Growing Amaranth – An Ancient Grain

One of the luxuries I have had over the last couple of years since retiring is the time to garden.  We have been planning (and planning) our new home here on our fledgling homestead for a while now, and we are hoping (and praying) that our local officials will grace us with an approved building permit soon.  But, between all the planning and preparing, one thing that keeps me grounded is my vegetable garden and orchard.

Harvesting Sunflowers

My grandson, Caden, in the garden.

Our homestead is in Northern California, at 3,000 foot in elevation, and in USDA zone 8 or 9 ish, depending on what map you look at. Our growing season is fairly average, with our last frost date around April 1st through 10th.

Growing Amaranth

We got our amaranth seed from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of my favorite seed companies.

Since my husband and I are trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, we are trying out new plants in our garden.  Last year our new plants were Fava (broad) beans and Amaranth.  You can read about our Fava bean adventure HERE.

Why Amaranth?  Read this article about the 13 health benefits of Amaranth on the website Sunwarrior HERE.  See?  That’s why.  🙂

I started the Amaranth seedlings in 3 inch peat pots and they were the second plants of all my garden plants (the Favas were first) to germinate.  I was so encouraged!

Once they went into the garden, they took off like wildfire.  I had eight Amaranth plants, four planted on each end of my green beans.  I had no idea what to expect in terms of how tall or wide they would grow, and I thought it might be a good idea to plant them with the beans in case they needed to be tied up.growing amaranth in zone 9

I was surprised at how early I saw the flowers start to appear!  I thought our honeybees would be obsessed with these plants and the amount they were flowering, but I was wrong.  I never saw one honeybee visit the Amaranth.  I did see a few bumblebees and some orchard mason bees, but no honeybees!  Unfortunately, I also saw some yellow jackets and some bald faced hornets, but that’s another story.

amaranth - ancient grain

The flowers start early. This plant isn’t even a full three months old!

The plants grew and grew and grew!

Aren’t these plants beautiful?  Too bad our honeybees didn’t think so!

Luckily the stalks grew thick and sturdy as the plants grew tall, so they were pretty much self-supporting.  I did have to stake one up after a nasty wind blew through, because it almost broke in half, but that trooper survived despite it’s near fatal accident!  I was blown away  😉

growing amaranth

It’s harvest time! These plants did very well, in my opinion. Plus, they are so beautiful that once we have our new house built, I will plant them in my flower borders!

Once it was harvest time, in early October before the rains and when I noticed some of the seeds starting to dislodge from the plants, I cut the heads off and set them upside down in an open paper bag. In no time at all, the seeds started to dry and fall off of the plants.  But quite a few of them actually held on.  I’m not sure if this is usual, or if I may have harvested too soon, but I harvested right before a week of heavy rain, so I think I made a good call regardless.

After a bit of research I found that it was easiest to use garden shears to cut the seed heads from the thick plant stalk, and then with a gloved hand, you can rub the seed heads between your hands to dislodge the seeds and the chaff. Then, to separate the seeds from the chaff, I gently blew on them… the chaff blows away in the wind and the heavier seeds stay put.  Stay upwind of the chaff, however, lest you get a facefull of the chaff… it isn’t pretty.

ancient grains - amaranth

The seed heads have been pulled off the plant stalk and dried. Now to rub between my gloved hands to release all of the seeds.

I have heard that some people blow off the chaff with a fan and, believe me, that’s what I will do next time.

One batch down, three to go.

Also, don’t try rubbing the seeds off the stalk without wearing gloves.  The seed heads have little tiny stickers which poke like minute thorns into your fingers. Even though I put on a pair of gloves after that first batch, my hands were sore for days!

I didn’t get a WHOLE lot of seeds.  In fact, when judging my harvest with the size of the flowering seed heads, I thought I would get a lot more.  But then, seeing the size of the seeds, I realize that I actually got a decent harvest, considering. I guess I will just have to grow more amaranth!

Harvesting amaranth

Out of eight plants I got almost one quart of Amaranth seeds.

