I am sitting here in the study, listening to the rain being driven onto the windows by the gale, obsessing about the front garden. Again. Having lived with it for six months now, I feel we are finally starting to get to know one another. Structure apart (for which see the End of Month View post when I get it finished), the focus of my obsession is the planting. Colour, form, feel. What do I want? What does the garden, and the context, demand? And do these coincide?! I find myself falling more and more in love with the front garden and the opportunities it offers. True, there are significant challenges – the fence (part of which blew down today), the pond, the circle bed. But I never fail to be entranced by the “where” of it, the view out across the bay to the cliffs, the wide skies, the weather. Even today, sat eating my lunch, my attention was continually stolen away from my book by the play of the wind in the grasses and shrubs, the way the hazel shone out despite the driving rain and overall grey, the dark slate of the sea lightened by frequent white horses and the crashing of waves on rocks.

View of Traeth Mawr, Cemaes

It is the time of year for northern hemisphere gardeners to find refuge in magazines, books, seed catalogues, even photos of the garden in warmer times. The time of year for seed orders. Which is my current problem. I did the edibles order with no trouble at all, it practically wrote itself. I know what I want to (try to) grow and eat, I know where it is going to be planted. My seeds are all sorted into bags by sowing month, and the first have been set off. There is a slight glitch in that my compost delivery has been delayed by all that snow, but overall, under control.

Cemaes cliffs glowing in the evening sun

The ornamentals, on the other hand, are giving me trouble. With a capital ‘T’. It is a large front garden. I have a small budget. Apart from some shrubs that I brought with me, and a handful I have acquired since arriving here, it will be filled with annuals and, eventually, perennials. Most of which I want to grow from seed. So far so good. But the question arises, what perennials? What feel do I want? What is the colour palette? What is the season of interest? I have spent months pouring over books and magazines and wandering the internet collecting inspiring images and ideas. There are many inspirational images, and oh, so very many plants I would love to grow. But the interesting thing is that the more time I have spent winnowing down the images I am drawn to the more it becomes apparent that the planting schemes that I sigh over, that really make my heart sing, are simple. The palette of plants is limited, leading to a great sense of calm. A few plants are repeated, giving rhythm and continuity. There are strongly contrasting shapes and textures. And if I am going to at least attempt to create my own version of calm beauty that enhances but doesn’t overwhelm the view that I love, then a list of 33 different plants that I apparently intend to grow from seed simply will not do…

View of Cemaes harbour in sun

It’s interesting, the assumptions I approached this project with and what has happened to them. I was certain I wanted a palette of predominantly blues, purples, silvers. It stands to reason, in a coastal garden, that already has some silver and white and blue. And given how much I love verbena bonariensis and how long I have wanted to grow perovskia – which does very well here – not to mention my long suppressed love of eryngiums, the colour palette seemed set. Except. This is an area of browns, bronzes, greens and greys. True, the sea and sky can be deep blue at times, but the beach is shades of brown, with outcrops of rock in shades of green, red and brown. The cliffs are brown. The gorse glows yellow at times, and there is the purple haze of heather in its season, but the plants in the front garden that settle really well into the surrounding landscape are the carex, the blond wisps of stipa tenuissima, the soft yellow of the witch hazel, the muted shades of the shrub roses. Which doesn’t mean an end to my dreams of Russian sage and eryngiums, you only have to look at the way the purple heather sings out against the brown rock of the copper mines, but it does mean that mixing in pale yellows and rusty orangy-browns feels right. And lots of green and white, binding it all together.

purple and brown at the copper mines

So that means a big fat yes to digitalis ferruginea and the lovely pale yellow Giant Scabious. It means keeping all the carex and stipa, and finding a grass to complement them that has more height and presence – (Stipa arundinaceae – or should I be calling it Anemanthele lessoniana – is a contender). I definitely want plenty of grasses, I want to be able to watch them dance in the wind, and I may yet fork out for a trio of Calamagrostis ‘Overdam’. It means that plants that will tolerate full sun and partial shade are preferable, because I will be able to use them throughout the garden, which will help knit it together. I want some winter structure, so evergreen euphorbias like Euphorbia myrsinites could be really useful, I already have the carex and stipa, and I have inherited a collection of hebes, which could also work well. Ironically, it also means that the golden gravel that I was angsting about a few months ago fits in perfectly, so there you go.

