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What is the trick to growing Basil?

Every year I have a beautiful patio garden with pots of tomatoes and peas that grow like crazy. For some reason, I'm not successful at growing Basil. I've tried sun, part sun, shade, excellent soil (same that I use for all the other pots with great success) and it still turns black and shrivels up. What should I be doing?

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asked about 2 years ago

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64 answers 2177 views
Stefania
added about 2 years ago

I started my first herb garden 1.5 years ago and what worked for my basil was this:
1. A mixture of organic potting mix and mushroom compost. I'm sure this isn't the prerequisite for basil to grow well but our basil went absolutely crazy with it.
2. We had a tomato plant growing with the basil and because they are companion plants, they helped each other grow.
3. If you are starting with seeds, thin the seedlings out because overcrowded plants don't grow as well.
I hope that helps! :)

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louisez
added about 2 years ago

Basil tends to be thirsty as well as to have difficulty with too much sun. Lack of moisture and too much sun has caused basil I've grown to shrivel up but not to turn black first. I don't know about the turning black. Maybe someone more knowledgeable will write in. Good luck to you. Basil is one of summer's best gifts.

Smaug
added about 2 years ago


There are no real tricks to basil. I can't guess how you get it to turn black and shrivel up- freezing it or spraying it with paint thinner would work, but I'll assume you're not doing that. It is an annual and has a very specific life cycle- it won't grow at all well until the soil warms up- after it's developed 2 sets of leaves it will grow quite quickly in warm weather. After a while it will go into it's flowering cycle- branches will elongate and leaves will get smaller, and then flowers will develop; the flavor is pretty much ruined at this point; I usually grow 3 or 4 crops in a year (I have a long growing season). Flowering can be delayed to some extent by using high nitrogen fertilizer- fish emulsion is probably best for home growers(caveat- the combination of fish and basil smells seems irresistable to some types of flies). Limiting sun exposure, can also delay blooming, but will also reduce the productivity and quality of the herb. It's soil needs are simple. Any good potting soil should work fine- it would take something really egregious to kill the plant- though something with manure included would be best, and of course it needs good drainage. My best guess as to what is happening to your plants is poor drainage, which can kill the plant quickly; the problems you're having just shouldn't occur under anything like normal conditions.

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Kristen W.
Kristen W.

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added about 2 years ago

I am not much of a gardener but I had a boss years ago who grew beautiful potted basil plants just outside her workspace and she told me the secret was worm castings. Thought I'd throw that out there in case it helps.

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Smaug
added about 2 years ago

Worm castings are a good type of organic compost, but far from essential- there are any number of other ways to get equal results. Their lack will not cause basil to die or turn black.

Rachel
added about 2 years ago

I agree with Kristin. Worm casings work wonders. Also, try mixing vermiculite into your potting soil.

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BerryBaby
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added about 2 years ago

Thank you for all the responses. I'll report back later this season with the results.

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Smaug
added about 2 years ago

Best of luck with it- it's really not a difficult plant at all. I do feel that I should point out that all of these posts (including mine) are mostly cultural advice that, while at worst harmless, doesn't really address your problem. Leaves will not turn black without some specific pathology; things like less than optimal soil or fertilizer simply won't have any such effect, nor will too much sun, insect pests etc. By far the most common reason would be freezing- are you sure you aren't still getting freezing temperatures at night? Mechanical damage to the leaves will also produce discoloration, but it's hard to see it happening on a widespread basis- if it happens in summer, you might consider consulting a local agricultural authority or a plant pathology dept. of a local university.

Rachel
added about 2 years ago

Another companion plant you could start if you're doing tomatoes and basil together is blue borage. It's also a companion to tomatoes and helps keep some nasty pests away.

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mainecook61
added about 2 years ago

I grow a lot of basil in my garden in the summer in Maine. In this climate, it (a) wants full sun, sufficient water, and good soil, rich in organic matter. (b)It will simply not grow in cold weather or cold soil (and will not endure weather that approaches freezing). I wait until late May to seed it.(c) It prefers to grow from seed. Starting it a few weeks earlier indoors confers almost no advantage. And (d) the variety matters. The large leaf Genovese variety is easy to grow. Thai basil also grows well, but bolts more quickly if you don't keep the flowers picked. Other varieties (like Spicy Globe) can be fussier, great in one place, not so great in others.