So, what did I do with the Amaranth?  I found this really cool method of popping the amaranth seeds, like popcorn!  It’s on this website I found here:  http://www.edibleperspective.com/home/2012/7/23/popped-amaranth-cereal-puffmaranth.html

This was my first attempt at popping amaranth. Let me tell you, that stuff pops! Right out of the pan and onto my kitchen floor!   🙂

I also added the amaranth to some muffins by just adding it into the batter.  The amaranth added quite a crunch to the muffins…  still not sure I like that.  Perhaps I should pre-soften the grains in water first, before adding to the muffin batter, or maybe I should use the popped amaranth. I also found a protein bar recipe I would like to try once I have more amaranth, and I will be doing a lot more research for bread recipes using amaranth.

Will I grow amaranth again?  You Betcha!

It was easy to grow, I love the popped amaranth, and the plant itself is quite beautiful.  In fact, this could easily be a statement piece in a flower garden and most people wouldn’t be aware that it is actually a food crop.  You should try it!

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Home-made Kelp Fertilizer

Make your own kelp fertilizer

Our compost pile consists of kitchen and garden wastes. Sometimes the wildlife and at other times the neighborhood dogs spread it around for us. 😉

Ray and I have been composting for several years now.  We throw all of our fruit and vegetable waste into the pile, along with tea bags, coffee grounds and washed egg shells, then turn it once a week or so.  Other than the egg shells, we had to stop putting any type of animal product (old cheese, unwashed egg shells, expired milk, etc.) into our compost pile because the local wildlife and some of the neighborhood dogs were attracted to it, and they would spread the compost from here to there, making a terrible mess.  Even so, we still got good compost!  But, let me explain why we don’t want to rely on our compost as our only soil amendment, and decided to make natural kelp fertilizer.

Before I go any further, here’s a little vocabulary to know:

Macronutrient:  an element required in large amounts for plant growth and development, consisting of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium.

Micronutrient:  an element or substance required in small amounts for normal growth and development of living organisms, including iron, copper, iodine and zinc. There are actually many more micronutrients than macronutrients.

Monoculture:  planting the same crop year after year, usually in large plots of land.

Make Your Own Kelp Fertilizer

Monoculture: where one crop is grown year after year on the same large acreage.

🙂

One of the biggest problems with monoculture  is that many of the micronutrients that we (humans) require are well used up from the soil after just a few years. Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, are added back to the soil by farmers, but what about selenium, copper, magnesium and cobalt? Generally, these micronutrients are not added back to the depleted soil, which means the resulting food produced on this land will not have these essential micronutrients.  Soils depleted of micronutrients is one reason why many of our foods available at the supermarket are not as nutritious as foods offered just one hundred, or even fifty years ago!

In the compost pile we can easily take care of a plant’s need for macronutrients.  Nitrogen, which promotes leaf growth, can be provided by chicken manure.  Potassium, which aids in flower and fruit development, can easily be added to the compost in the form of wood ash, which also adds calcium.  Phosphorous stimulates root growth and can be obtained from bone meal or bone char (burned bone meal).

But what about the micronutrients?  Where are they going to come from?  If a lot of the fruits and vegetables you purchase at the grocery store are lacking (monoculture) in micronutrients, therefore throwing your apple cores, squash peels and moldy carrot tops aren’t going to magically add these micronutrients.

Of course, you could always use a fertilizer that you purchase ($$$$$) containing a lot of the micronutrients that may be lacking in your soil.  Or, you can make kelp fertilizer!

Why kelp fertilizer?

Because, unlike soil that generally sits in one place and can be lacking this nutrient or that, our oceans are constantly circulating water (that carries micronutrients) all over our earth, and therefore the plants that grow in the ocean (kelp/seaweed) have more nutrients available for them to take in!

Kelp only has a small percentage of potassium, so it’s not a primary fertilizer of macronutrients, therefore it must be added in conjunction with other fertilizers, such as the aforementioned chicken poop, wood ash and bone meal!  Better yet, the nutrients in kelp are held in organic molecules, which is a form readily available to plants.

Another benefit of Kelp fertilizer is that it contains cytokinins, gibberellins and auxins, all valuable plant hormones. Studies show that cytokinins play a vital roll in cell division and enlargement and gibberellins aid in stem elongation, germination, and flowering.Make Your Own Kelp Fertilizer

So, last September Ray and I vacationed on the Pacific Coast and harvested an ice chest full of kelp.  We got lots of Bull Kelp, Kombu, Porphyra (nori) and Bladderwrack. According to Superfoods for Superhealth, in California we can harvest 17 pounds of seaweed/kelp per day from most public beaches!

