Compost

Remedial Composting

When I did my composting boot camp posts we were under a few feet of snow here in Denver.  I was unable to get outside and get any useful pictures of the compost bin in progress for you.  But over the last two weekends, mother nature has been much more cooperative.  We were able to get out to the bins, and coupled with the spring garden cleaning we did, we had plenty of stuff to add to it.

Both bins were pretty full.  The bin on the right had been covered, and I was hoping that it would be full of finished compost, ready to go.

Instead, it was nearly done.  But there were a lot of sticks and twigs in it from the tree last summer that hadn’t broken down yet.  Rick raked it all out of the bin, while Henry and I collected as many sticks as we could.  The plan is to power compost this stuff so it’ll be ready to go into beds by April or early May.

Here is a close up of that almost ready compost:

It looked pretty good, but there were still a lot of big pieces that I wanted to get broken down before we put it in the garden.

The left side of the bin is where we added our kitchen scraps all winter, fall garden materials and sod this spring that we removed from the edges of our flower and herb beds where it was encroaching.  We didn’t turn the pile over the winter at all, and it had many fabulous layers.

See all that beautiful finished compost at the bottom?  That is what I want!  But there is an awful lot of other stuff on top of it.  So we used the now empty bin on the right side to mix up the stuff on the left side all the way down to the finished stuff, which we will keep separate.

We started moving it over…

Not pictured is a bunch of dried grass and leaves and yard clippings that will get mixed in with the layers.  It’s off to the left of the frame.  We had more stuff than we could immediately fit into the bins without doing this process first.

So we tossed part of that top layer of grass and sod into the empty bin on the right, and part of it got tossed in front of the bin, so we could mix in other layers too.  As we moved layers over, we had H grab big armfuls of dry leaves and dry grass to mix in with the stuff coming from the left bin.

As the right-hand-side pile grew, we put the front boards back in to keep it contained.

We watered the pile with the hose as we went.  Remember, it takes water, air, carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens) to make a great compost pile.  It was a hot day and the week was supposed to be plenty hot, so I wasn’t worried about making it too wet.

Where the layers were already very wet from the winter snows, we added lots of dry stuff.  If anything was too big, we tried to break it up as well.  The layer from last year’s garden was pretty wet, so it was good to mix in some dry brown material as we went. We were trying to balance it out. 

Also as we got to the middle layers we mixed in some of that first stuff that went over the side of the bin.  The idea it to get it somewhat uniform, so it all rots together, as opposed to the layers we originally had.

You never know what you’ll find in your compost bin.  I found this perfectly grown beet with a weird, crunchy, light-starved top.  It grew somewhere, way down in the pile.

We continued layering and watering and mixing and putting the boards of the compost bin back up until we had reached that finished compost down at the bottom of the left bin.  Then we pulled all that great, finished compost out of the bottom of the bin.

Now we had two piles.  Finished compost on the left, nearly finished compost on the right, and an empty bin.

We could use all that compost on the left, but I really didn’t have a place ready for it yet.  I decided to layer it back in with the nearly done stuff on the right with some of the top soil that we had from the bed edging.

Rick and I grabbed shovels and tossed both piles into the empty bin.

We watered it and then covered it with heavy black plastic. Over the next few weeks, it should cook down to great, useable compost ready to feed this springs’ gardens.

We did all of this work on the 11th.  I’ve checked the left-hand bin pretty regularly. Some days I uncover it and watered it; I’ve mixed it again once with a rake and my hands (so I could feel how wet and warm it was/wasn’t) since then already.  I want to keep it hot and damp, but not too wet.  Like a wrung out sponge or chocolate cake.  We’ve been adding our kitchen scraps and other yard waste to the bin on the right.

That is what composting looks like in action… the down and dirty work of spring cleaning.  ;)

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Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , | 24 Comments

Deep Litter Method for the Lazy Chicken Keeper

When we first researched keeping chickens, my only hesitation was the idea of having to clean a coop weekly.  I used to have a parakeet, and I hated changing his newspaper tray, and I hated cleaning my hamster’s cage too.  I was dreading having to clean a coop.  I envisioned this, happening weekly (by the way, she was cleaning a coop inherited when she moved to the property for the first time).  Then, I ran across something describing the deep litter method, and I knew I had found the solution.

