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This is a pictorial diary in French Intensive/ Biodynamic gardening, as regards the methods I use when working at the Pomona College Natural Farm.  The methods described here are a sort of "working intuition" that I use to pursue my own self-sufficiency amidst general economic dislocation.  The label "French Intensive/ Biodynamic gardening" describes a gardening strategy to coax maximum yield out of minimum space.  This was something I "learned by heart" when I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz; I will just discuss the usual list of things to do here.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

A cursory search of Big Orange these days will reveal that survival blogging is alive and well.  This fits the times, of course; the new jobs are no fun, and folks out there are plenty hungry.  MiscastDice reflects upon the housing of the future: outdoors.  Bria shares my complaint: overeducated and underemployed. Teddifish recommends that you start networking; The Arse suggests that some of us are just plain doomed.  

Here I'm going to recommend my strategy for hard times: grow your own.  In this diary I wish to discuss a particular strategy for growing your own: French Intensive/ Biodynamic.  The text you should get (if you want a text) is John Jeavons' book: How to Grow More Vegetables etc.  I don't tend to follow such books to the letter; everything will vary with the land you have.  

Step one, of course, is to get yourself some land to cultivate.  Perhaps this is your political task for the incoming new year: I can think of no political venture more worthy than improving one's community self-sufficiency through the creation of community gardens, free clinics, and other places to help local populations stick around on the planet.

Next thing you want to do is start a composting area.  The composting area will be the basis for your garden; sometimes your compost will itself produce the seedlings for your garden.  If you live in an area with a single planting season, maybe this is your task for the winter; you won't be able to start planting until March or April at any rate, so for now you want to create a big clump of biomass, perhaps underground, perhaps in a "compost heap," so you'll have some good rich soil to work with.  The Jeavons book recommends a compost heap as follows:

The recipe for a biodynamic/ French Intensive Method compost is by weight: 1/3 dry vegetation, 1/3 green vegetation and kitchen wastes, and 1/3 soil -- though we have found with our heavy clay soil that less soil produces better results. (30)

Of course, this is not entirely realistic.  You're going to get your dry vegetation, i.e. dead leaves from deciduous trees, in the autumn.  And, yeah, ideally you want to layer your compost -- if you sandwich your soil between your kitchen wastes and your dead leaves, the leaves stay wet and the earthworms stay happy.  Do it if you can.

Here's my compost area on December 1 of this year -- I live in southern California, so our tree leaves drop late -- this area is, nevertheless, full of buried leaves.  In about two or three months your compost should be ready to use.

After you have the compost heap up and roaring (and you may have to find your local earthworm dealer to make that happen), and it's almost time to plant, you want to "double-dig" your land.  "Double-digging," a jargon word of French Intensive/ Biodynamic, needs to be spelled out.  What you want to do, to be sure, is go down maybe half a meter (19 or 20 inches) into the soil.  The same result can also be achieved through raised beds -- if you can't go down, go up.  But I've always favored the "going down" approach, since I really like the idea of shallow "pools" of water (to make it easier to water your plants without using a lot of water).  I live in southern California -- we're going to have to conserve water mightily in the coming years.

The point of all this digging or building activity is to provide plenty of soil aeration for your full-grown plants.  Let them spread their roots and establish a presence in the soil, and the more land they have for this the better.  When all of the local micro-organisms and worms are used to the presence of your garden crops, the reasoning goes, it will continue to be a good space for them.

Sometimes you will have to work on really tough, compacted dirt.  Maybe you are working on land that was used to park cars, or was paved with just-removed concrete or something.  In that case you should water your land thoroughly and let it sit awhile until it's easy to dig.  Don't break your back chopping away at tough, dry land.

It was really difficult to go down 19 or 20 inches when digging this bed.  (You can't really see the markers on the yardstick, but, yeah, I made it.)  The soil in this particular plot was rich and coffee-black down to about 4 inches, but below that, the soil was dense, nutrient-poor, and very rocky.  Here's a pile of rocks I removed for a rather small plot:

Everything below the big rock (upper center) is stuff I removed -- and here's the plot itself:

When you have lots of rocks you can use the biggest ones to mark off the bed itself.

Now, "double digging" usually means digging a big hole in your garden plot, putting compost in it, adding soil, adding more compost, adding more soil, and then digging another hole and doing the same thing until your whole garden plot has a fluffy, well-composted soil all the way down to about 19 or 20 inches and all the way across your bed.  The Jeavons book describes an orderly method of doing this; I'm not a very orderly person myself, so I'm not going to describe it here.  You'll figure something out.


