Grow Seeds Faster – Imbibition

Posted on: March 14th, 2013 by Judy 110 Comments

I know gardening is supposed to be slow, contemplative, restorative and filled with gracious patience. Well, life is busy and I’ve been ingesting more than my fair share of caffeine…Bye bye patience! So, I’ve been putting my horticultural energy towards experimenting with speeding up the whole seed process (insert wringing of hands a la mad scientist).

One of my favorite techniques for seed speed is soaking seeds prior to sowing them. If you’re familiar with the process then you know it’s common for large-seeded things or ones with a hard seed coat. What my non-scientific experiments have shown is that it works for EVERYTHING I’ve tried.

Time for a little science: The first stage of germination is called ‘imbibition’. That’s a fancy way of saying seeds drinking water. The process can be fast or slow dependent on available moisture. It’s the step that triggers a bunch of reactions that result in seedlings.

It’s a good place to save a little, or a lot of time. The standard method is to soak large or hard seeds in water for 6-24 hours then sow immediately. That’s great and it works. But, I’m not one to be happy with the conventional ways of doing things. What about small seeds that are slow to germinate? Are they to be forever relegated to the categories of ‘hard to grow’ or ‘for experienced gardeners’? I say NO!

Many small, slow to germinate seeds need to be sown close to the surface. Think of carrots or parsley that can take 3-4 weeks to germinate in some cases. It can be frustrating to try and keep the top 1/8” soil moist that whole time. Or, to forget a couple of waterings and get sub par results. I say SOAK ‘EM!

Before you decide to soak your seeds, you need a way to strain them from the water. Check BEFORE you soak that your strainer will catch your seeds. After you’ve removed the seeds from the water, pat them dry on a towel so that they are easier to handle, then take them directly to their new home and sow them.

This all works great, takes very little planning, saves lots of time and I do it all the time. But, my curiosity goes further. What about super tiny seeds? Some seeds are so small you can barely count them, let alone strain them from water or handle them wet. I needed to come up with an answer – EXPERIMENT TIME!

I picked the tiniest seed I could think of – Lobelia. It was also convenient that it’s normally slow to germinate – up to 3 weeks. I poured the seeds into a glass of water with no idea of how I was going to get them out. I soaked them for 24 hours. In the meantime I prepared some 4” pots with seeds starting mix. I picked large pots because you usually don’t thin out lobelia seedlings and they grow really slow when they’re young, rendering transplanting impractical.

It came time to sow the seeds and I had not planned a way to get the seeds out. So, I picked up a spoon, stirred the seeds in the water and scooped out a spoonful of water and seeds then poured it on the soil surface of one of the pots. I thought maybe a handful of seeds would germinate and I’d have enough for a nice clump in each pot.

I covered the pots to keep in the moisture and put them under my lights. Like an expecting father, I checked on them twice a day for progress, thinking if I got germination in 2 weeks I could call my experiment a success. Two days later, I saw something I never expected – germination had begun. I could see fuzzy little roots! And, not a few, but TONS! It looked like every seed had germinated. This was the amazing result I had been looking for. So, here I am sharing it with you hoping that you’ll decide to soak some seeds and experiment.

It seems very American to me to want things faster. Sometimes I lament the loss of my patience. But I suppose that as long as I’m not looking for fast food, fast cars, or fast women, I’m probably doing ok. Give soaking a try and speed up your garden.

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110 Responses

  1. Jean says:

    Ryan – OK, I already have your lobelia seeds and I’m about 3 weeks behind. So this is a great way to start – but isn’t there some way to spread out the seeds?

    What I’ve done for several years to get my seeds going faster is to water them with a little bit of powdered kelp mixed in. It’s a good jump-start. But then, this year I read someplace about using a weak tea made with alfalfa herb. So I tried the two together…oh my goodness, even the pepper seeds are jumping out of their coats in a hurry!

    So don’t settle for just plain water – add kelp and alfalfa, and it’s the herbal equivalent of fast food, fast cars, and fast women! And all so wholesome any mama would approve.

    (Powdered kelp and alfalfa herb can be found at a lot of health food stores.)