We clean our chicken coop (specifically the hen-house) twice a year.  And no more.

And the coop does not smell.  In fact, when we participated in the Denver Botanic Gardens/Denver Urban Homesteading Chicken Coop tour, everyone remarked on how our coop did not smell.  I didn’t clean it before the tour, because I wanted to show what the method off and let people see what it looked like to have chickens in real life.

What we learned was that we were, at that time, the only chicken keepers on the tour using this method.  Every other owner had told the tourists that they cleaned their coops weekly.  We were surprised by this and actually started making a joke of it, calling ourselves the lazy chicken owners on the tour.  People laughed and that’s how I actually came to the name, the Lazy Homesteader.  ;)

Here is how the method works in case you are like me; allergic to hard work involving poop.

Clean your coop one fall day and then put down a layer of dried leaves or pine shavings or some other kind of litter (not straw – it’ll stink to high heaven).  Then you let the chickens poop on it.  Then when it’s thoroughly covered over in poop…

Put down more shavings or leaves. I just throw it in – I don’t spread it nicely or anything.  I’m not touching that crap.  ;)  The chickens will dig through it and spread it around anyway.

Repeat until spring comes.  Note that I mainly just put litter down right under the roosts.  If it’s very rainy or snowy, we put their food and water inside the house (usually we keep them in the run) and we don’t want them to throw litter in the food and water.

Finally, on a nice day, when you feel like doing it, bring the wheel barrow over to the coop, scrape it all out, and dump the decomposed poop/leaves/shavings mixture into your compost bin.  It’ll be mostly all composted anyway.  Then clean out the coop and put down a fresh layer of shavings or leaves (if you have any more).

You are basically composting in the bottom of the hen-house.  And as you learned a couple weeks ago, compost generates heat, perfect for helping your flock stay warm during the winter.

And I can totally handle cleaning only twice a year.

Categories: Chickens, Compost, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , | 27 Comments

Composting Basics Part II: Hot, Cool, and Greens vs. Browns

If you read yesterday’s urban homestead boot camp post, Composting Basics Part I, you remember that I said I love compost.  Besides what it can do for you (you know turning “trash” into garden treasure, restoring and maintaining soil health, balance soil pH and neutralize chemicals, etc.), I love the way it does it.  I know it’s probably a little weird to love decomposition, but I do.

Yesterday, I told you that there are a lot of choices when it comes to bins, piles, and systems.  Worm bins and Bokashis are pretty specialized and self-contained systems.  I really don’t have much experience with either.   But I have used both a  pile and a bin.

A pile is best for “cool” composting.  It’s great if you aren’t in a rush for your finished compost, and if you don’t want to think much about it.  It doesn’t take a lot to build one.  And a pile probably won’t generate much heat, hence being “cool.”  Plan a year to two years for harvesting.  With this method, you basically just throw your kitchen scraps, yard waste and what-have-you into a big pile, and let it do its thing.  You can help it along by turning/stirring/forking it a couple of times a year, and by chopping up the browns you put into it.  Some people use a chipper or run over their browns with their lawn mowers before adding them to their piles.

You can cool compost in a bin too.  A bin will speed things up for you a bit more.  You will get more heat with a bin, and more heat means faster decomposition.

Right now, our family is “hot” composting.  A hot compost bin decomposes things very fast.  One pallet bin gave us over 80 gallons of finished compost in about 8 months last year.  For hot compost, you layer in your organic waste, give it a good soaking with the hose, and cover it (we use thick black plastic).  As it rots it generates heat, cooking the organic waste.  The heat actually comes from micro-organisms digesting everything. It can get hot enough to kill weed seeds.

The key here is you don’t want it to get too hot.  You want it to rot quickly and kill the bad stuff, but you don’t want to  kill off the good guys.  So you need to rotate it.  Or maybe aerate it is a good word.  Two bins make this nice as you can flip it from one bin to the other.  Sometimes, during the summer, we open it up, put out the half-finished compost, let the chickens scratch through it for a day or two and then scoop it all back in, water and cover again.  If you have a tumbler, there’s no need to use a pitch fork at all, just spin it.