At any rate, then, and only then, when you have given your plants a comfortable, fluffy, and nutritious living space, only then do you plant your seeds and your potted plants.  You want to plant your seeds "in season" -- plant a winter crop (peas, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens etc.) in the fall, and plant a summer crop (corn, beans, squash, tomatoes etc.) in the spring.  When-exactly, of course, depends upon where you live and what kind of length your frost/ snow season has.

You should try to plant your crops densely, but with enough room for each plant to grow.  Remember, you spent a LOT of time preparing your soil; you should expect super-high yield from your efforts.  

Your best watering tactic is to water your plants a little bit each day; do what you can.  Remember, you are babying your plants so that they can grow up huge and so that their roots can go down deep.

Here's my winter crop of peas and red mustard:

Here's a picture of the same plot, earlier this year, decked out in late July's Indian corn and squash:

My Roma tomatoes have survived into late November, moreover:

My chiles serranos got big quickly, and stayed big.  These plants are big producers, and they don't seem to need a whole lot of water.  Here is their Thanksgiving appearance:

At any rate, you can see that this sort of planting strategy is really good for places where land is pricey, and thus in short supply.  It also requires a LOT of effort in garden bed preparation, and a lot of effort in creating a viable compost area and stocking it with lots of good compost.  My argument here is that all that work will eventually PAY OFF in lots of good veggies and fruit for you to eat.  And this will put something on the table when little or no money is in fact coming in, and eventually it will compensate for the high price of food when abrupt climate change results in poor harvests in the world of mainstream agriculture.  The more people who are doing this stuff, then the more people who will be able to share what they grow and the more varied our diets will be.

You can get really good compost if you are part of a school or college or place of employment; get the cafeteria employees at your academy or workplace to develop composting habits.  You can also be a compost entrepreneur -- other people will usually give you their raked-up dead leaves for free, and you can usually buy and cultivate earthworms for cheap so as to integrate your dead leaves into the soil quickly.  

Remember, DON'T compost meat; DON'T step on your garden beds.  You will also want to develop practices of good companion planting.  Certain plants go well together; beans, for instance, can accumulate Rhizobium bacteria which stimulate nitrogen fixing in the soil.  There are also things to do to deal with "pests," gophers, and weeds without using nasty chemicals.  You may also have to deal with poor soils, and chemical crap that was already there before you arrived.  The Jeavons book describes solutions, clean organic solutions, to all that.  The chemical crap will be mitigated by your compost heap; earthworms can help clean up planet Earth if given opportunities and allowed to thrive.  What I've tried to lay out in this diary are some basic logistics of how to develop a French Intensive garden.  If you can't plant in the winter, bookmark this diary; I'll reference it again in another diary on the same topic in the spring.

Originally posted to Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 07:29 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips for French Intensive/ Biodynamic (38+ / 0-)

    Compost now, plant later!

    "It all makes perfect sense/ Expressed in dollars and cents/ Pounds, shillings and pence" -- global anthem, from Roger Waters' song "Perfect Sense"

    by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 12:36:12 AM PST

  •  Double digging sucks! (5+ / 0-)

    I follow a lot of Jeavon's advice, but I gave up double digging pretty quickly. I've become a huge fan of lasagna gardening lately.

    I demand prosecutions for torture.

    by heart of a quince on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 07:34:51 AM PST

  •  if you have the dirt (8+ / 0-)

    gardening makes wonderful food, at pretty cheap prices. fruit trees, if you own the place, are also great to plant, although they're a gateway drug to canning.

    i found that shredded receipts and sensitive mail made a decent replacement for dry leaves.

    surf putah, your friendly neighborhood central valley samizdat

    by wu ming on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 07:38:50 AM PST

  •  Nice diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bronte17, Cassiodorus, Old Gardener, rk2

    with good pictures and useful information. Thanks.

    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.--JFK, inaugural, 1961

    by Mnemosyne on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 07:39:32 AM PST

  •  What About Fish? (3+ / 0-)

    Didn't shoreside natives, and/or maybe some Europeans, once add fish into their composting or otherwise work them into soil?

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 07:41:26 AM PST

  •  Nice diary! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tracker, Cassiodorus

    Any advice on how to get my chickens from thinking that my veggie garden is the best place for their spa (dirt baths and unripe tomato lunches)?  I have no carpentry skills and anything good enough to keep them out will also keep me out.

    In my world, there are only two colors. I prefer Blue over Not-Blue.

    by indigoblueskies on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 07:56:13 AM PST

    •  They destroyed strawberry patch via over-bathing (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bablhous, Cassiodorus, rk2

      Nothing keeps out a determined chicken!  My girls like nothing better than fresh-spread compost.  Luckily their poo is an excellent fertilizer, or I'd re-think how much their eggs are costing me in veggies.