cliff-top grasses

The “season of interest” side of things has been interesting. I don’t want all parts of the garden to have to be interesting all the time, I think it will then inevitably wind up looking bitty. On the other hand I have a flowering cherry currently lurking in a pot that I want to use in the fence border, which already has the twisted willows which offer winter interest, and I have a spindle. I am thinking the fence border, at least the section near the house which is in part shade, will be a Spring and Autumn garden, with Spring bulbs, hellebores, blossom, the Smoke Bush also lurking in a pot for a blaze of Autumn colour. The center of the garden should sing loudest in summer, along with the wall border. And I keep having this fantasy of turning the end of the garden, at the far side of where the pond currently sits, into a sunset border, filled with soft yellows and oranges, since the sun sets over that corner and turns the sky some wonderful colours. I will have to be careful of that though. The bright bedding in the circle bed drew the eye all summer, detracting from the view. I don’t want to make the same mistake.

View of Little Beach, Cemaes

For contrasting shapes I am tempted by phormiums, but they are pricey and grow enormous here. I’d like to try Astelia, since that would carry the silver over into the partially shady border, and the much coveted eryngiums will make a stark contrast to other, more billowy, plants. The question is, can I really winnow down my list of “must have” plants to something that (a) I could reasonably expect to grow over the coming couple of years and (b) will form a coherent whole, rather than just satisfying my pent up desire to grow various sun loving perennials that I have never had scope for before… Watch this space…

Sea, sand and rocks

59 thoughts on “Experimenting with Restraint

  1. It’s always difficult to come to a decision isn’t it when the mind flits like a butterfly.

    If it is a large garden couldn’t you have sections of different colour schemes blending and merging into one another with a repeat plant tying things together

    1. Hi Sue, yes, and pretty much that is the plan, but keeping it muted colours. And limiting it to fewer than 33 additional perennials plus what is already there!

  2. That is hard. Restricting your palette, and the number of varieties, will give a sound structure to your garden, but fighting against that is the wish to fill such space with as many of the plants you love as you possibly can! It is so hard to do the sensible thing…

    I managed to restrain myself (mostly) in our front garden so far, promising myself that I could squeeze as many different plants and colours in to the back garden as I can to compensate. The front garden has been a bit slower to establish (and I have changed my mind a little, and popped a few more bulbs in than I really intended to on top of that) but should have a more coherent and formal look when it gets there.

    Your extended colour scheme sounds lovely to work well with your dramatic surroundings, and does give you scope for quite a few lovely things (I too have my eye on that dusky brown foxglove!). No doubt there will be a little creep, a few plants that you just have to slip in without quite being able to justify them against the grand scheme except that you just love them and need to have them(!).

    I like the idea of concentrating different areas on just one or two seasons, too, to avoid bittiness. It is something I have been thinking about recently, and must take into account soon too.

    1. Hi Sara, I did reply to you, but managed to do it as a separate comment… It is there, honest, it says

      Hi Sara, I knew you would be good to “talk” to about this! And I am going to do something similar to you, and in the space at the back that isn’t kitchen garden or promised for lawn, grow all the vibrantly coloured things I also love… I assume there will be mission creep, but at least if I start out restrained, and announce my attention publicly, I might stand more chance. I do have a wonderful image of a pale lemon daisy planted with bright yellow knipholia, the colour of which exactly matches the center of the daisies. It works wonderfully, because the daisy has much more mass, so you just get this little shock of perfectly selected vibrant colour softened by the daisy. Of course I have no idea which either of the plants is.

      The seasonal focus thing is rather attractive, I have always struggled to get a single area looking good year round.

      1. :)
        Your yellow daisy makes me picture Anthemis tinctoria ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ or ‘E.C.Buxton’ – my mother in law has something similar in her garden which is such a wonderful pale lemon yellow in summer. I can imagine a ‘poker’ picking up the central yellow would be rather splendid.

        It’s exciting that your front garden still is quite sizeable, with deep beds, so although aiming for some restraint in palette and varieties, it won’t feel too restrictive to choose plants for.

