Methodology of Design: Both Philosophy and Application

hrigsbyMay 3, 2012

I was reading through the debate in bahia's thread from a while back about curved lines, not wiggles, and my mind kept being drawn back to the selection of plant material in the beds that were linked in the first few posts.

Here is the thread for reference:

As a sophomore in a LA program, I find my key problem at this point is visualizing the individual beds that I want to create, more of the "gardening" side of the issue, the nitty-gritty, technical application.

I then see beds like the one in the original post and am just mesmerized by their combinations and contrast. But I can't seem to grasp how this comes to be? Is it usually something that evolves, or is it possible to make these connections in the planning stage and implement a garden like this in a season or two?

I guess what draws me in is the compactness and proximity of the plants. The textures and colors seem to play together so much better than the typical landscaped area, where plants are placed as specimens with mulch bridging the gap.

How does a design like this come about? What does it look like? What do you look for when choosing the plant material to achieve this intimate sort of result? Is this something that you see on paper and then implement, or is this something that comes to life in the nursery when you start putting plants together and looking at how they interact? These are some of the questions that run through my head...

The layering just gets so intricate and's astounding to me. I really could just look at these photos for hours and not get bored with it.

I feel this is an important step for someone entering this field as I am. My designs are maturing, but the details such as this really haven't sunk in...I know what I want to create, but how to do it is eluding me.

Any insight or opinions would be great.

Thanks everyone.

- Riggs

Here is a link that might be useful: bahia's Original Thread: Check Link in First Post

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I think it's quite possible that people arrive at similar results via different pathways - but by far the mot common one is years of trial and error. Arranging plants in a nursery can be helpful. Knowing each plant's requirements and preparing the soil well goes a long way in achieving "fullness". I bet some experienced professionals can put this sort of scheme together on paper, but even then it's not a "plant and forget" project but one that takes continued maintenance.
The planting beds in your linked photos also look good because they have a well-planned background - lots of solid green enclosing "walls".
When developing plantings in my own garden, I feel it's a never-ending process and there's always mistakes to be made - just this winter, I lost some dwarf conifers to heavy snow, I won't plant them in this spot again - and there are also positive surprises (who knew that Joe Pye weed could thrive in full sun on high and dry ground? - sometimes it's worth taking the risk). I seek out plants whose foliage still looks good in September, and avoid the other kind. I'm thrilled when I find a well-contrasting combo - I even write them down sometimes. When all else fails, I fill in with annuals :)

    Bookmark   May 3, 2012 at 4:09AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Speaking as a gardener, I think understanding it has something to do with really knowing the yearly cycle of plants. When you look at the plants in the photo, imagine what they look like in winter - often nothing at all - or as an emerging presence in spring. Also, of course, as a dying arrangement in fall.

There is some trickery afoot in garden photography since it is rare or non-existent that someone actually photographs, or publishes photos of, gardens AT TIMES OTHER THAN WHEN THEY ARE DESIGNED TO PEAK. The gardens you are looking at were designed to look good at this particular time. 6 weeks earlier, there was less colour and more soil visible, and 6 weeks later, things will be beginning to spread and droop, and seed heads will have replaced flowers.

There may also have been plants that shone in spring, now invisible, and there may be things just emerging whose full glory is the next act.

But generally, a spring bulb garden is always photographed in spring, and a perennial border most often in summer. It would of course be far more helpful to show 2 or three photos of each bed, tracking its year, but I've rarely seen that.

Someone here - I think it was DD - referred to the 4th dimension in garden design, time. Time is a factor both on an annual cyclical basis, and on a linear basis - plants grow bigger as well as coming and going every year. I think that is the dimension it takes practice to work with.

To design something that looks good throughout the year IS possible (maybe more in my climate than in others), but I suspect most beds have their peak moments. For example, I referred to clumps of snowdrops in a thread recently... 6 weeks later you have clumps of long grassy foliage. At that point, you have to have something else going on that either covers or distracts from that foliage. Later still, the spring features are invisible, drying/rejuvenating under the leaves of the summer extravaganza.

