It may surprise you to find that it is easier to find plants that thrive in the sun than in the shade.

Especially if you live in the desert Southwest. Why is this, you may ask?

Well, it can be hard to find plants that can handle the intense, dry heat of our climate while flourishing in the shade. While there are a number of lovely plants that can work in shady conditions, it’s hard to know which ones will, which is why I make sure to include my favorites for students in my online gardening class.

So, what do you do if you have a shady spot to fill?

One of my favorites is Yellow Dot (Wedolia trilobata), which is a vining ground cover with lush, dark green leaves interspersed with yellow daisy-like flowers.
Here is a plant that does fabulously in dark shade and will handle brief periods of full sun. 
 
Yellow Dot grows quickly to 1 ft. high and 4 – 6 ft. wide and is hardy to 30 degrees. It’s susceptible to frost damage, which can be easily pruned back in spring.
One of my favorite characteristics of this lush green ground cover is that it has a long bloom period – spring through fall. 
 
It grows beautifully underneath trees, along pathways, and among boulders. You just want to be sure to allow enough room for them to spread.
 
So, if you have a difficult shady spot that needs a plant – try Yellow Dot.
 
How about you?  Do you have a favorite plant that does well in shady spots?  I’d love to hear about it!
white-crusty-salt-build-up-plants

I have a weakness (well, one of many) to confess to you today….

I absolutely love salt.  

In fact, I have a theory that the reason that so many people love french fries is not the potatoes or the fat it is fried in. No, it is the salt that you put on them afterwards. I mean, can you imagine eating an unsalted french fry? 

In preparation for this blog post, I went through my kitchen and pulled out all of my salt & pepper shakers.

 
It’s kind of embarrassing isn’t it?  I have so many.
 
But in my defense, I must admit that I collect different types of pottery and need salt and pepper shakers for each set.  
My husband made me my wooden salt cellar, which I keep near the stove when I cook.
 
Now, I do not use as much salt as I used to. In fact, I am trying to be better about it.  When I visited the doctor earlier this week for my physical, I still had low blood pressure, much to my relief.
 
Well, we all know that too much salt is bad for you and can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure. But did you know that too much salt is not good for your plants as well?
 
Plants don’t get ‘high blood  pressure’ with too much salt, but they do have another problem that shows up.
They get brown tips on their leaves, which we call ‘salt burn’.
 
white-crusty-salt-build-up-plants
Here is another way that you can tell plants are getting too much salt. Shallow watering causes the water in the soil to evaporate quickly, leaving behind the salts. The salts look like a white crust on the soil around your plants.

At this point you may be wondering how plants get too much salt?  

Well, both soil and water have naturally occurring salts in them. This is especially true in the Desert Southwest where our water is somewhat salty and our soils can suffer from salt build-up due to high evaporation.
 
So what do you do if you have indoor or outdoor plants that have brown tips?
The solution is very easy.
 
Water deeply.
 
That’s it!
 
 
Here is a shrub that has signs of salt build-up. I encountered with one of my clients during a landscape consultation – he had other shrubs that looked similar.
 
I will tell you what I told him:
 
If your outdoor plants look like this, first water the affected plant with your hose on a slow trickle for at least 2 – 3 hours.  This helps to ‘leach’ or flush the salts away from the roots.
Thereafter, adjust your irrigation schedule so that your shrubs are watered to an approximate depth of 18 inches deep each time. Sadly, most people water too often, too shallow and not long enough.  
 
For example, I water my shrubs and perennials every 5 – 7 days in the summer. This takes approximately 2 hours for my plants to be watered to a depth of 2 ft. Of course the time it takes to water that deeply is different for each landscape and is dependent on a variety of factors including soil type and water pressure.
If your houseplant has brown tips (salt burn), then simply flush the salts out by deeply watering.  You can do this by putting your plant in the sink or bathtub and let water slowly trickle on your plant for 1 – 2 hours.
I cover landscape irrigation in depth with my students in my online course, Desert Gardening 101, but for those of you looking for advice right now here’s what I recommend. Search online for watering guidelines on your city’s website – most have schedules including recommended depths.
So in closing I’ll leave you with these two tips:
Be sure to limit your salt intake AND water your plants deeply to prevent salt burn.
Parry's-Penstemon-attractive-garden-entry-desert

Last month, I diagnosed my first ever case of color blindness.