So exactly what do you put in your compost bin?

“The greens” vs. “the browns.”  General advice is that for cool composting you need a 40/60 mix of the two, with more browns.  For hot composting, the ratio is even greater, closer to a 5 to 1 ratio or more of browns to greens. But what are they?

Greens include:

  • fruits and vegetables, whole, pieces, peelings and scraps 
  • moldy food
  • chicken, rabbit, goat poop and other manure from herbivores
  • alfalfa pellets
  • coffee grounds and used tea leaves
  • green leaves or grass clippings
  • hair
  • weeds (if they have mature seeds, make sure they are hot composted, otherwise not)
  • algae and water from fish tanks
  • urine

Browns include:

  • egg shells
  • dried leaves and grass clippings
  • straw
  • wood chips
  • saw dust
  • dryer lint
  • paper, including shredded paper, newspaper, tissue and paper towels
  • cardboard
  • coffee filters and tea bags
  • cotton fabric or string, wool
  • cotton balls and swabs (the kind with cardboard sticks)
  • any plant with woody stalks or stems, including corn cobs
  • nut shells
  • end of season plants

The greens provide nitrogen and the browns give carbon.  The only things I don’t compost are dog/cat poop, human feces, and bones.  All of them can be composted but they can make your pile smelly and attract animals to your pile.

The problem a lot of people have is that the ratios are talking about weight, not volume.  The browns are generally dry and weigh a lot less than the soggy wet greens, so you need a lot more of them.  I have to admit that I don’t really pay close attention to the exact ratios.  I tend to think of the greens as “wet” and the browns as “dry.”  Sort of like the browns are a sponge and the greens are the stuff I’m using to get the sponge wet with.  It’s totally simplistic, but it works somehow.  Even with the hot composting, I just think “Is there enough?  I better put more.”

There are all sorts of cute counter top containers for compost.  I keep a big stainless steel bowl on my counter to catch all of our kitchen scraps, our greens.  I used to use a porcelain one, but it got ruined, so stick with stainless steel.  When it is full or before bedtime, we take the bowl out to the pile.  I cover the bowl with a plate in the summer if fruit flies are a problem.

Most people don’t have a problem coming up with enough greens.  Browns can be tougher.  It helps to keep a source of browns nearby.  Yard waste is perfect.  We beg leaves off the neighbors in the fall.  In the summer, instead of putting grass clippings in as a green, we [have our neighbor who collects his] spread them around the chicken area.  The hens use them as littler and for a couple of weeks until they are completely dry.  Then we rake them up and toss them in the pile.  Dried leaves, straw, dead plants, wood shavings and shredded paper all work.  Usually, as long as you keep plastic out of it, the bathroom trash is all compost-able.

In addition to your greens and browns, you pile will need air and water.  Keep your pile moist – like a wrung out sponge, or chocolate cake.  We cover ours to keep the moisture in during the summer.  And we turn it and mix it.  It gets quite hot in the middle, so we move the middle to the outside edges and the edges in to the center to cook.  Then we water it some more and cover it back up.  Some people add soil or finished compost to their pile.  If your soil is healthy, it has all kinds of good micro organisms that help with decomposing your pile.  It’s sort of like adding yogurt to hot milk to make more yogurt.

What about the smell?  As long as you aren’t adding milk, meat or carnivore poop to your pile/bin, your compost should not smell foul at all.  If your pile has any odor other than a good soil smell, you probably need to turn it, add browns, or both.  Sometimes our bin gets an ammonia smell.  This usually happens after we’ve added the contents of the chicken coop to the pile and it’s had a chance to get going.  Chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen.  Adding in more browns and mixing it up, getting the inside to the outside and vice-versa, takes care of it.

When your compost is done, it should look like great soil.  No big bits or pieces of anything, light and fluffy, not soggy at all.  The compost shown above still has bits of egg shell and wood shavings (the browns take the longest to decompose) but I would put it in my garden like this anyway.

Happy composting!

Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Composting Basics Part I

Boot camp is back in session.  And I have a confession to make.  I love compost.  I mean I really, really love it.  I love the whole process of it.  I find it completely fascinating.  Compost is so awesome.  Completely dreamy, in fact. I might be obsessed.

