How much space to grow all of our vegetables?

canokieJanuary 15, 2012

Hi everyone,

I am trying to figure out how many square feet of raised beds are needed to grow enough vegetables for one person for a year. I am very limited on space in my backyard but keep something going most of the year. I'm talking about just the area that is actually planted, not the space taken up with paths, etc.

Thanks in advance for any information or experiences or even wild guesses that anybody has to share.

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I saw an estimate somewhere when I was in the planning stage that 400 square feet would provide for two people. I imagine that depends on a lot of factors, though, and it seems like the square foot gardening folks get a lot more out of a much smaller area.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 1:13AM
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I have 3 of my beds that I plant square foot style. I will say, the yield seems to be lower in those bed than that I place in the ground, To be safe I would go with 2 4'X 4' boxes.

It seems from your post you have not built the boxes yet, but makes them 12" deep, not the 6" like the book recommends. 6" is not enough space, IMHO.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 7:57AM
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The book states it's 1 4x4 for salads, 1 4x4 for supper vegetables, and another 4x4 for preserving per person.


    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 10:14AM
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Thanks for all the feedback! I have been square foot gardening the past two years but learning by trial and error (mostly error!) so haven't been getting anywhere near the harvests I probably could get. Between hungry rabbits and a dog that is sure I must have buried something tasty in the garden and is determined to dig it up, and the heat and drought, and let's not forget those huge, hexagon shaped bugs, and throw in an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and heat intolerance.... well, we've gotten a few nice meals but that's about it. This year, my third year as a gardener, I feel optimistic that I can get a real harvest. Third time's a charm, right? :)

The first year, I had four 4'x4' beds. The next year I took those out and built four new beds, 3' by 8', along my back fence where there is a lot more sun. This year, I am taking all of the beds apart and reconfiguring them into a potager design with 2' wide beds all around the perimeter and a large, 4'x8' bed in the center. This will give me a total of 112 square feet of raised beds (not counting walkways, etc.). It will be completely fenced (two sides are the existing wooden fence and I am fencing in the other two sides) so I don't have to compete with the rabbits and dog. I'm going to hang cattle panels along the inside of my wooden fence, and build an arbor over the bench in the back as well as an archway over the entrance, so, lots of trellising space. I'm digging up the sod and putting down weedblocker and crushed rock for the pathways to keep weeds down, and putting in a mowing strip along the two sides bordering the lawn. I'm even going to add stepping stones out to the potager so I can go out there to check on things and pull a few weeds before work, even in my bare feet :) I'm really trying to cut down on maintenance and set myself up to succeed this year.

The original 'garden ready' soil I purchased and hauled, while a big improvement over the existing red clay, was still very heavy and would crust over and harden. After working in 4 bales of peat moss and 200 lb. of rabbit poop, I believe I will get better production. In the last two years I have learned that you have to start really, really early if you want to get a harvest in this climate, and make the most of the spring and fall and even winter. I'm also learning, on this forum and elsewhere, about which varieties grow best here. This year I set up a seed starting system with space for 15 of those big flats, and am already starting some stuff, hoping to get a running start.

So, all that said, I am ready to have a productive garden this year and maybe even have enough left over to freeze/can :) I'd love to hear from anyone else who has experiences to share about how much space is required per person if you want to grow most or all of your own vegetables. (Other than melons, I'm growing fruit separately, so the potager is just for vegetables and herbs). I'd really like to know if it is feasible to produce all the vegetables I eat, including potatoes, from this space, or if I need to plan on additional beds. I did read that Mel Bartholomew recommends three 4'x4' beds per person, but I just can't see how that could produce enough for one person for a year? Aren't we talking at least 300-400 lb. of vegetables per person a year if that person ate 5 servings per day?

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 1:07PM
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Canokie, that is a question that only you can answer in the long run. So many variables come into play. What kind of vegetables? Are you going to raise a year's supply of tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, sugar snap peas and broccoli to put in the freezer like some of us do? Enough cabbage for 21 qts of kraut? How about enough potatoes and sweet potatoes to last most of the year? (It takes 3 50 ft rows to produce 200+ lbs of potatoes but only one to produce that many sweet potatoes.) If so you are going to need a lot more growing space than a few 4x4 beds. (Our garden is 1/2 acre) On the other hand if you just want to raise enough to eat something fresh for most of the year, a few beds will do it. And if you succesion plant all summer and then build a cold frame to go over those beds, you can keep salad veggies going for most of the year. I have a 4x4 unheated cold frame with lettuce and spinach in it right now. Plus unprotected arugula and perrenial onions are still green enough to pick.