Now, I realize that I am no doctor or medical authority. However, as a horticulturist, I am somewhat of an expert in the garden, which is where I made my diagnosis.

attractive-drought-tolerant-landscape-desert-garden

Attractive drought-tolerant landscape in the Southwest

Before I tell you more about my unorthodox diagnosis, I invite you to look at this photo. It’s of a lovely low-desert landscape filled with a mixture of trees, shrubs, and cacti.

Parry's-Penstemon-attractive-garden-entry-desert

Front entry to desert garden with flowering Parry’s Penstemon

Here is another lovely desert landscape with succulents, vines, and a flowering Parry’s Penstemon.

My client has a garden much like those photographed above. It’s filled with a variety of flowering shrubs, agaves, cacti, and ground covers.

So when he called me in a panic telling me that the plants in his garden were doing poorly, I came ready to help him out.

However, once I got there, I didn’t see any problems. His plants looked great! He told me that his plants did look fine before he left on vacation. But, when he returned, they seemed less green and somewhat sickly.

It took me a while to assure him that his garden was healthy, and then we made small talk and I asked him where he went on vacation. His answer? Michigan!

That was an AH-HA moment! I now knew what the problem was, and it wasn’t with his plants. It was his eyes and his perception of green.

Let me illustrate:

Lilac-bush-winery-michigan

A large lilac bush next to a winery in Traverse City, Michigan

Michigan is one of my favorite states to visit because my oldest daughter lives there with her family.

It is a beautiful place to explore with lovely gardens.

perennial-bed-Michigan

Colorful bearded iris in the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

There are stunning botanical gardens awash with vibrant flowers spring through summer along with vivid greens.

farm-in-michigan

Example of a Michigan Farm at Frederik Meijer Gardens

Visiting Michigan in summer is something that I look forward to every year. The gardens with their lush greens are a soothing balm when I’m tired of the hot, dry summer heat back home.

My client had an experience much like this, enjoying the saturated greens of a Midwest summer before he returned home to his garden.

Now, take another look at the desert landscapes below:

attractive-drought-tolerant-landscape-desert-garden

Parry's-Penstemon-attractive-garden-entry-desert

Do they look a little less colorful to you? Dare I say drab? 

When we travel to regions outside of the desert, our eyes become accustomed to bright, saturated colors that are part of that landscape. Then, when we return home, the soft, subtle shades of green are less evident to us due to the ‘green overload’ we are returning from.

As I explained this to my client, he finally understood that there was nothing wrong with his plants, just his eyes.

The good news is that this is temporary color blindness and that his garden will soon look as beautiful and vibrant as it did before he went on vacation.

Have you ever suffered from temporary color blindness in the garden?

The 5 Most Common Mistakes People Make in the Desert Garden

The 5 Most Common Mistakes People Make in the Desert Garden

I am always looking for ways to help people on their desert garden journey and so I’m offering a FREE class on 5 reasons you are struggling with your desert garden.

As a horticulturist and landscape consultant, I have seen people making the same mistakes, which prevent them from having a beautiful outdoor space.

Because of this, they unintentionally ‘hurt’ the plants by over-maintaining them and spending money on unneeded products and landscape services.

If this sounds like you, I AM HERE TO HELP!

I’ve been helping people like you for over 20 years and I can help you too!

Free Webinar AZ Plant Lady

This LIVE class is on January 17th, at 1:00 MST. *If you want to register for this free class, but can’t attend it live, it will be recorded so you can watch it at our convenience for a limited time.

Knowledge is power and once you know what you are doing wrong in the landscape – you have taken one GIANT step in having a desert garden that you are proud of.

CLICK the following link to learn more and register – //bit.ly/2RpFFb5

I hope to see you there!

I’m back with design notes from the field, where I share observations and recommendations from my work as a landscape consultant. This edition features a new build, metal art, weeds, and shade. I hope that you can pick out helpful tips that you can use in your landscape.