The overlay of texture is another factor, as is form of the plant - arching vs creeping vs spiky etc. These shapes let you play with how the plants occupy airspace, letting them intersect without colliding.

So you plan something like this in 3d and arrange according to the textures, colours, form, and foliage shapes. Then you consider the effect of time. It is because flowers are fleeting that I most often design by foliage and plant form. I'm always delighted by the flowers, and have just been admiring them outside in fact, but they are a bonus, and not the driving force in the design.

Finally, my motto is "buy 'em small and plant 'em close." You get a lot of plant interplay that way, as plants can grow up far closer to each other than you can wedge them if they each come in gallon+ pots.

Karin L

    Bookmark   May 3, 2012 at 12:18PM
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I agree with the buying small mentality. I do a few jobs here over the summer and something that always bugs me is that people wait until the last minute to express what they want done, and then expect it to look great that day, so I'm stuck buying more mature plants many times...instead of getting smaller ones and letting them grow into and thrive in a space.

I also agree that having backing to a bed is really a gift, because the angle of view is cut in half, and you can layer in one direction rather than two. This summer I actually have a few beds that I'm working on, one is freestanding and the other is up against a fence, so I'll get a little practice with both (these beds are really large, especially the fence backed one).

I'm going to try to work on intermixing the different types of plants to create visual interest year-round. I want to set something up so that there are larger, deciduous shrubs as anchors to the gardens, but still an abundance of bulbs and perennials that will peak and overthrow the anchors during the springtime, sort of a morphing effect, so that the garden has interest year-round, but it is constantly changing, as was mentioned earlier, peak seasons and the play between them.

The hardest season for me is winter, because obviously the plant palette is limited. I have a hard time matching evergreens to deciduous plants. Any ideas on that front? The evergreens are so important, but in a lot of cases they are just an afterthought, with one or two placed in a garden, and then, even though they have foliage in the winter, they just make the space seem even more barren because they provide a reference. I'm really becoming a fan of the dwarf false cypress plants because they can be used in abundance and provide a lot of winter interest, but they also aren't large enough to overpower anything in the spring and summer. That's my issue with a lot of evergreens, is many of the commonly used ones just grow so large.

I have tons of questions and ideas...but I'll let this sit and see what ya'll think. I'm in Zone 7a, if anyone was wondering, but most of these questions are more conceptual in nature.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2012 at 2:39PM
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Could you tell us more about your LA program as I find the emphasis on designing flower beds unusual.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2012 at 3:40PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

You might find one of the books Ink recommened for my reading list to be of interest - Russell Page's The Education of a Gardener. While the specific gardens he talks about designing in that book are of a different place/time/culture, his detailed discussion of the thought process he went through for each is very interesting and probably relevant for you.

Here is a link that might be useful: The education of a Gardener

    Bookmark   May 3, 2012 at 4:26PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

It comes with practice and good familiarity with the plant choices that work in your climatic zone. I don't think you can expect to just "pick up" a good mastery of designing intuitively with plants without putting the time in to know how they grow and look through the different seasons. It definitely helps to know them better if you put the time into actually learning their preferences and observe them over the seasons. I'd also suggest analyzing garden compositions you like, and dissect the components that make them work.

In the case of the gardens in the photos I posted, the design was fully worked out in plan prior to installation, and plant choices were tailored to the site conditions and client preferences identified at the first meetings. In my case this was facilitated because both clients came to me by referral or having seen my designs in local garden magazines such as Sunset. When new clients aren't directly familiar with your work or style, it may take more time to get the preferences determined.

I find it helpful to tie into the neighborhood style and plant palette when appropriate, and again I can't stress how important I find it to select plants that will thrive in the site conditions. It also helps to pay a lot of attention to interesting gardens and designs, and seek them out so you can learn from them. If you want to become an expert at combining plants, you need to keep at it and make it a lifelong study.