The run down… you should compost.  Here’s why:

Compost builds up your soil.  There is a reason it is called “black gold.”  It provides good organisms, holds water, gives nutrients, improves clay soils, improves sandy soils, kills pollutants, fertilizes.  It is awesome.  Using compost reduces the amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and soil modification needed to grow a great garden.

Compost gets rid of your waste.  Basically, most things that can’t be recycled can be composted.  If it was alive or came from something that was alive, you can compost it.  Food waste, paper, yard waste, hair, wood, natural-fiber cloth, cardboard, even meat (but you’ll want to do it right).  We’ll call all these things “organic waste” for the purpose of this post.  The only things that can’t really be composted are  plastics, disposable diapers, and other synthetic materials.  Although bones can be composted, they will take a longer time than most gardeners want to put in, or are more likely to get stolen from your pile by some critter.

Seriously, what is cooler than something that turns all of a household’s non-recyclable waste into something that isn’t waste at all?  Something that gives back, that makes the gardens better?  Can you see why I’m infatuated?

How does it work?  Well, here’s the quick and dirty version (tomorrow, I promise a bit more detail):

Compost turns trash into treasure by rotting.  Yep.  Rot.  Experts talk about the greens and the browns, but the bottom line is that a compost bin uses water, heat and air to decompose all those vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, egg shells, grass clippings, leaves, straw, chicken poop, etc.  What you need is a place to put it and a way to turn it to get air into it.

Large bins are great if you have a family, a large garden or a large amount of organic waste to compost.  We don’t have the biggest yard, but we have two pallet bins in the chicken area that we use for composting.  You can make your own, or buy a variety of bins that range in size from pretty moderate to very large. Some even turn themselves.

*Note: Amazon links connect to Northwest Edible’s affiliate links – Help a garden blogger out! 

Or, skip a bin all together and just have a designated pile.

You’ll want to place your compost bin(s)/pile somewhere that gets some sun during the day and where you can get water to it.  A great place is in your garden so that you won’t have to go far with your finished compost.  Close to the kitchen is nice too, so it’s easy to fill, but you really don’t want it right up next to your house.  Trust me.  Our first bin was next to the house and we had a mouse invasion in the fall.  Now our bins are out in the chicken area.  Which is not close to the garden or the kitchen, but it is convenient for cleaning out the coop.  (Yep, broke all the rules I just mentioned.  That’s the way we roll).  It should also be free-standing; not up against a wall or a fence.

If you have a very small area, say only a patio or balcony, you might want to consider vermicomposting.  That is composting with worms.  They are a specific kind of worm, red wigglers, and they can live in a small box (or a big one) and they can eat through your kitchen waste pretty darn quickly.  Their bins can be really small and stacked, and I’ve even seen some that are topped with planters (double duty!).  They don’t need to be turned and they don’t need much “brown” material, but you do need to maintain them (you want the worms to stay alive).  Plus then you have little wiggly pets.  There are many different towers that you can buy or you can DIY with a plastic storage bin or wood.  Check YouTube for a bunch of tutorials.

Worms make excellent compost tea, which is a superb fertilizer that, once diluted, you can pour into your garden beds to help your plants.  Think of it as natural Miracle-Gro.  You can have a worm bin indoors as well.

If the only place you have to compost is under your sink, or if you think you need a way to compost meat or dairy, you might want to consider a Bokashi.  I don’t have any hands on experience with one (we toss any extra dairy or meat scarps to the chickens… except chicken, of course), but they are pretty ingenious.  They are small and air tight, so there is no smell and they use probiotics (the good micro organisms) to decompose what you put in there.  They don’t hold a ton, but they are efficient and get you compost tea quickly.

Tomorrow, I’m going to cover what to put in your compost (you know, “greens” and “browns” and all that), plus the difference between cool and hot composting.

Since I do all of our composting outside, I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on vermicompost and the Bokashi methods.  Tell me, tell me!

Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

DIY Pallet Compost Bin

This weekend Rick and I decided to move our compost bin.  Rick built it last year out of seven pallets he was able to scavenge.  I looked through all my old photos and posts and can only find a few random pictures with it in the background and no photos of its construction.  But that’s ok, because it wasn’t that great.