        1. Oh, you are a Very Bad Woman! Not only does ‘E.C. Buxton’ look to be exactly the plant in my picture, it is one of Beth Chatto’s top 10 garden plants and she sells it. And I will buy the other handful of “proper” plants I can’t grow from seed from her. So you just got me in to trouble… Thank you!

          1. Oopsy. :) I love the look of ‘E.C. Buxton’ and suspect that’s the one my MIL has – which is glorious. I don’t think you needed *much* encouragement ;) – and it’s great that you can expand your order with other wanted plants to spread the delivery charge. Trouble? Noooo.

  3. Hi Sara, I knew you would be good to “talk” to about this! And I am going to do something similar to you, and in the space at the back that isn’t kitchen garden or promised for lawn, grow all the vibrantly coloured things I also love… I assume there will be mission creep, but at least if I start out restrained, and announce my attention publicly, I might stand more chance. I do have a wonderful image of a pale lemon daisy planted with bright yellow knipholia, the colour of which exactly matches the center of the daisies. It works wonderfully, because the daisy has much more mass, so you just get this little shock of perfectly selected vibrant colour softened by the daisy. Of course I have no idea which either of the plants is.

    The seasonal focus thing is rather attractive, I have always struggled to get a single area looking good year round.

  4. Sweet dilemmas, with so many options available it can be daunting but it sounds like you’re slowly figuring out what you want, and what you can realistically achieve in the time frame you wish to work with.

    Some phormiums don’t get huge and remain low. The many coloured varieties of Phormium cookianum are the ones to look out for, so many gorgeous ones to choose from. Phormium tenax is the one that gets gigantic.

    Looking forward to the planting combination you will choose to go for, and what magic you will conjure on your front garden :)

    1. Do you know, I had dismissed the smaller phormiums because they tend to be more tender, but of course living here, that wouldn’t be a problem. Thanks guys, will keep that in mind!

  5. Its good that you have spent some time pondering this and it seems you are slowly getting to know the feel of your garden and the sort of mood you want to create, with scenery like that around you want to enhance it rather than try and compete. I’d say you’ve done well to restrain yourself so far and people always say you should live with your garden for a while before you make too many changes and it seems that you have done that, apart remove things you knew straight away wouldn’t work for you. It must be exciting knowing there are so many new plants for you to try! Look forward to seeing what you do.

    1. Hi Annie, I’m sure some people would be horrified at the number of things I uprooted so quickly, but I am left with some lovely bones to build around. Whether I can stay restrained is a whole other challenge… So many plants, so little space ;-)

    1. Thanks Anna, there won’t be much to show for ages since I will be growing most things from seed! I hope to use annuals to fill in some of the gaps while I wait for the seedlings to fill out.

  6. It’s difficult planning out a new bed but so much fun. I love turning all the ideas over in my mind, this is the perfect time of year for doing this. Sounds like you have some great ideas and are enjoying the process. Can I just say how beautiful that photo is of the coast with the purple thistle in the foreground and the blazing yellows in the back. Gives me ideas for my own flower bed.

    1. Hi Marguerite, you are right, this is the perfect time to be dreaming about new borders, and I do really enjoy the process, even if it does take over my life! I’m glad you got some inspiration from the cliff top photo, I get lots of ideas for planting combinations from the wild places around here. I am looking forward to going out and about in Spring to see what is happening, there and up the river valley.

  7. You are so much further through the thinking process than I am here, but it is the siting of the garden in the landscape that seems to be the key. The colour palette you are thinking about certainly chimes with me too, and the use of grasses. Can I suggest Miscanthus sinesis as a tall one? The specimen I inherited here has stood up to winter winds very well. I think it is Silberlicht or something similar.

    1. Hi Judith, I think you are right, it is a tremendous help having such a strong landscape to inform me, it does restrict the choices somewhat, which is paradoxically very helpful! As to Miscanthus, I love them, I had quite a few in my last garden and am sorely tempted, actually more by M. malepartus because of the white stripe down the center of the leaves. My only hesitations are budget and the fact that I I used them a lot before. When I first got here I almost wanted to transplant my entire pond border into the back garden here! Walking on the cliff tops there were lots of grasses with a very upright quite oat-like ears, and I love them combined with the wild thistle, so at the moment I am tending to Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’, but we’ll see, I can certainly easily be tempted by Miscanthus, and I still might get divisions from the plants in my old garden…