Up first, is a new house that is being constructed in east-central Phoenix. The home that used to stand on this lot was taken down to the foundation and an energy-efficient home is coming up in its place. I was hired by the architect to design a landscape that will fit its clean, modern lines.

Several years ago, I solely worked as a landscape designer, working with homebuilders, creating new landscapes from scratch with a blank palette. Nowadays, as a landscape consultant design is just one aspect of what I do as part of an overall plan within an existing landscape, which also includes maintenance recommendations. Now and then, I create one for new homes, and this one has some fun challenges.

The look the architect wants is simple and uncluttered with room for the new homeowner to add to it if desired. So, I am concentrating on using plants to create a framework. This includes two trees in the front along with two along the west-facing side to provide screening from the road and protection from afternoon sun.

Foundation plants will soften the base of the house while taller shrubs will soften the corners. Ground covers will add low-level interest along with a few agave and cactuses for an accent.

A splash of color will be added by the front entry with the placement of a large, colorful pot filled with an easy to care for succulent.

Often, I am asked for advice on what to do in somewhat unique situations. In this case, the homeowner needed advice for what to do for the wall behind the BBQ, which keeps turning black after grilling. 

I tend to look at problems like this as opportunities for adding more interest to the outdoor space. In this case, I recommended adding garden art in the form of rusted metal botanical panels. There is a local artist in Phoenix who creates metal panels with plant shapes cut out of them. He offers standard pieces but also does custom work. 

The rusted metal garden art will add welcome interest behind the BBQ as well as disguise any blackened area on the wall.

Here is an example of the metal botanical panels from another client’s home, which was where I first encountered the work of this artist. You can learn more about this metal artist here

Weeds will always be a problem in the landscape, like these I saw at a client’s home growing through the patio. The solution to this area is to slowly pour boiling water on weeds growing through the cracks, which will kill them. For travertine, only do this if the stone is sealed. 

To wrap our design notes, here is a landscape where the homeowner wanted to concentrate on plants up close to the house and not add any further out. Now if this front yard didn’t have any trees, the absence of plants would cause it to look barren and washed out. However, the patterns from the branches of the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde add beautiful patterns on the ground, so you can get away with leaving it bare, which draws attention to the lovely shadows of the branches.

I hope you have enjoyed this latest session of design notes. I’ll have more for you in the future.

**Stay tuned for a special announcement that I’ll be making the beginning of September. I’m working on a new project that will enable me to help you even more to create, grow, and maintain a beautiful outdoor space in the desert. I’ve been working on it for a while and am so excited to share it with you soon!

Lovely clematis flowers

Do you ever find yourself transfixed by a pretty face (flower)? I have. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a flower that I didn’t like. However, sometimes it’s easy to get fooled by a pretty face, or in this case, a flower.

Over the weekend, I made a quick trip to my local grocery store where I noticed a display of beautiful flowering plants that stopped me dead in my tracks. 

Right by the entry was a collection of lovely clematis vines. Their lush green foliage and large purple flowers were gorgeous and enticed passersby into taking one home.

This made me mad, and I don’t get angry quickly. So, why was I upset? It’s not because I have anything against clematis – I think that they are lovely and have taken some photos of them throughout my garden travels including:

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Olbrich Gardens, Wisconsin

Butchart Gardens, in British Columbia, Canada

Astoria, Oregon

Aberystwyth, Wales

If you have paid attention to where I have taken the pictures of clematis, you may begin to understand why I was upset to see this outside my Phoenix area grocery store. 

The reason is that clematis are ill-suited for growing in a low desert climate. They struggle to survive without a lot of fuss, and you’ll be lucky if you see any blooms. 

The problem is, the average person doesn’t know this and envision how nice the clematis will look in their garden, so they hand over $25 and carry their new plant home with the assumption that the store wouldn’t sell plants that very difficult to grow in their area. 

Sadly, they are wrong. Unless they are a very experienced gardener, who is knowledgeable about clematis, they will have a vine that is barely clinging to life in a few weeks and blame themselves for its condition.