      "Right wing freak machine" General Wes Clark

      by Tracker on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:06:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Remember -- (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      you are getting chicken manure from them, so don't discount their contribution to your garden entirely.  Have you tried putting a couple of feet of fence around your garden?

      "It all makes perfect sense/ Expressed in dollars and cents/ Pounds, shillings and pence" -- global anthem, from Roger Waters' song "Perfect Sense"

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:08:18 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you! (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tracker, bablhous, A Siegel, Cassiodorus, BYw, rk2

    Probably the greatest difference you can make in the world... and the taste of what you grow is so much better than what you get in the supermarket!

    •  And a good way to make friends with neighbors (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cassiodorus, rk2

      is to share produce!  Though by the end of last season everyone nearby had too much squash (very rainy summer -> high squash yields).  Not planting squash next summer.

      "Right wing freak machine" General Wes Clark

      by Tracker on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:09:16 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Obviously .. (7+ / 0-)

    which you have written on passionately and knowledgeably often in the past, 'gardening' is also a Peak Oil survival path and a path toward reducing GHGs.  If we all have some form of 'victory garden' to help end our oil addiction, improve health (fresher foods), and reduce GHG emissions, it would be one of the silver BBs toward changing the nation/planet on a better path.  This can range from a pot with a tomatoe plant in a window to turning a yard into an edible estate.

    Re composting:  have multiple systems, including an open pile for yard waste and a tumbler (transition to another system) for kitchen waste (due to pests in neighborhood).  The latter gets added to the former once it is well enough along in composting.  In addition, I sometimes take the grass clippings that neighbors have left out in plastic bags to add to my compost heap.  (The overly fertilized grass looks & smells different from my own yard waste. Even though I turn, it seems to me that I can tell the difference between the soil from those clippings and my leaves/yard waste.)

    For me, I am having a 'discussion' in the household as to whether turn the front yard over to an 'edible estate'.  For the moment, will have to continue with the strips of gardening (perhaps 200 square feet total) which I am not doing in a systematic enough way and without high enough productivity. (Probably had 200 lbs of tomatoes, 10 lbs/so of beans, some corn (not good, thus ate about 15 ears and left rest for animals), and other 'crops' basically failed to produce.  Soil is great ... gardener isn't ...

  •  The hardest part about veg gardening (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    is keeping the chickens from devouring crops and over-aerating the soil.

    Weeding is horrible. 1-2 hours per week of plucking out unwanted plants from the garden.  

    Our plan for spring/summer '09:
    sweet potatoes
    green beans
    banana peppers

    One problem is that we've planned a vacation for two weeks in May.  How do you get a veggie garden sitter? It will be hard enough to find somebody to take care of the cats, chickens and dog.

    "Right wing freak machine" General Wes Clark

    by Tracker on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:04:23 AM PST

    •  I have the perfect person for you (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tracker, Cassiodorus, BYw

      if you live in southeastern PA. She actually does offer those services and does a great job. Or if you have a gardening friend, maybe you could spell each other. Folks with sheep and goats do that around here.

      Please support your local library.

      by rk2 on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:11:21 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  With French Intensive -- (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tracker, BYw

      weeding isn't so bad because you've planted your crop to crowd out your weeds.  As long as your weeds don't reach maturity first, you should be fine.

      "It all makes perfect sense/ Expressed in dollars and cents/ Pounds, shillings and pence" -- global anthem, from Roger Waters' song "Perfect Sense"

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:22:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Mulch suppresses weeds (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tracker, bablhous, Cassiodorus

      and your soil retains water longer if it is protected by mulch.

      For mulch, I use dropped needles from deodar cedars and from a sequoia.  I've got my own supply, but I also beg it from neighbors with evergreens, who are glad to get the material off of their lawns and sidewalks.  

      Conifer needles may make your soil slightly more acid, but in my own experience in testing the soil with a pH meter, I have actually never seen a difference.

      Conifer needles also discourage cats from digging in your inviting garden soil. In our garden, it takes deodar cedar needles about a year to break down to a composty consistency, and when it's time to turn over your garden, you'll find that it really lightens the soil.

      Good luck!  

  •  Thanks for this diary. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, BYw

    I will be considering a garden for next Spring, so now is the time to start turning and composting.

    And, as a former Sagehen (1977, ex '76), I can tell you that the pile of rocks you have there are known as "Claremont potatoes"!