  2. Pat Yager says:

    Wahoo, Ryan! Thanks for taking this precarious step on our behalf, and coming up a winner! Great idea, and perfect timing as I am just about to open this year’s purchase of seed packets and plant them! Thanks so much for this great tip! ~ Pat

  3. Janina says:

    Great information, I’m especially impressed with your lobelia results. I’ve never gotten lobelia or carrots to germinate reliably. I’m definitely trying this. (And if this germination technique amplifies my appreciation for fast cars and fast men, that’s OK too.)

  4. Naheer Taip says:

    Dear Sir,

    My problem is the germination of many seeds is o.k
    but the tiny plants grow tall, what you call ‘LEGGY”
    as the plants are tall the stem or trunk cannot support the weight of the tiny leaves, so they collapse.

    How to overcome this germination problem.

    Naheer Taip
    organic_plannet@yahoo.com

  5. Dai says:

    Thanks for this incredible information. We grow our own vegetables and many other plants, here in Kathmandu. Our problem is always keeping the top 1/8” compost/soil, damp for days or weeks. Starting this morning, I am going to try your advice. Dai Mail & facebook address:- anthonyslark@yahoo.co.uk

  6. Sue says:

    Ryan, when you need to strain tiny seeds, try using a coffee filter. Put the filter in a small strainer so the water will drain. I did this with strawberry seeds, just wanted to see if I could make them grow. I am going to try this with my herb seeds.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Thanks! Great tip and I’m trying it!!!

  8. jan says:

    thanks for the info. This may explain my surprise results. I “planted” some Jewels of Opar seeds from a seed exchange in very damp seed starting mix in a plastic carryout container (short white kind with clear lid – I put holes in the bottom of the white bottom and use a clear lid for a “saucer” underneath and set another on top (loosely) to keep the moisture in). Instructions said 15-21+ days to germinate. So I put them on my (freecycled) reptile heating mat and forgot about them for a weekend. 4 days later, when I checked on them, I had a pile of 1″ tall stems with 2 little leaves on top (figured I’d check them in a week and put a light on them when they started to poke through the soil). Now I don’t think they’ll make it – too lanky and crowded to divide.

    Thanks for the blog.

  9. Joan says:

    I have a lovely begonia I start from seed every year. It’s leaves are three inches across and a light Granny Smith apple green with large white blossoms with a picotte of red in sunlight and pink in shade. I always start indoors in January to have transplants ready by Mother’s Day. I am going to soak some in water overnight and see how long it will take. Thanks for the tip.
    Joan

  10. marie says:

    I have been doing this since since 1985 with remarkable results. I also plant pre-soaked seeds in 4″ pots and remove them with a wet fork to separate seedlings for potting on.
    Joy!

  11. City farm says:

    Very nice, & exciting.. We will try that.. Tempe Arizona

  12. Now you tell me, after I just started all my seeds under my grow light! I have never been able to grow lobelia.. if I had only known sooner!!

  13. Anne says:

    Thanks for this fun and informative post. I had been doing that with larger seeds like morning glory but never even thought to apply the same technique to small seeds. Can’t wait to try it!

  14. Carolyn says:

    Like many others before me, I have used this practice on the larger seeds. While I am patiently waiting for my very tiny seeds to sprout, I will begin a second round of the same using the soak method. I am now anxious to see which ones will sprout first! Thank you for the article

  15. sue says:

    how about using a medicine dropper to drizzle the seeds over the soil in a grid pattern? time to experiment!

  16. Nichole says:

    Can you soak them for too long and drown them?

  17. Ronda says:

    Line your strainer with paper towel, you might have to dampen it to get it to conform to the strainer. Also, what about old pantyhose? You could put your seeds in them, them set it in the water, pull them out and then cut the pantyhose and there are your seeds.

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Ronda,
      These are some good ideas for seeds that are large enough to see. Really tiny seeds will stick to damp paper towel. I’ll certainly try these wherever I can. Keep the ideas coming.

      Ryan

  18. Hi Ryan,
    Great information! Those tiny seeds drive me nuts and like Janina, I’ve had a tough time with carrots and such. I like the eyedropper idea that Sue offers. I’ll be experimenting this weekend. Thanks to all.