On the other hand, I've also come up with planting designs without a plan, and selected plants while at the nursery. I should probably add that I never purchase all the plants from
only one source, and usually end up buying plants on spec
which end up in my personal nursery until I have a project to
place them in. I will often use new unknown introductions in my own garden or as limited quantities in client's gardens before using them more broadly. I don't expect that everything will always work out, and certainly have killed my share of plants in my own garden, which actually helps me in determining the more successful ones. Quite a few local designers I admire work in the same sort of way; stockpiling interesting or hard to get plants or containers, furniture, etc for future projects.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2012 at 11:42PM
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inkognito - The emphasis on the minute aspects of design such as plant choice in beds is all mine, not something the program advocates at all. I just feel like, as a Landscape Architect, it's vital to have a good understanding of the plants as well as understanding how their textures play together and whatnot.

The main failures I see looking at designs are that they lack detail. So many sites have great foundations, but they are just "landscaped" rather than "gardened" as the discussion would say.

Both art art forms, but I don't see an issue with having a passion in both regards. Tying them together has some impressive implications as well, in my opinion.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2012 at 12:30AM
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wooodyoak - Thanks, I'll check that out.

bahia - That answers a lot of my questions really. I appreciate that. I'm actually going to a private nursery/gardens open house tomorrow so I'll be sure to look at what they have and dissect the different aspects of design that went into it.

The different levels fascinate me most. So many plans that I see just represent the top level. Tree here, shrub here...but there is so much more going on that isn't played out. The details are what intrigue me and it is becoming apparent that, to master these details is more hard work and practice rather than some sort of design epiphany.

The fact that it is interesting to me is great though, because I'll enjoy the process.

When that plan was installed (not sure whether you implemented it or had it done), what were the sizes of the plants? Did they fill out the space as they do now or were these just small specimens?

More opinions on seasonal interest would be great as well. Some beds, such as the ones against a fence or under trees, can afford to have spring and summer interest only (more bulbs, perennials, etc, which is more interesting to me), but there are those stand-alone beds that must have interesting material year-round. What do ya'll do to tie evergreens and perennials in together? Is there a basic percentage of each that works best? Any references for me in that regard?

I'm going to do some searching myself but any opinions are really appreciated. Thanks for all the insight so far!

    Bookmark   May 4, 2012 at 12:41AM
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Most of what I was going to say has already been said so I don't have much to add. A lot of commercial planting beds are the way they are due to non - aesthetic considerations: cost, ease of maintenance etc. leading to small plants in a sea of mulch. Another error is, once three plants that look good together and survive even when neglected have been found this combo is used in every situation.

You probably need to have a garden of your own to dabble in or understanding clients,

What is your long term career plan Rigsby, if you don't mind me asking?

    Bookmark   May 4, 2012 at 12:10PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

In the case of the garden photos on my Flickr site, both the design and installation are my work. I generally install plants in a full range of sizes depending on the type of plant; both those garden photos included sizes from 8 foot tall shrubs/small trees in 15 gallon containers, 5 gallons, 1 gallons, 4 inch pots, flats of ground cover that were planted out at 4 inches on center, and many of the plants were unrooted cuttings simply stuck into the ground.

I've a definite advantage working in a USDA zone 9b/10a climate with a year round growing season and a Mediterranean climate that allows for a preponderance of plants that are evergreen or actively growing year round. I don't much use deciduous shrubs or perennials except as occasional accents; winter interest here in the SF Bay Area is easily done with foliage color or winter flowers here. So that aspect of my planting designs doesn't really translate well to colder than USDA zone 7/8/9/10/11 areas.