DIY Kelp FertilizerOnce home, the seaweed was soaked in fresh water for about an hour, drained, then soaked in more fresh water.  This was to help remove the salt, sand and any little critters from the seaweed.  The seaweed was then placed in a large barrel with more fresh water and left to soak overnight.  Through the process of osmosis, a lot of the salt in the tissues of the seaweed are extracted into the fresh water.  That water was dumped and more fresh water was added – just enough to cover.  Now it was time to brew up some fertilizer!  A screen was placed over the barrel, and it was left in the hot sun to start fermenting.

how to make kelp fertilizer

Our ice chest full of kelp/seaweed.

The brew had to be stirred at least once a day.  Twice is best.

Boy, did it ferment!  The first few days everything seemed to be going well.  When I took the lid off the brew smelled like the beach the seaweed was taken from.  A little sour and musty, but nothing extreme.  There were a few flies trying to get into the brew, but I was able to fend them off.  That was until about the fourth or fifth day…

Peeeeeee yooooouuuuuu!

Let me tell you, this stuff gets stinky!  By two weeks we were wondering if the smell could get any worse!  Every time I went to stir the concoction, my eyes would water because it smelled so bad.  If I could describe it to you, it smelled like, well, hmmmm….

… actually, there really isn’t a description for the smell.  Just take my word for it, it’s stinky smelly!  If you decide to make your own kelp fertilizer, don’t say I didn’t warn you!  I could smell the fermenting sea juice at least 25 feet away.  50 feet if I was down-wind!Diy Kelp fertilizer

After a month, I could see that the kelp was breaking down into a stinky, almost gelatinous brew.  While I was stirring, I would always think of my high school days reading Macbeth…

“Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
After a couple of months the brew wasn’t quite as stinky.  Either that or my nose was just starting to get used to it! 😉  Apparently, the fertilizer is ready when it is no longer stinky, but instead smelled like a fresh summer day on the ocean.  So, I wasn’t quite there yet.
Now that we were into November and with the cooler days, the fermentation process was slowing down.  No matter, at least I wasn’t afraid of what the neighbors were thinking anymore!

But then Thanksgiving was just around the corner and Christmas shopping had to be done. Between birthdays and holiday festivities, I forgot to stir the goop every day.

How to make your own seaweed fertilizer

Looking into the barrel, you can see the fermenting, gelatinous and stinky, very stinky kelp!

A few weeks later, when I remembered, I noticed the smell wasn’t noxious anymore!  I’m not sure I could describe it as a fresh summer day on the ocean, more like soured jasmine flowers, but I believe the fertilizer was finally ready for bottling!  Hooray!!  At that point I fished out most of the remaining solid pieces of kelp, and added it to the compost pile, but I thought I should let it sit for another day or so to let any other solids float to the bottom before I used the spigot to bottle my liquid gold.
Then we went away for a week and came back to this:DIY Kelp fertilizer
And this:How to make kelp fertilizer
And this:Make Your Own Kelp Fertilizer
A bear had visited our homestead and tipped over my precious barrel of fertilizer!
Yes.  I did say some “not-very-nice” words such as #$%& and &@$#%!   After all that work! Waaaaaaaa….
Instructions on making your own seaweed fertilizerI was able to save a little more than 1/2 gallon of my precious fertilizer.  The good news is that the kelp fertilizer is to be diluted 15:1, so I actually have quite a bit of fertilizer left to add around my plants.  And as a foliar spray it should be used 20:1.  That was the good news.  The better news?  My dear husband suggested we go for another vacation to the coast to get some more kelp!
Yes, please!

 

 

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Try Asparagus Beans This Year!

It’s time to buy seeds for this coming spring, so let me tell you about one of my favorites…

My mother has been growing the most wonderful asparagus “yard long” green beans for a few years now.  Last year I asked her to save some seeds for me so that I might try growing the bean myself.   My mother got her bean seeds from her sister, my Aunt Sue, who got her seeds from an on-line seed company.