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Scribbler,
      I hope you find that this brings all sorts of tiny things into the realm of possibility. One of best things about putting your ideas out there is when folks care enough to improve them and SHARE! Scribble on!

      Ryan

  19. Ameful says:

    Wow, this is exciting. I’m bookmarking this, experimenting, then getting back to you with results. Thanks!

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Ameful,
      Nothing would make me happier than knowing I got you to experiment. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of any help.

      Ryan

  20. Chris says:

    thank you for the great seed starting info. I did not think you could soak small seeds, but I’ll give it a try.

  21. Carrie Kling says:

    Hi, Can you apply the soaking method to pelleted seed…or does it defeat the purpose of pelleting? Thank you

  22. Donna says:

    It is so great, I was just thinking about doing this experiment and now I know that it will probably work. Actually we always soaked our wheat berries which we use to make wheat grass for our Spring New Year celebration of Norooz and I was thinking that I should try this with other seeds as I am starting a garden for the first time from seed. I enjoyed reading your post. thanks.

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Donna,
      I hope you follow through on this experiment and many others. Doing things on a hunch or just because I wanted to is how I stumbled onto some of my best tricks. There are lots of thing in the gardening world that are yet to be put in a book. That is what makes this gardening thing of our so fun. PLEASE experiment on and let me know how it goes.

      Ryan

  23. Stephanie says:

    Has anyone tried this is tomato seeds? I’m not having much luck with them in the dirt.

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Stephanie,
      Yes, I do this with all my tomatoes and it works GREAT! Quite often the problem with tomatoes (and peppers) is soil temperature. 75F is best and soaking helps a lot.

      Ryan

  24. Luey says:

    Wow so great! Thanks Ryan!

  25. lauren says:

    wonderful lesson! Thank you.

  26. Shona says:

    Thanks….made my day :-)

  27. Marta says:

    THank you! I work full time and do not take the time to plant seeds properly. I am sure this method will work for my crazy “gardener with a job” lifestyle.

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Marta,
      I live with the same lifestyle as you. While I am a horticulturist, I still spend too much time doing the things that make a position like mine possible…lots of screen time. Anything I can do to make seeds/horticulture/plants more possible for those who seek them is my pleasure and the gift I was given to give back to others. Let me know if I can help with anything else.

      Ryan

  28. Judy says:

    Ryan, thanks for the wonderful tips & your time in writing this article. Can’t wait to try it out!

  29. donna s says:

    Just stumbled upon this and, it sounds so easy..one of those why didn’t I think of that..I LIVE in Phx area..a transplant from mid plains. Gardening is harder w heat and Sun. We have many desert trees and plants whose seeds require something called “scarification”
    .can you tell me how I can do this.. The garden book I read said in nature it is most common if a bird eats seeds and in digestion process,takes away outer part of seed so it can germinate.
    Thanks Donna Saliba

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Donna,
      I was talking about this in my seed starting class today. Scarification is aimed at abusing the seed coat enough to allow imbibition to occur…just what this post is talking about. Soaking usually does the same thing as scarification and is less dangerous to the seed. It is likely suggested for desert plants because they may rarely see consistent enough moisture to constitute “soaking”. I have heard theories about this just like the one you posit that states in nature an animal eats a fruit, its teeth, stomach acid or crop/gizzard wears off the outside, and it’s internal moisture helps the seed imbibe moisture…nature is AMAZING. For reasons that need not be explained now, I invented a seed scarifier a year or so back. Check back this week and I’ll post how to make one.

  30. jacqueline witz says:

    you could put a coffee filter in the glass and secure it with a rubber band so that it hangs sort of suspended. scatter your seeds in it and fill the glass with water………voila!

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Jacqueline,
      I have tried the coffee filter trick and for really tiny seeds like lobelia and it was more frustrating than the water method. Even when put through a filter, the seeds were still a little wet and very clumpy. More seeds stuck to my finger than the soil. For really tiny seeds, the water is the best I’ve tried. However, in one of the comments above, someone suggested an eyedropper to disperse the seed/water mix and I’ll bet it works great. Keep the ideas coming!