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aargersi
aargersi

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added about 2 years ago

I see that you are in Portland so my guess is that you need a sunnier warmer spot ... Here in Texas I plant early, up under a palm tree to protect them but in your neck of the woods you will need to plant later in the season and in full sun. Also, where I water daily through the summer, you probably only need to water every few days. And all herbs love pruning which is great because that's what we eat, so chop chop chop them!! I am pretty sure Hardlikearmour grows basil so she might have some insight!!!

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Garlic Fiend
added about 2 years ago

Giant pot. Their root system is a bit more extensive than you think. I use pots where once you fill it with dirt, it ain't going anywhere. Lots of morning sun (I find afternoon sun to be too hot). My pot is on the east side of the house. Lots of water--if it didn't rain, water it deeply, like you would tomatoes. So almost daily watering. When watering, no need to get the entire plant wet, just the soil and the roots. Otherwise any water droplet that remains on the leaves will act like magnifying glass when the sun hits it and cause the leaves to burn. The more you use/cut it, the bushier it'll get. Pinch off any flower buds. Hope this helps.

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Smaug
added about 2 years ago

Depends what you mean by "giant", I guess; I've found 2 gal. nursery containers best for single plants, and I live in a pretty hot/dry area.

Smaug
added about 2 years ago

This just in; according to Trader Joe's latest "Fearless Flyer", the Greeks and Romans (I sense the bizarre mind of Pythagoras here) believed that in order to grow the best basil, you need to rant and swear when planting the seeds. Got to say, I never thought of that.

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nance
added about 2 years ago

Black and shriveling sounds like it is getting cold at night. I live in Northeast Ohio, and I don't even think about setting out basil until well into May. My basil does well in mostly sunny conditions with organic fertilizer like Espoma. I've also found that our heavily clay-ey soil needs amending, and that my basil does well when I add crushed eggshells to the surrounding soil. Black and shriveling from the stem up sounds like a water uptake issue--basil has a big root system. Add a layer of pebbles to the bottom of your basil pots for good drainage and root growth, too. Good luck!

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BerryBaby
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added about 2 years ago

Thank you for all the replies. Ok, today I planted one small Basil plant and also purchased seeds. We'll see what happens!

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Smaug
added about 2 years ago

If you choose to rant at your seeds, I'd like to know how it comes out.

BerryBaby
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added about 2 years ago

Thank you for all the suggestions. However, I planted the garden three weeks ago and the tomatoes are growing like crazy, so are the potatoes (started those March 17th) and strawberries. But then I look at the basil and it is weak and slowing withering away. I just don't get it. I'll go back to growing it in a pot but even then it doesn't do so great. I just don't get it. I can grow everything big and lush, just not basil. :(

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SKK
SKK
added about 2 years ago

I live in Seattle and nights have to be above 50 F in order for basil to grow. You may have planted too soon. Have great luck with basil unless it gets too much sun.

Nancy W
added about 2 years ago

Basil may be tricky in your Portland climate. In my experience, it does best in hot weather. It also requires well drained soil, as basil doesn't like "wet feet." Both temperature and dampness may be problematic in Portland. The turning black is likely from the cold nights, it's rather delicate that way. Even in Virginia, I have had to replant basil that I started too early outdoors in my eagerness to get my garden started. I also think Thai basil is easier to grow (and more flavorful) than the sweet basil variety. It might be fun to try some different varieties to see what does best for you.

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C Sangueza
added about 2 years ago

i grew basil in Portland for years and the only trick I know is to not set it out too soon. Unless the soil is warm it won't grow it just stands there. My site had both eastern and southern exposure and I probably did not harvest it until late July or early August but was still using it in October. Be persistent.