Sequim, Washington

The moral of this story? Don’t be fooled by a pretty face. Avoid impulse buys and research before buying plants for your garden. If you see a plant that you have never seen before, there is a greater chance that it may have difficulty growing in your climate.

For information on how to choose the right plants for your garden, I invite you to read my post, 5 Tips for Choosing Plants From the Nursery

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Cereus cactus, golden barrel cactus, and firecracker penstemon

Is your outdoor space looking rather drab? If so, you aren’t alone – many landscapes can appear somewhat dull, especially if there is a lack of color. But, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

One of my favorite aspects of my job as a landscape consultant is to help my clients to transform their garden from drab to colorful and it is quite easy to do. 

I invite you to join me as I revisit with a client two-years after I created a planting plan for her existing, lackluster landscape. 

BEFORE – Corner of Driveway

Initially, this area did little to add to the curb appeal of the home. Overgrown red yucca plants and a cholla cactus created a ‘messy’ and boring look to this high-profile spot in the landscape.

AFTER

Removing the old plants and adding angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) and gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa), creates colorful interest while adding texture. Before, the boulders were hidden behind the overgrown plants, so now they serve as an excellent backdrop for the new additions. 

 

The corners of the driveway are one of the most viewed spots in the landscape and are often the first part people see when they drive by. It’s important to anchor them visually with plants that look great all year and preferably produce colorful flowers or have an attractive shape or color. I always like to add boulders to help anchor both corners as well.

These areas are also critical in that they create symmetry, connecting both sides of the landscape, which is done by using the same types of plants on each side.

 

Although there is no ‘before’ photo for the entry, here is an example of plants that will add year-round color because of their overlapping bloom seasons. ‘Blue Elf’ aloe blooms in winter and on into early spring while ‘New Gold Mound’ lantana will flower spring through fall, as the aloe fades into the background. A ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) brings a nice vertical element to this spot and will grow taller with age.

BEFORE

Along the front entry path, a tall cereus (Cereus peruvianus) cactus adds a welcome vertical element while the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) creates excellent texture contrast. However, something is missing in this area, in my opinion.

AFTER

A colorful element was what was missing in this area. A single firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) adds beauty while also attracting hummingbirds.

BEFORE

On the corner of this lot was a palo brea tree with a large desert spoon and turpentine bushes. Overall, there was nothing exciting in this spot.

AFTER

The turpentine bushes were removed to make way for a set of gopher plants, which served to tie in this corner of the garden with the areas next to the driveway. These succulents flower in spring and add nice spiky texture throughout the rest of the year.

Purple and white trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) serve to create a colorful carpet throughout the warm months of the year. This type of lantana can struggle in full sun in the middle of summer in the low-desert garden but, thrive underneath the filtered shade of a palo verde tree.

When working with an existing landscape, I relish the challenge of determining what existing plants still add beauty to the outdoor space, or have the potential to if pruned correctly. Sometimes an ugly, overgrown shrub can be transformed into something beautiful if pruned back severely. Often, it’s up to me to decide what goes and what stays. Then, the real fun part begins, which is selecting what areas need new plants and what ones will work best.

I find that many people think that to renovate a landscape, you need to get rid of most of the plants and put in a lot of new ones. But, this is rarely the case. All you need to do is keep the plants that will continue to add to the curb appeal or create a beautiful, mature backdrop for new plants and new plants should be concentrated in high-profile areas where their impact will be maximized.

What would you like to get rid of in your landscape and what would you keep?

Noelle Johnson, AKA, ‘AZ Plant Lady’ is a horticulturist, landscape consultant, and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. While writing and speaking on a variety of gardening topics keeps her busy, you’ll often find her outside planting vegetables, picking fruit from her trees, or testing the newest drought-tolerant plants. 

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Javelina stepping out of an arroyo

Yesterday, I had a rather unexpected encounter with a javelina while taking pictures of a landscape. I think he was as surprised as I was to see him and he retreated back to his arroyo after a couple of minutes. That meeting inspired me to write this post and how they affect the desert garden – primarily what types of plants they like to eat.  

Javelina travel through arroyos (washes)

To state that I was surprised to come so close to a javelina is an understatement. In the over twenty years that I’ve worked in desert gardens, I seldom see these pig-like mammals as they usually sleep through the day underneath mesquite or other desert trees.