      Ryan

  31. Lisa says:

    This is perfect! Here in FL it is nearly impossible to keep soil moist enough for great germination results. I am also attempting to grow tons of fresh produce to donate to families in need. With faster germination I may be able to grow more faster and help more people eat fresh organic produce. Thank you for being the mad scientist that figured this out!

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Lisa,
      I’m glad to provide something that you could use. However, there is nothing new under the sun and I’m sure I didn’t come up with this in a vacuum. I know enough science to be dangerous and read enough gardening book to have lots to experiment with. I really hope it helps you feed lots of people. Life is about sharing what we find most rewarding and I am here in service to those of us who find plants rewarding. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you in your quest.

      Ryan

  32. Tommie Clayton says:

    I’ve used seed soaking to great advantage and promote it often however I’ve never tried soaking tiny seeds – thanks for the tip of spooning them in!

    How are you going to handle the tightly packed community pot pictured in your article? I’ve had a few myself and rather then try to separate individual seedlings I transplant them in clumps then thin as needed – your thoughts…

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Tommie,
      I think you’re on the right track. At least with lobelia, you want a few (or lots) of plants together to get a full effect upon transplant. The 4″ pots are actually destined for a big mixed container so I’ll probably let the plants fight it out with no thinning. What I didn’t write about was the fact that I mixed the light blue and dark blue colors together and never intended to split them up. That aside, I find the clump method the most practical with the best results.

      Ryan

  33. Linda DeVona says:

    That sounds super easy! I’ve always soaked morning glory seeds between wet paper towels, but now will try my luck with more!

  34. Tommie Clayton says:

    I just had a thought…use an eye dropper to pick up and disburse seeds. Maybe use a little gelatin mixed in to slightly thicken the water and further space out seedlings!

  35. Amanda says:

    Great post! I often pre-sprout my seeds in little tupperwares on moist paper towel. It works well as long as you catch them before they are too far along. Have you ever tried that method and had luck with it?

    It’s a little more labor-intensive than just soaking in water though… so I may need to try that. Especially with carrots!

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Amanda,
      Yes, I have tried pre-sprouting my seeds in paper towels before sowing. I think it has its place. Its nice to know which seeds are going to germinate to save resources like seed starting mix and containers. One drawback is that the roots of a seedling that feed it are almost microscopic and can easily be damaged by even the most careful handling. If the seed is large, then it comes packaged with lots of food to get it started and may easily overcome the trauma. If the seed is small, it may be hindered by the damage and compromise the final results. Lots of folks do it with success, just be vigilant and careful and SOW ON!

      Ryan

  36. Bonnie says:

    Ryan, I saw you do this in a post last year and I tried it and it worked great! I know soak all my seeds before planting. I live in northwest Montana and waiting three weeks for seeds to germinate can seem like half our season. Thank you for the tip and sometimes, patience can be over rated :-)

    Bonnie

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Bonnie,
      I am so glad that I could help make gardening more reasonable in your extreme circumstances and…that you understand that even patience is unreasonable sometimes :)
      Ryan

  37. Pamela says:

    Thank you for this helpful info! I was very disappointed with how few of carrot seeds germinated. I will try soaking them first!

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Pamela,
      While I used it on lobelia in this post, the most important place I use it in my garden is carrots! I have some other experiments with carrots you may like. Stay tuned.
      Ryan

  38. Paula Akin says:

    Wow, I’ve done this with a few kinds, but usually I buy Lobelia because of the daunting idea of growing them from seed. You have awakened a dangereous mania, mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!

  39. Gloria says:

    Awesome! thanks for the info

  40. Jan Evancho says:

    Fantastic experiment. I will emulate it! I’ve experienced the same frustrations. Going to try this with basil right now! Thanks!

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Jan-
      When soaking basil seeds, they make a weird slime coat around each seed that makes them look like a fish egg. Weird? Yes! But don’t let it discourage you or make you think that something went wrong.

      • neil barner says:

        good thing i saw this, i had soaked some basil seeds, noticed the wierd gunk form and thought something went horribly wrong. although the scientist in me is still very curious about what this goop is exactly and why basil seeds

  41. Colleen says:

    Great information.