It does make it easier to focus your initial efforts at planting design to the climatic zone(s) where you intend to practice. In my own case, I've tended to specialize within a Mediterranean planting palette that overlaps with subtropical/tropical/high elevation cloud forest/desert plant communities. Mostly because these are the regions that most appeal to me personally, and can also be used within my Mediterranean conditions. In some ways working with the smaller variety of plant possibilities in a colder climate would be a fairly easy adjustment, but the subtleties of best cultivar selections for local conditions would still take time and hands on experience or benefit of good local horticultural consultant feed back to really master.

No need to apologize for having a primary interest in plants and planting design within the broad field of landscape architecture. However, you'll still greatly benefit from equal attention to the broader design concerns of site, spatial design and layout, and the
interplay of structure with the plantings. Many fellow practioners
might look askance if you seem too obsessed about planting design first over the larger design, IMO.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2012 at 1:08AM
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Flower is fleeting! There are some great workhorse plants, but for the most part, blooms are a nice spice that come--then go.

You can design different parts of a garden to have a peak season--a month to 6 weeks where they are glorious, then fade into the background.

Or you can put a bunch of workhorses in a garden and get pretty constant solid bloom from late March until September or later--but then you're relying on some spring ephemerals plus some very, very familiar perennials and annuals. For someone who clearly wants a BLOOMING border, this is often the best solution.

Or you can mix in a foundation of workhorses and a number of more seasonal plants, so that you don't a riot of bloom, necessarily, but there's always something going on. This is what I tend to do.

In my personal gardens, flowers are the flourish, or the spice--not even the icing, really, because they just aren't that dominant. (Most of my house is in shade, so I don't really have a choice...)

For the most part, I concentrate on the FOLIAGE. Sometimes, I don't even care what color things bloom, especially in my shade gardens, because the blooms will so often be so far apart and inconspicuous compared to the foliage!

I like to concentrate on

1) COLOR of foliage, not bloom. The color of foliage plays an enormous role in the rhythm of a bed. I've found that most beds can support 3 major colors. The most common colors are green (obviously)--from almost black to a light true green, chartreuse, purple (only works in shade directly against another color), silver/white, peach/red/orange, and blue. One color will be green--the other two depend on the situation! I started with a Japanese painted fern under my tree bed that I'm starting this year. Purple heurchera looks GREAT, and so do the pale-edged hostas (which are more white than gold). But the true chartreuse citronelle heuchera that I tried looks HORRIFIC, and it's going to have to make room for a more silvery heurchera to set off the purple one (purple with nothing around it disappears in shade and just looks drab).

2) The FORM of the plants--are they spiky? Mounding? Flat-topped groundcovers? Climbing? You can get a LOT of mileage out of conscious repetition and contrast, both.

4) The TEXTURE of the leaves--not the whole plant, but the individual leaves. Big, fat round leaves can be echoed in big, fat strappy leaves and contrasted against ferny leaves, etc.

If you pay attention to everything BUT the flowers, you can actually get some pretty awesome results. If you pay attention to just the flowers, the result usually disappoint.

My front bed I started right after I moved here. I wasn't familiar with growing ANYTHING in this region (seriously, it was the first time I ever saw blooming azaleas and hydrangeas), so I took the "buy what's on clearance, throw it in the ground, see what the deer don't eat to the ground, and learn about the plants" approach. :-) For my main curb garden, which is only 35' wide (pie-shaped lot), I wanted an informal mixed shrub border to screen the house from all the cars--and headlights--that turn around in the cul-de-sac. I was completely unfamiliar with MOST of the shrubs here at that time, so I just bought stuff that looked nice and was under $5 and looked like it'd get the right size.

My rules were about form and color. I got 1/2 green (with some with chartreuse accents), 1/4 chartreuse, and 1/4 purple. I put tiny leaves next to big leaves, blobs next to spikes, and I'm still in the process of figuring out what other workhorse perennials I can fill the bare spaces with (in amongst the shrubs). Sand cherries by themselves are boring and tend to get leggy--as an accent in front of a wall of green behind a chartreuse-tinged arb, they really look great. People keep asking me what they are, and no one believes me that they're the same plants as you see all the time next to the highway.