Often referred to as ‘wild pigs’ due to their resemblance to a boar, they aren’t pigs, but are a peccary, which is a medium-sized mammal with hooves. Javelina are found throughout the Southwest, but their range also extends to Central and South America. In urban settings, you’ll find them in more naturalized areas.

They frequently travel in herds, although I only saw these two adults on this day. While it can be enjoyable to view them from afar (don’t get too close as they can be dangerous), dealing with the damage that they cause to gardens isn’t fun.

 

Javelina love to eat the pretty things we plant in our desert landscapes such as flowering annuals, and they don’t stop there. The spines on your prized cactus won’t deter a hungry javelina – they go right in and munch on the base of a prized columnar cactus as well as the pads of prickly pear cactus.

When surveying the damage that they cause to the garden, what makes it worse, is that javelina frequently don’t eat what they dig up.

My relationship with javelina is a long one, which began by working to keep them away from the thirty-six tee boxes that I had to plant with flowering annuals seasonally. Not surprisingly, they were drawn to these colorful islands and would dislodge the plants by rooting them up with their snouts before eating them.

My crew and I had some mixed success with spraying squirrel repellent every few days on the petunias, but it was a lot of work and not foolproof.

Javelina will zero in on popular potted annuals such as pansies, petunias, snapdragons, which are like candy to them. While geraniums aren’t their favorite potted flower, they will eat them too if hungry enough.

If you want pretty containers filled with flowers and live in a neighborhood where javelina are present, you’ll need to place the pots in an enclosed area or courtyard where they can’t reach. 

Bacopa

 

Lavender

There are some flowering plants that they usually stay away from and these include Bacopa and Lavender, which can be used in containers.

 

Depending on the time of year, a javelina’s diet changes, based on what is available. In winter, citrus they will grab citrus fruit off of the tree.

In summer, mesquite seedpods are one of their favorite foods.

A Cereus peruvianus cactus that has some bites taken out of its base by javelina.

A fairly common sight is a columnar cactus with some bites taken out of its base, where javelina are present. In most cases, the damage is largely cosmetic and the cactus will be fine. However, to prevent further damage, you can surround the base of the cactus with a wire mesh cage.

While there is no guarantee that javelina won’t eat the plants in your desert garden from time to time, there are some plants that are less palatable to them than others. Here a helpful link for javelina resistant plants, but I must tell you that if a javelina is hungry enough, it will eat the plants on this list – I know this from personal experience. 

The only foolproof way to keep them away from eating your plants is to keep them out with a fence or wall.

Do you have javelina where you live? What type of plants do you notice them eating? Any plants that they seem to leave alone?

 

Overgrown, old Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)

You have undoubtedly seen an old, overgrown shrub filled with mostly leafless branches that rarely flower anymore. Or, perhaps it is an aged succulent that has brown patches that are slowly encroaching onto the upper parts of the plant from the base. So, what is the solution for plants that no longer add decorative value to our landscape?

Old rosemary filled with unproductive woody growth

While some woody plants such as Texas sage or oleander can be rejuvenated by severely pruning them back, not all plants respond favorably to this and grow out again. Let’s take a look at some Southwestern favorite shrubs and succulents and talk about whether you should prune severely or when it’s best to replace.

Oleander that has undergone severe renewal pruning in spring.

Many shrubs can be rejuvenated by severely pruning them back, which gets rid of old, woody growth and stimulates the production of new branches, which will flower more (in the case of flowering shrubs). It is helpful to think of severe renewal pruning as the “fountain of youth” for many plants. This type of pruning is best done in spring, once the weather begins to warm up. Shrubs that respond well to this include bougainvillea, jojoba, lantana, oleander, Texas sage, and yellow bells. It’s important to note that not all shrubs will come back from this method, but the pruning didn’t kill the shrub – it only hastened the demise of the plant that was already in progress. If this happens, replace it with another.