    Unfortunately, I don't have your climate here in dallas, TX.  Average last frost is March 17 here.  Luckily, you can watch the garden and weather, and have a pint while you do your planting!

    Torture is Wrong! 10% of the US population on Food Stamps: help your food bank.

    by tom 47 on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:17:09 AM PST

    •  Down in the wash -- (0+ / 0-)

      there are still a lot of Claremont potatoes indeed.

      Oh well.  Compost now, plant in March.  For luck with winter crops, try planting red mustard -- it works for me because it's cold- and heat-resistant, nutritious, and tasty.  You can use it for burrito wraps because the leaves grow out big and wide...

      "It all makes perfect sense/ Expressed in dollars and cents/ Pounds, shillings and pence" -- global anthem, from Roger Waters' song "Perfect Sense"

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 08:25:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's our yard in a nutshell... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Hardpan and rocks...typically SoCal.

        I use them for japanese garden areas, to make pathways and to make beds with - I stack them with mortar...Cheap, functional and asthetically pleasing.

        There is a big pile of excavated "dirt" sitting out back ready to get incorporated into my compost soon as I de-rock it.

        I have plenty of space out back, so I plan on building 4 raised 4'x 8' beds over the winter,in addition to planting a lime, lemon, blood orange and mission fig tree, and a passionfruit vine on our back retaining wall.

  •  Thanks for a great diary and pics (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bablhous, Cassiodorus

    I really enjoyed seeing how your garden progressed.  

    Thanks for making good soil.  

  •  Because what you describe is eminently reasonable (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and informative, I have a question about biodynamic gardening. In short, I've heard very little about biodynamic farming, but what I have heard is not very reasonable.

    I have been told (at a Boston wine shop and a high end Napa valley winery) that biodynamic gardening - at least as it applies to grape growing - involves stuffing a steer skull with herbs, planting it in a particular corner of the vineyard and expecting the herb concoction to reach all parts of the vineyard instantaneously. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed.

    So, my question is: does what I have heard - on both sides of the US but my people who are not actually practitioners of biodynamic farming - have anything to do with actual biodynamic farming. And if not, do you have any idea where the misinformation comes from?

    •  No idea -- (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Light Emitting Pickle

      I do know (from seeing a movie about it) that in India there are places where the religious practices surrounding cows are mixed in with biodynamic farming tho...

      "It all makes perfect sense/ Expressed in dollars and cents/ Pounds, shillings and pence" -- global anthem, from Roger Waters' song "Perfect Sense"

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 09:36:14 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  What's described here is more French intensive (3+ / 0-)

      than Rudi Steiner biodynamic. Biodynamic does have a lot of "woo-woo" elements, including homeopathy and concoctions prepared during certain phases of the moon with cow horn and the like, but the larger principle (which is relevant to this diary) is a focus on the health of the ecosystem rather than just the health of the crop. So weeds and pests are OK, as long as they don't get out of control, and they will actually encourage vigor in the crop as the crop deals with them. But pesticides and industrial fertilizers are stresses the plant has not evolved to deal with, so they're out. The thinking is that a healthy ecosystem makes for healthy crops.

      The "woo-woo" part catches a lot of flak, but I suspect some of that flak is cover for the fact that biodynamic is labor intensive. For viticulture, a plot in Burgundy (which might be the size of a large backyard, and where they can charge several body parts for a bottle) is much easier to farm that way than a typical plot in Bordeaux, California, or Chile. But more and more you can find reasonably priced bottles (as in Cote de Provence or Muscadet priced) wines grown biodynamically or using "biodynamic principles" (without some of the woo-woo stuff).

      •  Thanks. The cow horn stuff makes me cringe (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        alefnot, Cassiodorus

        but everything described in Cassiodorus' diary makes a lot of sense. I'll give flak for the steer skull, but not the labour intensiveness of the process. To me, big agriculture has cut so many corners to reduce the amount of labour that food no longer tastes like food. I'll take a biodynamic tomato any day of the week over a Monsanto special.

        •  Roma tomatoes are still bland (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Light Emitting Pickle

          even with French Intensive ;)

          "It all makes perfect sense/ Expressed in dollars and cents/ Pounds, shillings and pence" -- global anthem, from Roger Waters' song "Perfect Sense"

          by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 12:05:39 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Makes a lot of people cringe (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          but nobody argues with the results. The early criticisms with wine were: You're Coulee de Serrant (Nicolas Joly of CdS started biodynamic viticulture), you're Domaine Leroy (Lalou Bize Leroy was an early convert), of course you have fabulous wine, it has nothing to do with biodynamics. Then as less rarefied, far more affordable vintners took it up: Well, if you're going to be that fanatical of course it's going to be good, has nothing to do with biodynamics (as if giving a damn about your product is a bad thing??). Personally, I ignore the woo-woo stuff, if they're going to provide a high quality product from healthy fields, I'll support that 100%. But it is easy to criticize (especially if you want a reason not to farm that way). But it is getting more popular, including in places like California, Australia, and New Zealand.

          big agriculture has cut so many corners to reduce the amount of labour that food no longer tastes like food.