Asparagus beans

These are the blossoms of the Asparagus Yardlong green bean. They seem to always come in twos and are gorgeous!

On the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds website, they have one called Chinese Green Noodle Bean that looked similar, but not exactly like my beans. On the Johnny’s Seeds website they have some called Gita, which are again pretty close, but not exactly the same. Over at Park Seed, they have one called Orient Wonder Yardlong, and at Mary’s Heirloom Seeds there is a Chinese Red Noodle Bean.  Check it out HERE.  I can’t wait to try that one out!

Asparagus yard long beans

These plants grow tall, so prepare!

My Aunt Sue got hers from Burpee, and they are called Asparagus Yardlong pole beans. I prefer to grow only organic, non-GMO, heirloom plants, and was glad to see that these were, indeed heirloom!

Most long beans are of the vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis.  Sesquipedalis in Latin means “foot and a half long”, and this subspecies which arrived in the United States via Asia is characterized by unusually long pods, which lead to the common names of yardlong bean, asparagus bean and Chinese long-bean.

The plant is a different genus from the common bean, but like the common bean, is a vigorous climbing annual. It’s actually a variety of cowpea!  When I was doing some research on the long bean, I read that the plant will attract many pollinators including ants and yellowjackets. In fact, my plants had lots of ants, and I mistakenly had tried getting rid of them with a home made solution of olive oil, dish soap and jalapeno pepper juice! That was a classic hand-to-forehead moment. 🙂 In hindsight, the ants weren’t doing any harm (they weren’t farming aphids on the plant), so next year I will just leave them alone to pollinate.

Chinese yard long beans

This is one of the beans, about halfway grown. When ready to harvest, they are about 14-18 inches long (not really a yard long) and a little less in diameter than a #2 pencil. You can see the purple at the end of the bean, which fades a bit as the bean matures.

The pods on my long bean plant hung in groups of two.  My mother showed me how to harvest the beans, cutting the bean off the plant at the top of the actual bean, because the plant will set more beans on the same stem if it isn’t damaged by harvesting!  My plants were a bit slow to get started, and I will assume that’s because I don’t live in a subtropical climate, which is where these beans originated. Also, I didn’t amend the soil much where I planted them (I have some serious mountain clay) and only gave them a bit of fertilizer, but once the plants started to flower and produce pods – hoooeee – I got a lotta beans!

Chinese asparagus beans

Not quite a yard, but these beans are really quite long!

 

Chinese Asparagus Green Beans

Cut the beans to fit into a wide mouth mason jar with about 1 inch head space, pack vertically, then pour in a vinaigrette. After a few days in the refrigerator they are delicious! Add a few jalapeno peppers for a spicy treat!

Just five or six bean pods make a side meal for Ray and I.  They are really good when marinated (just about any marinade is great) and thrown on the barbeque grill.  The best part is that they are so long, one rarely falls through the grates!  The beans are also excellent in a stir fry.  They are virtually stringless but stay fairly crisp and crunchy when boiled, barbequed, baked, etc..  Throw them in beef stew or roast them with tomatoes, peppers and onions – yum-o!

To preserve them, I think canning (jarring) is best. I also like cutting them long enough to fit into pint sized canning jars, pouring in a vinaigrette, and letting them steep in the fridge for a few days.  Mmmmm…  just like pickled green beans, but still with a nice crunch! Blanching and then freezing them makes them a bit mushy, though palatable.  I would like to try dehydrating the beans, but this season’s crop is pretty much done, so I will have to wait to try this next year.

Once the blossoms are pollinated, they turn yellow and then drop off. Here you can see two baby long beans - aren't they cute?

Once the blossoms are pollinated, they turn yellow and then drop off. Here you can see two baby long beans – aren’t they cute?  See the buds between the beans?  If you carefully cut the first beans when harvesting just right below the top of the actual bean, you won’t disturb the buds, and more beans will develop!

If you have room in your garden, you should certainly try some long beans.  The kids love growing them! Be aware, however, that the beans are not only long, but the plant itself is “long” also!

Yard long green beans

Be prepared to either harvest with a ladder, or have room to let the bean plant fold over. You could even let this grow up and over an arbor and harvest from below!