Old desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri)

There are some plants that don’t respond well to renewal pruning or where that isn’t possible to do in the case of succulents. In this case, the solution is simple – take them out and replace them with a younger version of the same plant. Examples of plants that are better removed and replaced include aloe, desert spoon, red yucca (hesperaloe), rosemary, and prickly pear cactus. When you think about it, the cost isn’t very high, when you consider the beauty that these plants added to your landscape for eight years or more.

Heavenly Cloud Texas Sage several weeks after severe pruning.

When you think about it, the cost isn’t very high, when you consider the beauty that these plants added to your landscape for eight years or more.

*Have you severely pruned back an old shrub and had it come back beautifully? Or, maybe you recently removed and replaced some old succulents?

 

Firecracker Penstemon

Do you know someone who possesses a green thumb? Usually, it’s someone that has a beautiful garden that stands out among their neighbors, which is filled with thriving plants that are flourishing. 

While you may think that people with green thumbs are born and not made, I’m going to let you in on a BIG secret – behind every green thumb are many dead plants.

 

It’s true. There isn’t a single avid gardener who has never experienced a plant dying on them. Of course, green thumbs may be hesitant to reveal this fact because dead or failing plants are usually pulled out before anyone notices.

I’m not exempt from this either. I’ve got a dead plant or two, currently in my garden that are doing nothing but collecting leaves at their base and I’ve had countless plants die on my watch.

Newly planted ‘Blue Bell’ (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Believe it or not, it’s the fact that plants have died in the garden that helps a person to become a good at growing them. While your first inclination is to get frustrated about the loss of a plant, it helps to look at it as a gardening lesson.

“Each dead plant is an opportunity to learn about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future and become a better gardener in the process.”

There are several factors that can affect whether or not a plant does well where it’s planted.  These include the following:

  1. Is it well-adapted to your climate?
  2. Was it planted in the right exposure (sun, filtered sun, or shade)?
  3. Did it receive the proper amount of irrigation?
  4. Was it maintained correctly (pruning, fertilizing)?

 

New ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis)

Researching plants before purchasing them will help you to avoid many potential problems, but often the best way to learn how a plant will do is to grow them yourself.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to put a shade-loving plant in full sun, or vice versa as you’ll probably be replacing it soon.

As a horticulturist, I experiment in my garden with newer plants that have come onto the market. I recently planted several ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis) grasses. I’ve heard a few different things from people who have grown it regarding the best exposure for it – one says that filtered sun is a must while the other states that it can handle full sun. So, I am trying them out in my front yard to see for myself where they will receive filtered shade until the afternoon when they will be blasted by the sun. 

*One fun bonus of being a horticulturist and a garden writer is that growers often send me their plants for free so I can let them know how they grow in a low-desert garden.

A new Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) finds a home next to my gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa).

Other things that can affect how new plants will do are nearby plants – specifically trees.

One month later.

A tree that creates dense shade will make it difficult for many flowering plants to do anything but grow foliage at the expense of flowers. However, filtered shade from desert natives such as mesquite and palo verde create an ideal environment for many blooming plants that enjoy a little respite from the full sun.

New varieties of autumn sage with the brand new lavender ‘Meerlo’.

Sometimes, there isn’t much information available on new plant introductions and how they will do in an area with extreme weather such as our hot, dry one.  I was given the plants above to see how they would do in my Arizona garden. I knew that the salvia would need some shade to do its best in the low desert, but the lavender was a mystery. I’ve seen some other species of lavender doing well in full sun while others doing well in filtered shade.

As you can see, the ‘Meerlo’ lavender did very well in my zone 9 garden even though the actual information on the plant tag states that it does best in zone 8 and below. What it has not done is flower, which I attribute to the shade it needs to survive my hot, dry garden. But, I’m okay with that as I love the fragrance and color contrast that it adds.

This is a lesson that I could have only learned by trying out this plant. While it could have died, it didn’t and I’ve learned from the experience, which adds to my overall garden knowledge. 

So, the next time you find a dead plant in your garden, see if you can figure out why it died and learn from it. Sometimes plants die when they should be thriving with no apparent reason. Nature isn’t always predictable and sometimes you may have no answers, but you’ll be surprised at what you can learn and before you know it, your thumb may slowly turn ‘green’.

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