Personally, I think trying to figure out how much space it will take when you don't have much space is going at it wrong way first. And reading those books as a beginner is almost bound to set you up for disappointment when your yields don't match up. Remember these writers are experienced gardeners who bring years of learning to a new system. And in a benign climate usually. If I were you I would start by building as many beds as you think you can maintain and learn as you go how much they will produce, using anything you read or hear as no more than a guideline.

A case in point, in a benign climate you can pick as much weight in secondary shoots off a broccoli plant as the main head provides. In our climate most years it simply doesn't work. The secondary shoots are bitter due to the heat and if you haven't been extremely vigilant the worms will eat them before you do. I plan on one cutting of a large head per plant, then rip them out and plant meal corn to dry. I raise 90 plants of broccoli in 3 50 ft rows.

Good luck and come back and let us know how you do.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 1:08PM
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I was busy writing while you were so didn't see your long post before I posted. Corn and potatoes are space gobblers, but you might try growing potatoes vertically by continuing to cover them up as they grow while confined in a bin or barrel. I've never done this as I have lots of room, but have read about it. I wouldn't try corn at all in a small space. Pole beans give a lot of return for the space, as do green crops, lettuce, spinach, bok choy turnips, mustard. You're not going to have room for watermelon or sweet potatoes in the space you described, etiher, but by choosing carefully and using succession planting, you can produce a lot of food--weather permitting.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 7:28PM
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Thank you very much for your informative responses, mulberryknob. For now I'm going to concentrate on getting as much food as possible out of the space I have, and maybe down the road I can add some beds along the side of my house for potatoes and melons and winter squash.

I didn't realize sweet potatoes were so productive! Did I understand you correctly, that they produce about 3 lb. per foot of row?

Another thing I was thinking that might help me is trellising as much as possible. Do you think this would work with small cantaloupes, summer squash, cucumbers, etc? The configuration of the new potager will provide a lot of opportunity for trellising. Thanks for the tip regarding beans also. I know those can be trellised, and would like to try growing some pinto or other types of beans that can be dried for winter.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 8:19PM
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I know summer squash and cucumbers can grow up trellises as long as you choose the vine varieties and not the bush ones. You can grow winter squash (and I think even watermelons?) up a trellis too, but you need to put the fruit in little slings to support them or else they'll break off the vine. That could save you some space if you want to grow them. I have a 7 foot tall black iron arbor that was part of our wedding decorations last fall, so I'm going to put it out in the garden and try to grow either pole beans or the cukes or squash up each side of it. I just need to figure out how to anchor it so the wind doesn't blow it over (and over and over).

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 9:09PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

For a long time now, the answer to how much space is needed to grow a year's food for one person has ranged from 4,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet, and I believe that's fairly accurate if you are engaging in traditional gardening practices.

If you put a lot of time and effort into double-digging the ground-level soil and adding a lot of organic matter to it (you also can add a raised bed above the well-prepared grade-level soil), a la the John Jevons biointensive gardening method, you probably could easily grow a year's supply of fruit, veggies, herbs and some grains and some compost crops to enrich and renew your soil, but that is the sort of thing you slowly work your way towards doing and it can take years. The most helpful book I've ever read on raising the most food in the least space is John Jeavon's "How To Raise More Vegetables....." book that I've linked below.

For centuries, people around the world have used biointensive gardening to raise more crops in less space. The Square Foot Garden method advocated by Mel is just a really simplified form of that biointensive growing method. I read the book when it first came out and experimented with SFG spacing, but found I had better success with the spacing and growing methods advocated by John Jeavons.

When you build an above-ground bed on top of unimproved grade-level soil and fill it with imported soil to do Square Foot Gardening, you just aren't going to get the heavy yields a person will get from better and deeper improvement of the soil. That's because production will be better when a plant can easily send our roots far and wide into good, fertile, friable soil.

My garden is slightly smaller than Dorothy's and I plant very intensively in raised beds which really are just wide rows with narrow paths, using deep beds of native soil amended with lots or organic matter on an annual basis and using ordinary organic methods, and I don't even raise all of our food. However, I do raise much of it, and have plenty to freeze, can, dehydrate, ferment and root cellar. We also give away quite a lot of produce.

To garden on a large scale, you have to have a lot of space and even then you have to really focus every year on improving the soil. Your yields will only be as great as the soil quality, moisture availablity and weather allow.