The bean plant grows very, very tall – at least 10 to 12 feet tall!  To handle this, let them get about 6-8 feet tall, let them crawl over the top of something (strings? Wire? Another trellis?) and then down the other side.  If you can walk under the plant, it makes finding and harvesting the beans easier.

Oh, and those beans you didn’t see on the vine until they have matured beyond fresh eating?  Harvest the pods, let the beans dry out completely, and they can be cooked just like any other dried bean.  Delicious!

I plan to grow these beans again this next spring.  Although mine were a bit slow to get started, I harvested some of the beans after they were fully matured, so that I could save the bean for planting again.  Hopefully, if I select the best beans from the best plants year after year, they will acclimate to my elevation, climate and soil conditions, and my harvests will get better and better!

So…   while you are perusing your seed catalogs this winter, consider the long bean (or asparagus bean, yard long bean, etc.).  You won’t be sorry!0001

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10 Garden Lessons Learned

Last spring my hubby and I decided to rip out our backyard lawn (it was all weeds anyway) and plant a “practice garden”.  The intent was to grow everything from heirloom, organic seed, not use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and grow varieties of vegetables that we have never grown before.

The first lesson learned was how hard it is to get pepper seeds to germinate.

Growing Chile Peppers

These Anaheim Chile Peppers were necessary to buy because, as I found out, peppers are not the easiest vegetable to germinate from seed!

I tried three times to get some pepperoncini pepper seedlings, but I could never get them to cooperate with me.  I had a bit more luck with the Anaheim Chile peppers, but not much.  In fact, I ended up buying  a couple of pepper plants from our local nursery.  We had prepared the ground for at least four pepper plants, but I was able to get only two Chile plants to germinate.  We  needed wanted Anaheim Chiles because we adore BBQ cheese stuffed Chile peppers and chile relleno casserole!  You can see the recipe HERE

The second lesson was to not count your zucchini before they grew.  Our squash started out like gang-busters.  We had zucchini and yellow summer squash coming out our ears (and refrigerator) and we were giving them away to family, friends and neighbors!

Squash Mosaic Virus

Nuts! The squash on the left has squash mosaic virus, which is fatal for the plant. We ate them anyway. They tasted the same as the normal ones and we haven’t died yet!

I started freezing the zucchini for use in the winter. But we had so much squash that I became complacent and let some squash get soft and start to mold in the refrigerator.  I thought it didn’t matter because I would have plenty of squash for the entire summer, right?  Wrong!!!  The squash plants got squash mosaic virus, and within a few weeks produced only shriveled, really mottled and ugly looking squash.  We ate some of the better looking mottled squash, and it tasted normal (and we didn’t die), but I wish I had frozen more squash when I had the opportunity.  If you would like to see how I froze the squash, along with a wonderful recipe using zucchini and yellow summer squash, click HERE

Another lesson we learned was to be wary of the soil and/or compost you use in your garden if it doesn’t come from your own yard.

Our local garbage company composts all of the green waste and then gives it away to customers in the way of a coupon.  We didn't even think about the fact that it may carry diseases - such as the squash mosaic virus!

Our local garbage company composts all of the green waste and then gives it away to customers in the way of a coupon. We didn’t even think about the fact that it may carry diseases – such as the squash mosaic virus!

When we were preparing the beds for our garden, we were happy to go to our local landfill which offered 50 gallons of free compost for each coupon! Our son gave us two coupons and we had our own, so we got 150 gallons of the stuff! Wow, we thought that was a great deal!  But then our zucchini got  squash mosaic virus.  I did some research and found that many times the virus is already in the soil and can also be brought in with compost or mulch.  Oh, great.  That compost we got for free may not have been such a great deal after all!  From now on, we will use only the compost that we produce on our own property – and NEVER throw in diseased plants!  Those will be burned.

I think there is an entire village of trolls living in this tomato jungle!

I think there is an entire village of trolls living in this tomato jungle!

The fourth lesson is one that probably every novice gardener encounters – not enough space for too many vegetables!  When I started the seeds for our tomatoes, I assumed that I wouldn’t get 100% germination and would plant whatever came up.  Well, I got almost 100% germination.  I actually planted up to 3 tomato plants on several of the mounds (silly me) and also accepted some volunteer tomato plants from my sister!  Well, now I have a tomato jungle and can’t even get to most of the ripe tomatoes without trampling on, and breaking, some of the vines.  I guess moderation is the key here.