    Thank You,

    Colleen

  42. Vidisha says:

    Very informative and made many of my sowing problems easier..Thanks a ton for sharing :-)

  43. Vidisha says:

    Very informative. Solved many of my sowing problems. Thanks for sharing:-)

  44. Shawna says:

    Hi Ryan,
    I soaked too many lettuce seeds and am wondering if I can save them for next time. They soaked for about 20 hours. Please let me know if I can keep them or should toss them. Thanks for the help and the great article!

  45. Great advice Ryan. I wouldn’t have expected them to germinate so soon after soaking. I’m going to do that with some of my tough and small seeds. I’m having a great time seed starting this years. Thanks. I’ll share this on FB for my readers.~~Dee

  46. Martha Haber says:

    I would try to dry the extra lettuce seeds. I recently read an article (but forget the source) from England that talked about seeds that had received just this kind of a head start, and subsequently germinated. Don’t the call these chitted seeds?

    You don’t have anything to lose, and we might learn from your experience. Let us know what happens.

  47. Ryan, this worked just fabulously! I had some cabbage and cauliflower seeds that would not sprout. tried with your water treatment, and VOILA!! all coming up! chinese cabbage in two days!! awesome! now trying with some carnation and hollyhock seeds..I think water treatment is more pronounce-able than imbibition??

  48. Jean says:

    Would it work to strain off the water and then mix the soaked seeds with clean sand…And then scatter the sand over the soil surface? Or maybe even sugar, if you don’t feel like going out to buy sand?

  49. Sherry says:

    I’ve always been a failure starting seeds although I am an avid gardener. Now I’m excited to try again. Thanks so much for your tip.

  50. Sheilah says:

    Loved this hint! I tried it with 10 varieties of flower seeds as soon as I read the article. In less than a week, 7 out of the 10 varieties have sprouted! Great tip, thanks!

  51. Ingrid says:

    Use a coffee filter to get the small seeds out of the water…

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Ingrid,
      Seeds as small as lobelia stick to the moist filter and are almost impossible to get off…it does work for seeds larger than lobelia, but most of those can be strained out as well.

  52. Nicole says:

    Two thoughtful questions come to mind…Do seeds need to absorb nutrients from soil during germination process which would possibly make it “necessary” to wait the normal germination period…

    And, secondly, if the soaking method does not rob the plant of much needed nutrition (like a nursing baby??), then why not just stir and pour the tiny seeds with their water into their planting spots…the soil would need to be watered anyway.

    I am new to gardening, and I treasure helpful little tidbits such as this.

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Nicole,
      Initially, all seeds imbibe water from their surroundings. Once they have roots, then they start to absorb nutrient in large quantities. As far as your second suggestion, that is exactly what I did; stir the seeds/water, scoop a spoonful, pour on soil. Thanks for reading :)

  53. John Singer says:

    maybe it’s already been said but why not use a new coffee filter?

    • The Garden Coach says:

      John,
      A coffee filter would be fine for larger seeds, but these lobelia seeds are so small that any amount of moisture would make them stick to the filter and be even harder to handle.

  54. Lydia Davis says:

    This is such a great thread! Brilliant! Here’s my question, after stratifying could i still soak seeds? I’m stratifying larkspur and molucella right now and I’ve heard that the moluccella can be difficult to germinate. I was thinking of very lightly scarifying the seed with sand paper and then soaking it. Just want to get these up and growing for my sisters wedding! Keeping seedling moist for so long is almost impossible for me.

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Lydia,
      It just so happens that this post came about because I’m growing these and others, including molucella and larkspur, for my wedding this summer. For larkspur, I tried three different strategies and the one that worked the best was soaking followed by bottom heat from a seedling mat. For molucella, I had my best luck last year with just sowing the seeds in the garden in april and letting nature do the job of stratifying. I did get ok results soaking then sowing molucella indoors with bottom heat. It shouldn’t be necessary to scarify either of these seeds if you soak them for 24hrs.

  55. Minnette Davila says:

    I’m too addicted to a “like” button……so……*like*

  56. Alex Nielsen says:

    Some sink, some float. Does it make a difference? Are the sinkers or the floaters more viable?