I mean it worked, we had two full wheel barrows full of compost (we put it in the neighbor’s garden), but the bin was poorly located, and too hard to move.  First off, we put it too close to the house.  It was really convenient for taking compost scraps to the bins from the kitchen, but it did attract some mice which wanted to move right in next door (in our house) when the weather turned chilly.

Basically the old bin was a two-bin system.  One side held compost that was almost ready and we added scraps to the other side.  Two of the pallets were hinged so we could open the bins and rotate things around as needed, but the whole thing was a bit unsteady and just awkward.  Here’s the best picture of it that I could find (that’s our neighbor, Haylee, in front of it helping Henry with his garden last spring).  See the vertical boards back there?

So when we tried to move it, it was all wobbly and heavy and kinda… well, you get the idea.  We decided we needed something better.  We built the bin Sunday afternoon reusing some of the same pallets and some scraps of lumber we had in the garage.  The new bin, with horizontal side boards, is in the chicken yard where they can have easy access to the goodies it will contain, and if it attracts mice, the chickens will take care of those for us too.  We’ll most likely build a second bin next to this one, as it was really easy (and we also generate too much yard waste for just one bin).

Here’s what we came up with, along with a “How-To” incase you want/need to build your own.

The design is based on a New Zealand Hot Box, modified to reuse the pallets we already had.  It’s roughly 3 feet high and about 4 feet square.  The size is, of course, dependent on the pallets you have.

Materials Needed:

  • (3) pallets in decent shape. Try to find ones with the top deckboards closer together, not further apart.
  • (4) 3′-6″ 2×2″ pieces of lumber.  We ripped a leftover cedar 4×4 post into fourths lengthwise.
  • At least (18) screws
  • (6) 1×6″ boards, approx. 4′ long each.  We had leftover fence pickets this size.  You could use (9) 1×4’s instead.
  • a saw, claw hammer, drill, measuring tape, sledge-hammer and helper

Directions:

Photo A

  • Use a hammer to knock the bottom deckboards off of the pallets.  Click on Photo A to see labeled parts of the pallet.
  • You may also have to saw the center projection of the runner boards off on the sides of the pallet that will become the back of the bin.
  • Using the saw, cut the ends of the 2×2″ stakes into a point.  These will be driven into the ground.  Two stakes will be used as corner stakes in the rear.  The other two will support the sides and make slots for the front boards.  See Photo B.
  • Photo D

    Photo C

    Measure the length of the pallet you plan to use for the rear of the bin.  With a helper drive a stake into the ground about 6 inches on each side of the rear. The stakes should be on the outside edge of the pallet.  Screw the rear pallet’s runners to the stakes (Photo C).  The wood on the pallets we used was quite hard, so we had to drill pilot holes first.

  • Have your helper hold the one side pallet in place while you measure and drive in the front support stake, making sure the side pallet is square to the rear.  The front support stake should be inside the pallet, butted up against the top deckboards and about 1 to 1½ inches from the runner that will be the front of the bin (Photo D).  Screw the side pallet’s runner to the back corner stake (again the rear stake should be on the outside edge of the pallet).  Repeat with the other side, making sure it is also square to the rear.
  • Photo E

    Finally measure the distance between the two side pallets.  This will be the length you will need to cut the 1×6″ boards into the removable front slats.  Fill your bin with compost and slide the slats into the slot created between the front support stakes and the front runners on the side pallets (Photo E).  These slats can be removed when you want to turn the pile or use your compost.  These bins are easy to make and if you want a second or third bin to rotate your compost, it would be very easy to build additional bins adjacent to the first.

To see more of my Do-It-Yourself projects click the DIY category on the right.

Categories: Compost, DIY, Garden, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments

Frugal Friday: Composting

YUCK!  What is that??

compost

It’s my compost.  That’s the bowl on my counter, super-imposed over the pile outside.  :)

Week two of my Gardening  Thrifty Thursday Frugal Friday tips (sorry, I just didn’t feel like writing yesterday) is about composting.