  8. Restraint is the hardest thing to achieve especially as many passionate gardeners are also plants people! I can only say that the parts of my garden I love the most are where one or two plants dominate, the formal beds and the slope. Planting areas or borders for mainly one season work really well. yiu only have to look at the original design of Sissinghurst! One or two points of interest for different season don’t deter the look. Christina

    1. Hi Christina, I am certainly finding it a challenge to even THINK about a restrained palette, let alone managing to stick to it come planting time. Thanks for the encouragement though, and I do really love your slope and formal garden, which I suppose just proves the point. I am also hoping to steal your grasses and roses style for the area beyond where the pond currently sits…

      1. Grasses have a wonderful way of pulling everything together. They move in the wind, they blend with the wider landscape and there are a huge number to choose from to create the look you want. Christina

        1. They do, don’t they – I couldn’t garden without them any more. I currently have my eye on Calamgrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’, which sadly I can’t grow from seed, to add height. I have inherited lots of low growing grasses and carex.

          1. My favourite grasses of all are Miscanthus, there are so many to choose from, with slightly different colours. For me they look wonderful all winter too, but maybe with a lot of wet they wouldn’t last as long. Christina

  9. You certainly have thought through all the choices that are open to you, your restricted colour palette sounds wonderful. I think all borders need a theme to keep them from looking bitty and yours is so in keeping with the wonderful views around you. Nature has planted all around you with its grasses, purples and yellows and echoing this in the garden will look fantastic. Will look forward to your progress!

    1. Hi Pauline, I just hope I can stick to the plan! It is so terribly easy to just fall in love with a plant and pesuade yourself that you can find a home for it. This is one case in which I can be grateful for the lack of good nurseries and garden centers locally, less temptation!

    1. Thank you Catherine, what a lovely compliment. Eryngium-love is still alive and well, but I am trying to restrict myself to only two, a white and a blue…

  10. It is always so interesting to me how the color choices of a garden relate so much to the Where of where we garden. Colors look different in different places. Color choices are naturally different, too. I so agree with your making sure that everything harmonizes to your “where”. I also like your idea of having different beds with different seasonal interest. While it’s raining, it’s the perfect time to dream what your new garden will become.

    1. It’s funny, I knew how much the quality of light changed from place to place, as for instance yellow looked wonderful in my Gloucestershire garden but doesn’t seem to work at all well in my parent’s Devon garden. But having gardened in suburbia, surrounded by other houses and gardens, a strong sense of place and everything it entails is new to me. Very exciting. I hope harmony ensues!

  11. I look forward to seeing what choices you make. I understand the dilemma of not drawing the eye away from the view. I am a big fan of stipa tenuissima, the movement is so lovely.

    1. Hi Janet, yes, movement has become very important to me in thinking about this garden, so it is really good to have so much stipa, and to know it thrives here.

  12. It was fascinating to read through your post and all the comments – such a good way to mull over your thoughts and try and get things into perspective, and your readers are such a knowledgable bunch too! I admire your desire to relate the garden palette to your surroundings – what a complement that is to the landscape. It so easy to be indulgent and just choose our favourites in the garden, so your scheme is actually a good discipline and is more likely to result in a harmonious garden than the ad hoc trap we so easily fall into. I look forward to watching the progress of your seed planting and your plant acquistions and seeing your garden come together.

    1. Hi Cathy, this was definitely “blogging as therapy”, and it helped so much to put my thoughts into enough shape that I could post about them. The comments are great, so stimulating, just what I had hoped for, though it is a rather exposing feeling, garden planning “in public” like this. I hope eventually I achieve “harmonious”, which is the perfect word to sum up what I am aiming for, thank you!

  13. You are certainly doing a good job of thinking and planning before you plant. I’m sure your garden will have a very natural look when it is all done. And you have such nice views! I enjoyed reading your thought processes as you think through your garden.

    1. Hi Dorothy, thanks for dropping by and commenting! The views are amazing, I hope I can do them justice There will be lots of failed experiments and moving of plants, that I know, but its all part of the process, for me at least.