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Alex,
      I have found that sinking or floating is often a function of surface tension and seed size. There is probably some difference between the two but they all get mixed together when I get them out so I’ve never tested this. Let me do some experiments and get back to you.

  57. G. Neel says:

    I am satisfied with your answer

    G.Neel
    Botanist
    Botswana University

  58. Tacy says:

    Thanks for the info. I’m preparing seeds for 24 kindergarteners to plant tomorrow. I think this technique will make watching their plants grow much more fun.

  59. Beth says:

    The paper towel method works if you use really cheap paper towels. Cut them into small pieces and don’t try to remove the sprouted seed, just plant the whole shebang, paper towel and all, in the soil. You don’t disturb the microscopic cilia on the roots and the cheap paper towel disintegrates easily in the moist soil.

  60. Maureen says:

    OK, I’ve tried soaking my onions, peas and carrots. Can’t wait to see what happens. Trying a second time (didn’t soak them last year) to grow Danvers carrots in old Salem Village..

  61. elaine says:

    Just discovered you, YAY! I’ve done this for years, too – I like to soak seeds in water with small additions of worm tea, alfalfa, kelp. Everything helps in my arid, alkaline, high altitude of New Mexico.
    Looking forward to watching your rich site closely – thank you for this great contribution to the web of Life!

  62. Crazy Old Lady Gardener says:

    Thanks for the idea to soak all seeds. I will from now on. QUESTION: Does anybody know how to kill NUT GRASS? It covers my largest raised bed, & I’ve fought it the 7 years since I moved here — digging, plowing, vinegar, herbicides (even Roundup), 3″ of cardboard and paper held down by concrete blocks for 5 months, and a flame thrower from Lehman’s. Nothing works. I can’t plant anything there at all. I can’t afford to dig out all the dirt, and others who’ve tried say that doesn’t work anyhow. Short of nuclear weapons, does anybody have any ideas? Many thanx and God bless.

  63. Sandy Struikman says:

    Thanks for this fantastic post. I live in California’s eastern High Desert and gardening is a challenge to say the least. It’s impossible to keep the top soil constantly moist, hence some things just don’t grow. I have germinated large seeds this way, but I’m thinking will be a life long convert to small seed soaking!:)

  64. Angel says:

    For tiny seeds, I soak string in water, then drag the string through the seeds. The string picks up the seeds and then I simply plant the string.

  65. Bob says:

    Hi-

    for my sister’s bridal shower as party favors we are going to plant herb seeds in tiny small flower pots. how many seeds do i need to plant?

  66. marsha says:

    this would be great info to be included on the seed pack(s)

  67. Sally Smith says:

    Being a very hit and miss gardener I found the lobelia soaking idea interesting. This year I spent an age trying to get seed from last year’s flowers and due to the tiny size had limited success. Bought a packet of seeds and got great results! Some things are just not worth all the effort.
    I grow Sungold tomatoes and keep the seed, one year I ‘pasted’ the individual seeds onto thin paper tissue. (easy with the glutinous surround) dried them off, next year pulled them apart and sowed with the frill around seed! Will try soaking the tissue next time a la your method. Thanks for the wonderful tips all.

  68. Christina says:

    Hi Ryan,
    Thanks so much for this helpful tip!

    I’m starting seeds for the very first time in my basement this year. Going to try tomatoes and eggplant under a grow light with a heat grow mat. I have a 72 cell tray whose cells are small – maybe 1 or 1.5 inches across? Anyway, my question is – if I seed tomatoes 6-8 weeks before my last frost, I predict they will outgrow those tiny cells long before transplanting time… is that true? If so, should I transplant into bigger pots before putting outside? And just do this based on rough size? When they look too big, move them?

    Thanks for any advice to the newbie! I’m so excited to try my hand at growing food for our family!
    Christina

    • The Garden Coach says:

      Christina,
      Short answer, yes, your plants will outgrow the 72 cell trays. A good measure of transplant suitability is gauged by the roots. The roots should hold the soil ball together and cover about 40-50% of the outside of the root ball when pulled from the cell. Be careful when removing the seedlings to check on them. Don’t pull on the stem only, you should push up from the bottom. When you have good root coverage, you can move into a larger container. I like a 2.5 inch square that fit 32 to a tray.

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