          And the fields look like lunar landscapes with only the cash crop allowed to grow. Even some "organic" farms look like this. That can't be good.

  •  I started out with this method (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bablhous, Cassiodorus

    back in the 80's and it was very effective. When I moved to Nebraska I double-dug 12 one-hundred square foot raised beds; did this for about 10 years. Then I expanded some more, so I now have 2500 square feet of planting area (not all of it raised beds).

    As I get older and busier, this 'intensive' method has become too much hard work, particularly given how large the garden is. So about 4 years ago I switched over to the Ruth Stout permanent hay mulch system. My raised beds are still there, I just pile hay on them and don't dig or till. My results are GREAT. The vegetables are so much more productive with this method compared to the old method that I have started reducing the amount of planting I do. I fertilize less, I water less, there's no heavy labor and the soil just gets better and better.

    The only downside that I can think of is that you do need a lot of hay--we get ours from a neighbor about 2 miles away. I buy about 90 (small) bales a year for around $300. Since I spend less on fertilizers, it's a reasonable cost. The amount of food we produce is HUGE, I don't have any kind of measurement of it but it's a lot of food. This year I canned 70 pints of tomato sauce, for example, but that's just a fraction of all the food we grew.

    The other aspect of hay mulching that I have to say is that it's not really 'no work' as Ruth Stout claimed--you do need to pay attention to the garden on a regular basis to keep weeds from starting--but it's just not HARD work. It's light, easy, pleasant work, adding mulch here and there to keep weeds down. As I get older, I appreciate this!

    Oops! I'm gonna need a whole new sig!

    by sillia on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 09:20:55 AM PST

    •  The main advantage of French Intensive (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      is in being able to deal, swiftly and with certainty, with soils that have been misused in the past and are thus in serious need of reclamation.  I feel that, once you've given the land a once-over in such a way, any other method of farming you have will probably do just fine.

      "It all makes perfect sense/ Expressed in dollars and cents/ Pounds, shillings and pence" -- global anthem, from Roger Waters' song "Perfect Sense"

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 09:38:43 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I would agree with that (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        alefnot, Cassiodorus

        and furthermore I'd add that growing cover crops such as buckwheat, sometimes known as 'green manure', and then tilling these in is another excellent method of getting your soil in shape. It's just not as quick as double-digging but gives wonderful results.

        Oops! I'm gonna need a whole new sig!

        by sillia on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 09:49:53 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I saw "My adventure in French"...and thought (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the diary would take a different tack then it did.

    Even though my sordid side was not satisfied, since I am planning on tearing up more of my suburban backyard next summer, the diary was still very useful. Thank you.

    "No his mind is not for rent, to any god or government. Always hopeful yet discontent, he knows changes aren't permanent. But change is." -Neil Peart

    by Boisepoet on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 12:08:20 PM PST

  •  Being the lazy gardener that I am... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I went from double-digging (blech!), to raised beds, to 'bucket' gardening.  Granted, this evolution was due to attempts at weed control. We have a massive creeping Charlie problem so drastic measures were required.

    We use 5 gallon buckets.  Drill a couple of small drainage holes in the bottom and then line with a thin layer of water retentive mulch. Fill up the rest of the bucket with compost and plant what you will.

    Last year we did a variety of peppers, one tomato plant, snow pea pods and pole beans.  The pole beans were an experiment this year - trying to figure out what to use for the 'pole' in this situation.  I ended up using tomato cages for the support structure.  The first one went in as you would normally place it.  As the plants grew, I added the 'second story' of the support by putting another cage on top of the first one, only upside down. A couple pieces of duct tape is enough to hold the two cages together. You may have to use the bucket handle for extra support if you live in a windy area. A dozen plants produced enough in this 'test run', that I was giving them away because I couldn't keep up with them!

    Anyway, I thought this might be helpful for folks who live in apartments or folks who can't dig. It also makes weeding a snap!

    YES WE CAN! *Obama/Biden08* YES WE WILL!

    by HoosierDeb on Thu Dec 11, 2008 at 07:31:01 PM PST

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