I don't want for you to be discouraged though. Even in a garden with only 500 square feet you could raise quite a lot of produce and herbs. You just need to grow everything vertically that you can. I raise the all kinds of crops vertically, using trellises, ladders, fences, tomato cages, etc. to direct the growth of the plants upward as much as possible. I even allow my Seminole pumpkins to escape from the garden and climb nearby trees. The more stuff you grow vertically, the higher yield you get per square foot of garden space. Vertically, you can grow pole beans (snaps, limas and shellies), pole snap peas, pole southern peas, tomatoes, peppers (caged or staked), muskmelons and cantaloupes, refrigerator-type watermelons, cucumbers, some winter and summer squash and mini-pumpkins, and even potatoes (in boxes, cages, potato grow bags or bins) and sweet potatoes (with the potatoes in the ground and the foliage climbing a fence, trellis or tomato cage).

You can increase yields by interplanting 2 or more veggies together. As the earlier veggie matures, the one that needs a longer period to mature can fill in the space left after the earlier crop is harvested. For example, you can plant radishes in the same rows with carrots. The radishes will sprout and grow more quickly, but after you pull the radishes, the carrots will use the space they vacated. Or, you can interplant root crops with leaf crops like carrots with lettuce. It takes time to learn how to use these kinds of combinations to get the best use of your soil, but the John Jeavons book explains the various options in great detail.

In his recession gardening book, Jim Wilson (of Victory Garden South fame) says that he believes a garden has to be at least 500 square feet in order for you to raise enough edible crops to break even/make money when you compare the amount of money spent to grow the garden to the dollar value of the crops raised. Anything less than that is still good, but not a winner economically. I'd agree with that premise, but if you use a lot of fresh herbs and you're growing them instead of raising them, then you could be breaking even/saving enough money that your garden is a good investment even if it is less than 500 square feet.

When growing your own food, grow what you really like to eat and grow what makes sense economically. In a small garden, it is hard to economically justify growing potatoes because of the amount of space they use up and because potatoes are pretty inexpensive at the grocery store. Economically, I believe tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, virtually all herbs, asparagus, and pole beans and peas probably give the greatest return economically if raised vertically. If you are able to successfully grow winter and summer squash without losing the plants to pests, they can produce quite a lot per square foot, but they also tend to sprawl and take up a lot of space.

However, it isn't all about economics. It also is about quality and flavor. I've never yet bought a potato at the grocery store that tastes as good as one that's home-grown. We all talk about the luscious flavor of a home-grown tomato, but a home-grown potato is just as luscious in its own way.

And, as for canning and other forms of food preservation, given the size of your beds at the present time, I don't think you'll be doing much food preservation this summer unless you are preserving everything you raise instead of eating it fresh. A garden the size of yours can supply you with a reasonable amount of fresh produce weekly, but not enough that you'll have a surplus to preserve.

I have a very large garden and tend to plan lunch and dinner when I am out harvesting early in the day. Anything I'm harvesting that we won't eat in the next few days, I go ahead and freeze, can, dehydrate, ferment or root cellar, or make plans to share it with a family member or friend.

Don't forget that you can raise quite a lot of veggies in containers too, and if you put them on a simple drip irrigation system with a timer, that's about as carefree as gardening can be. Even with a very large garden, I generally plant between 40 and 100 containers per year. I didn't do that last year because I was expecting severe drought and that likely was a pretty good decision, but I missed my containers last year, so I'm bringing them back this year.

You also can squeeze in some veggie and herbs into ornamental landscape beds, including the various colors of swiss chard and peppers of all kinds, if those beds are inaccessible to rabbits and other critters. They even have cascading forms of tomatoes, like Tumbling Tom Red and Tumbling Tom Yellow, for example, that you can grow in hanging baskets.

My first garden here, which I planted 6 months before we broke ground for the house was two 4' x 8' beds and they produced a surprisingly large amount of produce and a few flowers. Every year after that I added to the garden and I'm not through adding to it yet. I have an expansion plan in place for January and February, Lord willing and if the creek don't rise.
A lot of the credit for my improved garden yields goes to the ongoing effort to improve the soil as John Jeavons teaches a person to do, but a lot also goes to my endless quest to raise something vertically. I've even raised 12 to 15 lb pumpkins vertically on a fence by creating fabric slings to support the weight of the pumpkins as they enlarged. I started more simply with small melons, then once I had mastered raising them vertically, moved up to larger melons, then watermelons, then small pumpkins and winter squash, and then larger ones. As your gardening skills progress, you find yourself able to grow in ways you never dreamed were possible.


Here is a link that might be useful: How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Thought Possible

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 9:22PM
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Dawn wrote: "However, it isn't all about economics. It also is about quality and flavor."