Fifth lesson – don’t plant all your corn at the same time!  Why?  Because they all ripen at the same time.  Seriously!  Stowell's Evergreen Corn  We love roasted corn on the cob, but only got to eat it a couple of times this summer.  I ended up having to freeze most of the corn before it got tough – which will be great for this winter – but shortened our corn on the cob season.  The good thing I learned was that heirloom corn tastes every bit as good as hybrid corn.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t save any seeds from our corn this year because two of my neighbors were also growing corn, which means my corn was more than likely cross pollinated with theirs.  Oh well.

One of the best lessons we learned was how prolific bean plants are!  We planted both black turtle beans and a pole bean named McCaslan 42.  Believe it or not, we are still getting beautiful green beans from the McCaslan plants – and it’s October! Separating the black turtle beans from their pods  The final tally from the black turtle bean plants was a whopping 2 pounds, 3 ounces – from only 7 plants!  That may not sound like much, but remember, these are dried beans!  Right now I am letting the rest of the McCaslan beans mature on the vine.  Apparently they make a really good, nutty flavored white bean.  I can’t wait to make some soup this winter!

Lesson number seven – grow melons vertically!  Our grandchildren helped us plant two varities of melons this past spring and we ended up with five healthy melon plants on three mounds.  Those plants almost took over the entire garden!  Who knew they got so big?  Apparently not me!

Planting melons

Here is Mia, my oldest granchild, planting some melon (cantaloupe) seeds.

The melons, in particular, grew everywhere we didn’t want them to, including under the tomato plants.  Unfortunately, they decided to grow most of their fruit under the tomato plants also.   Well, if you read lesson four above, you know that getting into the middle of our tomato plants is next to impossible.  Unfortunately, we realized a bit too late that most of the melons were forming in the middle of the tomato jungle, and had already started to rot before we found them!  🙁     I saw this cool trellis system for melons where the vines grew vertically up and over, and the melons were supported to the trellis with pantyhose!  We will have to try that one next year, especially since I have a bunch of pantyhose I refuse to wear anymore!   🙂

Peruvian Purple Potatoes

Peruvian Purple Potato harvest!

Number eight is a simple one.  We like potatoes.  Potatoes are easy to grow.  Purple potatoes are fun to eat. Grow more potatoes.

Our ninth lesson is a tricky one.  We wanted to grow all heirloom vegetables in a completely organic environment.  This sounds great in theory, but in truth, the caterpillars got a lot more lettuce than we did.  I kept picking the caterpillars off the lettuce every morning, but it seemed like they were multiplying faster than I could get rid of them. And then the slugs and snails started eating the pepper and tomato plants.  I started wondering about the concept of sustainability regarding growing organic foods.  When does the addition of a pesticide outweigh the importance of organic growing?  Afterall, if we had only the food we grew to eat, I think I would rather eat food that has some pesticide on it than starve to death!  This is a concept I have been struggling with this summer, and something I will have to consider in future vegetable gardens.  I would really enjoy your thoughts on this.

The last lesson I learned was that I thoroughly enjoy gardening.  Give me a plot of weeds to pull any day, rather than washing laundry!  I will tie up bean plants and tomato plants or any other plant until the cows come home (though I’m not very good at it yet) but please don’t make me clean another toilet!  I will admit it:  after preparing several meals for hubby and I that consisted solely of vegetables that we grew, we were quite proud of ourselves!

Unfortunately we won’t be able to plant a garden in the backyard this next spring.  We have to  re-plant the lawn because we are putting our home up for sale! According to the real estate agent, buyers like lawns.  How sad.   But the good thing is that this will be one of the last steps before my husband retires and we move up to our future homestead!  Unfortunately the area where our garden will be on the future homestead isn’t prepared yet, but I will find a few places here and there to tuck in a tomato plant or some pole beans.  I will also continue to research the best way to get peppers to germinate, a better trellis for growing melons on, and how to prevent squash mosaic virus!

Thank you so much for your comments, questions and suggestions!  I try to respond to each and every one!   Vickie

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