  14. Hi Janet,

    Good luck with your garden planning… I’m torn between suggesting to keep it with its surrounding and suggesting going completely the opposite way in order to contrast with them… For example using lots of hot colours which are obviously very useful in late summer and early autumn as the Heleniums and such are in bloom. I’m also torn whether to detract from the view or not. Perhaps frame it instead. After all, it’s tough to get the balance right so that you don’t totally ignore the garden when looking out because the view completely overwhelms it??
    Haha, not to play Devil’s advocate, at all ;)
    I always go for purples, blues and (blue)pinks, and can understand your desire to also go for such shades. And I think it’d be wonderful if you could make it as wild as possible i.e. using natives like the thistles and grasses; just wish I could contain myself to do similar.

    I think do what you want to do. What was your initial reaction when you first saw the house? What images did you see in your mind? The first is usually the best. Try not to get lost in what you ‘should’ do and go with what your intuition tells you. If you find youself constantly erring towards other plants, then do so; it will make you the happiest because that is what you want deep down.

    1. Hi Liz, you temptress – and I have to admit I was amused to read the Queen of the lilac and blue colour palette advocating a riot of colour!! I am pretty certain about not wanting to detract from that view, I want to enhance it, complement it and frame it. If I can. I love your question about what my first reaction was – a lot of it was “OMG that HAS to go”, closely followed by “so much potential” and “I must have perovskia and eryngiums”. After a couple of months I knew about the colour thing, which I struggled with a little until I worked out how to put wild colour in the back garden. And movement, lots of movement. The main change was deciding that actually the mophead hydrangeas and the willows could stay after all! Oh, and “pretty”. I shocked myself by wanting it to be “pretty”. I don’t do pretty…

  15. I dont think you should expect to get it right in the first year. Why not try some annuals this year and see how they work, what colours work etc. After all the perennials will take a few years to get to size for planting out. I was reading Christopher Lloyd the other night and he was saying that gardeners shouldnt expect to get planting right the first time no matter how well we think we know a plant. He also advocated going for more than one or three of plants as it can look like measles. I would maybe get your shrubs in and some grasses and then play around this year with annuals

    1. Hi Helen, is there any such thing as “getting it right” in a garden?! Getting something pleasing maybe. This year I will settle for feeling I have made a start on sorting the structure and establishing the bigger plants. And yes, most of the garden will get filled out with annuals, but because the perennials I grow from seed will take a long time to fill out I want to start some off sooner rather than later. I view it as assembling a set of ingredients from which I hope to start creating a garden. I would be utterly flabbergasted if the next few years were not dominated by wails of horror as I make mistakes, occasional bursts of joy as something works as I expected, lots of learning and lots and lots of moving things because they are in the wrong place… Interesting that you mentioned Christopher Lloyd, as I think it was his head gardener who said you have to live with a plant for at least a year before you know how and where to use it – another reason to grow lots of different things so that I can work out what does and doesn’t work for me. As for growing more than one of things, absolutely! Except with shrubs. That was one of the things that really struck me when I looked at the images that really got me excited They all had lots of repeated plants. Actually, you are rather an inspiration in all this, as I know you have grown a lot of the plants in your own garden from seeds. I may come begging for advice with some of the trickier stuff…

  16. Ah, I’m in love! Especially the Heather-covered hills! Sounds like you have a great plan for it all, but as you say, sometimes nature has another plan. It seems like the locale is in your heart now, which will help with your next steps. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

    1. The heather is spectacular, isn’t it, and we were so lucky to get up there on a day with such wonderful light. In fact, we are lucky full stop!

  17. Thanks for an enjoyable read, and plenty of good photos.
    The post title made me smile as gardeners are all to often not renowned for practising restraint.
    I have to say that commenting late like this it’s also interesting, and rather informative, to read all the comments. xx

    1. So true, Flighty, we do tend to over do it, trying to grow too much, of too many different kinds! I have loved the comments, they have really helped, glad you enjoyed them too.

  18. A very interesting post Janet – I admire the fact that you are putting so much thinking into the garden before you act. My gardening style is a little more impulsive and successful plantings come about by trial and error in the main

    1. Thanks Elaine, I’ve always been quite impulsive myself in the past, but the combination of starting again and having the Autumn and Winter to ponder means I am trying a different way. Wish me luck!

  19. You are blessed with a fantastic setting! The scenery is so dramatic and inspiring of its own accord that I can see what you mean about not planting anything that will distract too much from it. However, I do love the idea of a few orange plantings to highlight the browns and grays, the blues and purples. Making choices can be hard! I look forward to seeing what you do. I am sure your garden will be gorgeous!

