harvest.

All that to say: you need several pea plants to grow enough peas for a particular meal. My experiences may help you decide how many.

I plant 4 ounces of seed in three doubled rows totaling 42 feet. (I crowd my peas, as you’ll see in my next installment on this topic.) My family of five eats peas at two or three meals a week, and I still freeze around two gallons of peas to eat during the off season. I did some noodling about this some weeks ago and concluded that I harvest about one gallon of peas from every seven feet of doubled rows. Or, for every ounce of seeds I plant, I harvest between five and six quarts of peas.

I’ve never formally kept track, and different varieties of peas, different soil conditions, weather, and garden pests will all affect yield. So, the best honest advice I can provide: plant at least enough peas to assure you’ll have a meal’s worth when you do harvest.

How to Plant Peas

My next post will explain how I plant peas. My approach is a bit unorthodox, squeezing way more plants into my small kitchen garden than the package suggests. You’ll do fine to follow instructions on the pea seed package, or read my next post and get a look at extreme pea culture.

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