Between the *yawn* spireas, the cliched knockout rose, and the altheas, I actually do have *something in bloom all the time, pretty much by accident, but it's the colors and shapes of the foliage that are arresting. I let it go for a few years, to see how it would fill out, and now I REALLY need to do some refining at various points, but I've had tons of people in the neighborhood tell me how much they love the garden and how happy it makes them to see it at the end of the street. I've had people ask me to design things for them, and a few people have said that I should be designing professionally.

(Um, NO. Not up to that! I STILL don't have a good grasp on what really does and doesn't do well here--I've tried 5 different plants in one spot on the back, and they all die or get eaten within the year--and I can't quite think as clearly in all four dimensions as I'd want to be able to before setting out a shingle. And I'm terrified of pruning most bushes wrong. But it's flattering, nevertheless.)

    Bookmark   May 5, 2012 at 1:32AM
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In fact, I've been building a new planting bed since yesterday, and have put together a plant list for the future - it looks good in Photoshop, but I cannot predict the real outcome -
Front: Juniper "Andorra Compact", Cerastium, Sedum "Matrona", juniper "Blue Star".
Center: Euphorbia Amygdaloides "Purpurea"
Back: Achillea "Credo" (light yellow), upright juniper (wild form), Echinacea "Coconut Lime". Most perennials in groups of 5-7.
In between - alliums, tulips and other bulbs.
Functions of bed: 1) to welcome me home when I step out of the car, 2) to hide the veggie garden behind it.
Sunny, dry-ish conditions.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2012 at 4:15AM
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I think the nitty gritty technical application comes from experience with the plants you choose to use; allowing you to visualize the important characteristics as you plan/design. Consideration of leaf color, shape, size, flower color, height, plant form all play a role. Including multiple factors and understanding how they interact is key.

Unlike Karin, I almost always have a plan ahead of time and I use the largest size plants I can get; usually from multiple sources as David does. But like Karin I usually plant slightly closer than the recommended spacing, but with experience you know when you can tighten the spacing up and when you can't.

I wish i had time this morning to search the forum because Michele had a really good comment about this in the recent past. She explained her process and all the factors she considered in design.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2012 at 8:43AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Flowers and the attitude towards them - another thing that irks me, like wiggly lines...:-) Keep in mind that I'm a gardener (although one with a lot of interest in design), not a 'pro'.

Yes, flowers tend to have a short season of bloom - but, in my opinion, that is something to celebrate! I do not grow annuals in the garden (other than occasionally some scented ones in pots by the front steps) because they bore me by being so static/unchanging. The relatively static nature of evergreens is also why I only have a few, the most important being older ones that came with the house and serve as woodland canopy (backyard) or backdrop to a constantly changing flow of flowering trees, shrubs and perennials (front yard). I do prefer to use a limited color padette - 'polychrome'/anything goes just looks messy anc choatic to me. Color is not accidental in my garden but something that is deliberately planned.

I agree, however, that it is probably simplier/easier when designing for someone else (who is probably not interested in doing the maintenance required in a more plant-complex garden) to focus on the steadier stuff, getting most of the flower color from shrubs and trees, which are generally lower maintenance.

Structures and layout of the beds and paths are very important in my garden. I would rank them as equally is important as both foliage and flower effects. Karin mentioned considering what things look like when not at their peak... I try for a moving peak so to spreak. While I don't have a complete series of pictures of any area, there are some areas that I photograph fairly often so you can see the effect of changes through the seasons. These are not all taken in the same year but show more-or-less the same view in pictures form the last couple of years. The iron arbour is a key attention-getter as people approach the front porch so I try to keep that area interesting. We had a local iron worker make the iron arbour - and other iron structures - for us. Unfortunately he retired last year, so no more iron works for me...:-)






End of September:

In these pictures looking at the house from across the street you can see the overall context of where the arbour is located.