    1. Hi Deb, it is a fabulous area, isn’t it. I still pinch myself metaphorically every time I glance out of the window at the view. I think the orange and perhaps some soft yellow will lift the scheme without detracting from the view, but only time will tell! Still very early days. Such fun though…

  20. Love, love love your pondering interspersed whith the sublime views. I also enjoy the way you are leaning, simple sounds good, limited palette … brilliant. As I was reading this post, memories of Beth Chatto’s garden poped into my head. Don’t whatever you do buy Anemanthele lessoniana – I can give you some when we meet up (How many do you want!) it is, quite simply the best grass ever, and I love it. I am really looking forward to where this gentle musing takes you.

    1. Karen, you made my day – and not just because of the Anemanthele offer, to which the answer is “how many have you got”!! I hadn’t realised it was such a favourite of yours, makes me even more certain it is a good choice. Thanks so much for “getting it”, part way through writing this I began to wonder if I was more loopy than I had realised. I feel very encouraged!

  21. Your photos show how passionate you are about the scenery around you. I wonder if your neighbours have also found inspiration from the surroundings for their gardens. If I followed your example, there would be a couple of plane trees, a bus-stop and a dual-carriageway passing through mine.

    1. Hi b-a-g, the neighbouring gardens are a real mix, some people have clearly been influenced by the views, and I hope to be able to share seeds and plants with them. Others, where the houses are holiday cottages, are low maintenance and very uninspiring. Love the idea of having a bus stop in a gardein not so sure about the dual carrigeway ;-)

  22. Janet, what a delicious set of puzzles to be thinking about in January. And what a landscape — the striking ones are trickier for gardeners than the ones that are all gently rolling green hills. All your choices sound like they will resonate beautifully with it.

    This is not advice I’ve ever managed to follow in the garden, but I offer it in case you are wiser than I: when I was looking for a dog at the SPCA many years ago, the woman in charge told me not to look for the perfect dog, but to take the first one I found that I liked, and NOT to keep looking after that. She said that otherwise you end up getting stuck in agonizing indecision and always wondering afterward if your choice was the right one, or if you might have been better off with the Great Dane instead. So maybe instead of trying to narrow down your 33 options to the 10 most perfect ones, pick the first 10 you like, and then stop?

    Now the wicked part: What about Gaura lindheimeri (one of the white ones like Whirling Butterflies)? It’s one of my all-time favorite plants in wind, and it looks great with grasses…

    1. Hi Stacy, as someone who gardens amidst dramatic scenary yourself, I thought you would get it. It is both challenge and opportunity, isn’t it. I was able to completely ignore my wider surroundings in my last garden, not this time.

      I love you dog story, and interestingly enough the plants (or seeds) I have tended to shed from the list are mostly ones I have come across later, and don’t feel quite the same about. With the occasional exception, but I think you know, you stick with the plants that the thought of doing without is almost physically painful. And I am trying to remember that this is not, in fact, a one off deal, just the start of a long new relationship.

      As to Gaura, one of the first on the list, am going for a white one and am excited about finally growing it!

  23. It seems like you have a plan and that’s the basis of good design. I like the way you are blending your plants into the landscape, thinking about colour schemes. Beautiful views you have, I wish we lived near the ocean.

    1. Hi Karen, thanks for dropping by and commenting. The views are amazing, and I am so lucky to finally wind up living so close to the sea, I can still hardly believe it.

    1. Hi Donna, I think that is the great joy of gardening, it is a process and never complete, any more than we are ourselves.

  24. A most thoughtful post Janet which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It really drew me in. I wonder what those 33 plants are on that list and whether that list will contract/expand as you go through the thought process. I started off with a very much blue, purple, white, silver and soft pink palette but over the years other colours have entered the equation even the dreaded yellow :) I’m looking at the photo third from the bottom of your post and seeing a garden in the making there.

    1. Ah, the dreaded yellow! Funny how colours worm their way in to your garden over time. With me it was pink. I am still culling the list of seeds, and the plants I will buy to complement them, and it will be interesting to see how the colour palette develops over time. I’m sure it will – gardens are never static, always at the mercy of our own ever changing sensibilities…

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