I must tell you that for me it is also about exercise, and fresh air and sunshine. I can tell you that Dawn is the 'energizer bunny', she runs all the time and rarely sleeps. She feeds her family, the fire fighters at her station, and sometimes it sounds like she feeds half of the firefighters and security staff at the Dallas/Ft Worth airport where he husband and son work. If there is a fire to which her station responds, she is there serving food and drinks and offering cool towels to those fighting the fire. I hope she doesn't mind me saying so, but Dawn is a cancer survivor, and makes use of every minute she has to improve her garden, her family or her community. I don't know what she was like before cancer, but I know that today she is all about health and service. If we could all do one tenth of the service that Dawn's family provides, the world would be a much better place.

I was interested in your description of your garden, and it sounds lovely. I hope that Chandra will read this and allow you access to his garden pictures. He created a lovely space and made it very productive that same year in spite of several heavy weather events that hit his area. It sounds like you hope to have a beautiful space as well as a productive one, so I will issue one little warning. A potato patch is not always pretty. The plants look pretty in the early stages, but you have to leave them in the ground long after they are not pretty. All the plants will turn yellow, then brown, dry up, die off, fall over, and be an eye sore. All of this is happening when the rest of you garden is lovely. So if you plan to plant potatoes, you might want to consider the location carefully before you plant. I grew great potatoes year before last, and chose not to grow them last year, and I missed having them. I especially loved having Yukon Gold, and I have no problem buying the common potatoes at the grocery store, so I will never have a large potato bed in my home garden, but I don't have the space that Dawn and Dorothy have.

I also don't plant corn because it is a space hog for the little production you get from it. In the space where you would have a few corn stalks that would feed you once, you could plant one okra plant that would feed you for several months, or maybe one tomato plant that would feed you all season and provide you with salsa all winter. In a small garden you will have to make a lot of decisions. I could probably give up a lot of things in order to have a few melons, but they require a lot of space.

I plant vertical when possible which allows me to grow a lot more food in the same footprint and also allows me to stand up and harvest. I am having to makes some changes to some of my garden practices because it is easier to provide pest protection to bush type plants than it is to vertical plants. Some things I just can't grow without row covers because I am against using dangerous chemicals in the garden. I would much rather see the plant than the row cover, but if I want maximum production, I must cover.

During the years that I worked, I had a garden with the hope of enjoying the fresh produce during it's season, and therefore my garden didn't have to be big. Once I had a little more time, I found I could plant enough onions to use fresh for several months and freeze enough chopped onions to last until the next season. We eat peppers every day that they are in season and freeze enough chopped peppers to last all winter. Some years I have enough frozen broccoli to last all winter. I used some in stir fry this week and it was just as good as adding fresh, but I just didn't add it to the wok as soon. Some years I freeze a lot of okra. Some years I can a lot of green beans because we like them canned better than frozen and freezer space becomes an issue. I love to can salsa for the winter. Not only do we use it as salsa, but I use it in Spanish rice. With the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices already cooked together and in the jar, it makes for a really quick tasty dish.

I could go on and on, but the important thing is to think about what your family loves to eat, what grows well in our climate, and what you have space for and will enjoy looking at as well as enjoy eating.

Some years I don't grow cabbage at all because I live in a wet area and have a problem with slugs. This year I will try again, and I am armed with Sluggo and row covers. On the other hand, I can't imagine a year without Chinese cabbage which we eat raw in salads and cook with. If I had to make a choice between the two, it would be no contest.

This forum is a great place for gardeners to learn and although I am never surprised that some of our regular members live in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas and share a climate much like ours, I always chuckle when I see people asking for advice that live in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, or Oregon and various other locations. I think we must be a 'national' forum. This is because we have some excellent gardeners here who freely share experiences and rarely fight unless the subject is 'big cats'. LOL

I wish you successful gardening in 2012. Have fun!

    Bookmark   January 16, 2012 at 12:06AM
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Figure total food intake for one person for one year at ten times their own weight - per person - for one year. (meats, veggies and carbs together)

Average food intake, per person, in America is between 2,100 lbs and 2,200 lbs, give or take a bit, depending on which/whose research you examine. You can estimate your garden requirements based upon that number and upon just how many fruits and veggies you normally consume day to day, week to week, month to month...

Research estimated production from your planned garden veggies - and upon which varieties produce the most fruit - and do the math from there. (Plant a little extra, just in case.)

Currently, I have five hundred square feet in production, with another 2,500 feet coming into production over the next year to eighteen months. An additional three hundred sqaure feet should come into production during or after the same time frame, depending on resources, conditions and budgetary constraints. At full maturity of the trees and bushes, that will provide *more* than The Wife and I can eat, so we'll have some produce left over for trade and gifting. Even a conservative estimate means that at least one third to one half of our total consumption will be provided by the garden in less than two years... (I'm incorporating an edible landscape in the front yard, with a fancy design and, it's taking some time to get it right.)