Snowless winter - February:




    Bookmark   May 5, 2012 at 2:40PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I just have to comment about the resentment towards annuals as being so "static" in a garden setting, or that flowers are more fleeting in general and the ephemeral character is what makes them more interesting. I don't claim that annuals aren't often overused in bland ways, but a full season or two/three of massed color from flowers isn't necessarily any different than year round foliage color.

I go out of my way to look for and design with perennials that may bloom continuously for 6 to 9 months out of the year, and really appreciate them for the continuous color from blooms they can provide. Continuous long lasting color is a unifying design theme in most all my garden designs. Of course, having a 365 days a year growing season makes it easier to find/use such plants here in coastal California. I also occasionally use true ephemeral bloomers, but still prefer most perennials to bloom at least 6 weeks to 3 months, the same for shrubs and trees. If it is going to be short but sweet, then I prefer it to be high impact such as a flowering cherry or Jacaranda. I am especially fond of any plant that can bloom all through the winter, and we have quite a few choices such as Corsican Hellebore, Bowles Mauve Erysimum, Salvia leucantha, and Euphorbia characias wulfenii just to name a few. I see no need to discriminate against everblooming annuals as well, and Lobelia, Pansies and Violas and the common Impatiens can be counted on here for at least 7 to 9 months of constant bloom. It needn't get boring if you have other plants/flowers playing off the consistency to give some variety. Classic tropical/subtropical plants such as Bougainvilleas and Lantanas can also be counted upon here for near year round bloom, and are trademarks for classic Mediterranean/California garden design.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2012 at 7:48PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I think different climates/regions have an impact on what works/grows best and is probably a factor affecting local/individual tastes. If I grew up - or lived - in a a year-round growing season, perhaps I'd feel as bhaia does re annuals etc. I am very much a child and adult of a cold climate so, for me, fairly rapid change - in foliage and flowers - is a large part of the charm of the garden and something I embrace with enthusiasm. As soon as the first new green sprouts appear in spring, I eagerly await the first flowers; when they bloom, I'm already looking forward to the next ones; and the next ones after that, and so on through the warm seasons; then fall color; the first snow; the first big storm (which never arrived this past winter!); the end of winter; the first sprouts of spring.... It's the endless cycle of change that really keeps me gardening.

Know Your Client - a rule from the investment industry that also applies to garden designers too I think! :-) There is no right answer that applies to everybody - you need to figure out what is the right answer for a given client, working within the framework of the principles of your profession.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2012 at 9:17PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Woodyoak, I've heard the same refrain about the joys of seasonal change all my life from my relatives that lived back in Indiana and Virginia, and I was always most amused to hear that winter in particular was a favorite season! Sound advice to design to suit the client and local conditions. I'm just glad I live and garden here where gardening is a year round thing; in fact fall into winter is our equivalent of spring as the fall rains start the growth cycle here, summer is actually the natural season for dormancy here in most of California.

It is a bit startling to see the four season shots of your front garden. I am particularly surprised at how the full height of summer vegetation makes the garden look so much larger than the bare winter scene. I would have thought it would be the exact reverse; with bare trees and shrubs making it possible to see further and space read larger.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 12:46AM
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inkognito - Ideally, I want to design golf courses, but given the outlook on that career I'm not really sure at this point. I want to own my own business, so I'm looking at using Landscape Architecture to be a basis for that, or at least be a method of making some money so that I can start a business of my choice.

I'm not sure why I'm so interesting in garden design and details, but I feel like if it interests me then I may as well explore it, considering its relevance.

My trip to the botanical garden was awesome. I found a lot of good ideas and a lot of interesting plants, and I bought a few to get me started. I'm going to do some work for a client tomorrow (not sure what she wants me to do), but I have a lot of ideas to start putting on paper for a few beds at my parents house that they will let me experiment in (want me to experiment in, they fail to grow anything).

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 12:53AM
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