I was actually lobbying for a compost pile for a long time before we got one.  A couple of years.  Rick grew up thinking that they were smelly heaps of rotting food that attracted neighborhood cats, and provided little benefit, except for those hippies.  He also grew up dusting baby tomato plants with pesticides and dousing them with chemical fertilizers.

I had to change his thinking!  I wanted to compost to reduce the need for those pesticides and fertilizers.  I wanted to foster a garden that could support and sustain it’s self!  And, my dad was a “worm grower” (throwing coffee grounds and eggs shells in the garden, to grow big, fat, night crawlers to use for fishing bait), so I knew the compost bin/pile needn’t be complicated or smelly.

In order to compost, you need only a few basic things:
– Green material (like veggie scraps, coffee grounds, etc.)
– Brown Material (dried leaves, straw, dried grass clippings, etc.)
– Water
– Somewhere to let it do it’s thing (a bin or pile)

After showing Rick some of the facts about composting, and pointing out to him that he had been doing it every fall all along (digging holes and filling then with layers of leaves, dirt and water, and then leaving the to rot through the winter to improve the soil in the veggie garden), he did a little research of his own and jumped in with both feet.

Rick  decided to save money by building his own bins, following a plan we found online, just by Googling it.  So far, he has the layout done, and we’ve been composting without walls for the last year or so.  He will eventually put in walls around the pile, where the steaks are, so we can transfer from one side to the other easily.

But why should you start composting?  I mean, who wants a pile of rotting organic matter sitting around the outside of their house?  Really?  Here are a few reasons why (from earth911.com)….

Benefits of Using Compost

  • Improves the soil structure, porosity, and density, thus creating a better plant root environment.
  • Increases moisture infiltration and permeability of heavy soils, thus reducing erosion and runoff.
  • Improves water-holding capacity, thus reducing water loss and leaching in sandy soils.
  • Supplies a variety of macro and micronutrients.
  • May control or suppress certain soil-borne plant pathogens.
  • Supplies significant quantities of organic matter.
  • Improves cation exchange capacity (CEC) of soils and growing media, thus improving their ability to hold nutrients for plant use.
  • Supplies beneficial micro-organisms to soils and growing media.
  • Improves and stabilizes soil pH.
  • Can bind and degrade specific pollutants.

 

In other words, it’s good for your garden, your plants, and the Earth!  This short list doesn’t even mention that the EPA estimates that 24% of what ends up in landfills is made up of yard trimmings and food residuals.  All of which can go into your home compost pile/bin and be used to enhance your own soil for your own veggie and flower gardens.

Wait… I thought this was supposed to be a tip about saving money.  How does composting do that?  Well those points up there basically equate to this:  Using compost reduces the amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and soil modification needed to grow a great garden.  It also reduces the amount of garbage you send off to the landfill, and combined with diligent recycling, that could even lead to eliminating the trash bill  completely!  So what, exactly, is the savings?  Well, I don’t have that broken down.  It all depends on what you grow, and what you need to make it grow.  But I can tell you this.  We don’t need to buy fertilizer, peat moss (for soil modification), manure, or pesticides any more.  We haven’t bought those things in a long time.  :)

It’s easy to do.  We just keep a bowl on the kitchen counter to collect our food scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds & filters, veggie peeling, etc.  We dump that into the pile when ever we fill it up (once or twice a week).  This accounts for most of the “green matter” in the pile.  We add grass trimmings and dried leaves, the used pine shavings from the chicken house and paper from our shredder to account for the “brown materials.”  The only other things needed are water and time.

Be sure to check out these helpful sites for more reasons to compost, details on what should and should not be composted, compost uses, and methods of composting:
U.S. Environment Protection Agency
Earth911.com
Washington State University County Extension

Also, before I wrap this up I wanted to share a link to KGI’s post about the Obama’s first planting in their new garden!  Check it out! http://www.kitchengardeners.org/

Be sure to check around for other Thrifty Thursday tips this week. Katie Jean posted about the Value of Memberships! Check also with  Tracy, Crystal and Genny(though I know Genny is taking a break to prepare for the home birth of their baby!, and some of the others have been busy with other life things as well).  :)

Categories: Compost, Food, Garden, Sustainability, Thrift, Urban Homesteading | 3 Comments

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