Your mileage may vary. No warranties or guarantees expressed or implied. Your results may not be typical. Batteries not included.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2012 at 12:32AM
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Yes, Canokie, sweet potatoes are very productive--IF the deer don't find them and keep the tops severely pruned despite me dumping stinky dog hair and blood meal on them periodically, which limited our harvest in 2011. But in 2010 we dug over 200 lbs from less than a 50 ft row--40 ft. As I said, it took 3 50 ft rows to produce that many Irish potatoes. (But then we--ten people--ate quite a few early that I didn't weigh so maybe 250 total.) You might want to take a hint from Larry (Slowpoke) and plant them in a front ormamental bed.

I have a larger garden than Dawn but I don't garden as intensively as she does. 15000 sq ft of my garden is an asparagus bed, cut in half from its original size to make room for a greenhouse and a fig and strawberry planting. A lot of my garden is also given over to paths. At one time the garden bordered a cattle pasture so there is a 10 ft strip of grass there so the cattle couldn't reach over the fence. We store shredded leaves and wood chips there now.

So glad Dawn mentioned Jeavons. He is also the writer who influenced us to move to a bed system. We till all of each of our 1000 sq ft sections each year, but lay out four beds in each with either two or three parallel rows. We try to never walk on the beds and we only lay compost and mulch on the rows leaving the paths to pack hard each summer.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2012 at 1:19PM
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I started my first garden with 8x8 space, I was happy with that space until I visited this forum, then realized that space is nothing. Then we cleared another 25x16 turf and tried many types of vegetables, that was enough to feed four adults and kid and some for donations and gifts. But when I learn about 60+ flavors tomatoes, 25+ types of chillies, list is not ending, then we added another 15 beds. As I said i was happy with just 8x8 space, now we have over 1500 sq.ft still feel lack of space! Space is very relative for Gardening! Start with small space and then keep expanding... Cheers -Chandra

    Bookmark   January 17, 2012 at 5:27PM
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I have learned SO MUCH from everyone here already. This is a great forum - so glad I found it :)

Not only is it informative, but you all are so encouraging to newbies like me. Thank you very much.


    Bookmark   January 17, 2012 at 9:02PM
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When we lived in town I did a 25 ft x 25ft garden, plus planted squash & pumpkins around the fence line. Onions & herbs were in the front of the house. I was able to grow most of my produce & put plenty up, while still sharing with friends. I spent an hour each night watering (by hand, only used water from rain barrels), weeding, harvesting. We were on a corner lot. Random people would always stop & ask questions, comment or take pictures. I never imagined a vegetable garden would be something that turned heads in town.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 5:08PM
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Thank you for your reply. Was your 25'x25' garden a typical row style garden? And how many people in your family, if you don't mind me asking?

Our HOA prohibits growing vegetables in the front yard, but my philosophy is, what they don't know won't hurt them :) I see no reason why I can't sneak in some herbs, sweet potatoes, maybe colorful lettuces, etc. I'm going to try anyways, because my front yard faces south and its much bigger than the back yard too.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 8:32PM
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We are a family of 4. I did rows, but they were broken up as if they were individual beds (if that makes sense). For the sake of supplies it was cheaper to do a large bed & brake it up than to build several small beds. I did larger than recomended sq ft spacing & less than normal spacing. I think tomatoes were 18 inches apart, I used 3 cattle pannels & sandwiched the tomatoes between them (like a big mac). Also grew cucumbers vertical, my straight 8 didn't see to produce, but I felt like I was getting a 5 gal bucket of cukes a wk! Think I did 4 zuchini plants & 4 yellow squash plants. I grew some kholorabi, radishes, carrots (only harvested a few) lettuces, brocoli, cauliflower (tried cabage, but only the worms ate it), and I grew a dz pepper plants. As far as Herbs, I had enough sage, bassil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, dill and such for all my friends. Everytime anyone visted they left with bags full of herbs. I made enough pesto to freeze a yrs supply. With the herbs I found a sample edible ladscape plan online & laid mine similar to the plan. I am sure if you google you can find one. The squash looked like a flowering bush outside of my fence, so did the pumpkin. Can't remember what else I had off the top of my head. I will say my green beans & peas failed. Don't know why but they never seemed to take off. Think I had enough for one stirfry.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 9:24PM
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This article from the Virginia Cooperative Extension talks about, among other things, the economic value of crops. They could have done their research right here on our forum.

Here is a link that might be useful: Intensive Gardening Methods

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 10:21PM
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