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BerryBaby
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added about 2 years ago

Well, this is what my basil looks like so far. It had been attacked by some sort of critter (I'm thinking slugs) so I placed coffee grounds all around it and then plastic forks. I had never heard of the plastic fork decoy but read about it in a magazine and thought 'why not'? I'll let you know how that works out. I'm not giving up. I have tomatoes on plants already and can't wait to make a Caprese salad with the fresh tomatoes and basil. Only thing is, this basil needs to get going! Haven't started the seeds yet, thought the 1st of June would be safe. The black dots on the plant are the coffee grounds.

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Smaug
added about 2 years ago

Plastic forks are said to be effective at keeping cats from digging up beds; they won't effect slugs. Copper strips work pretty well in pots and raised beds, but you have to make sure you're not trapping slugs in the pots- they can be pretty sneaky.

Susan W
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added about 2 years ago

It's gotten so cold in Oregon, I think your basil will be unhappy until it warms up some. Some nights, it's gotten down to the upper 40s. Brrr.... I see some 80 degree weather coming up next week.

PHIL
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added about 2 years ago

It is probably Fusarium Wilt. I had the same issues also. The seeds can be infected or the soil. Once you repot the next year the new plants can become infected if you use the same soil and pot. Try new soil and a different pot. Some basil varieties are resistant. buy starter plants and ask the nursery if they are resistant. Good Luck

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Smaug
added about 2 years ago

Not inconceivable, but fusarium wilt is mostly a problem with very warm soil, which doesn't seem likely here.

Smaug
added about 2 years ago

Just a reminder- if you got an early start and are already harvesting Basil, it's time to start a second crop- even in warm weather the seedlings will be pretty slow at first. High volume growers often start them 2 weeks or so apart, but for most of us, 3-4 crops in a year is sufficient.

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BerryBaby
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added about 2 years ago

The basil is doing 'so-so' but not giving up. The potatoes, however, are growing like crazy! If you want something fun to grow, I'd highly recommend potatoes. Every St. Patrick's Day, I start two pots. Tradition has it, if you plant potatoes on St. Patrick's Day, they will bring you good fortune ($'s) throughout the year. Plus, you get wonderful, fresh potatoes by July or August! I start them from 'seed' potatoes, but into pieces, cured for a week (meaning I cut pieces that each have 'eyes' and let them sit out on a cookie sheet for a week). Red, purple, white and Fingerlins. Delicious!

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PHIL
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added about 2 years ago

Did you change the soil? My Basil has perked up with the warmer temps. Basil likes the heat and sun,.does it get enough Sun? How has the weather been by you? I still think that Fusarium wilt could be the problem.

BerryBaby
BerryBaby

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added about 2 years ago

It's been beautiful weather, in the 70-80 and next two day over 100 (too hot for me). Yes, it's in new soil and I check the soil with a moisture meter. It's growing but not too fast. Maybe this hot weather will give a boost. Haven't had any further issues with black spots so maybe it will be ok. I'll post back results.

BerryBaby
BerryBaby

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added about 2 years ago

Finally the basil is taking off. I took this photo before removing the flowers and cleaning up the bottom leaves. I think it is now happy. :)

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PHIL
PHIL

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added about 2 years ago

Good news , I find it loves the heat, It has been hot again on the East coast so the basil is looking good.

BerryBaby
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added about 2 years ago

Hasn't been hot here, but when the sun does come out, it gets a few hours of direct sunlight. Maybe that is helping. Suppose to be in the 80's for the next week so maybe it will take off even more.

louisez
added about 2 years ago

So glad the basil is doing well. Perhaps you can begin to think about another pizza party. Happy growing -- and eating -- to you.

Jan Weber
added about 2 years ago

Basil is easy to grow most of the time, but I have to monitor my two plants every day to clip off the short leaves and those pesky flower buds. Once the flowers open and are pollinated the plant will bolt and go to seed, and that's it for your basil plant. Those flowers are quite surreptitious too - you might think you've gotten all of them and then you come back the next morning and more have appeared. Here in the northern Midwest basil needs full sun and really good drainage. Luckily it has been really hot and wet here this July and all of my plants are enjoying it (except my broad beans but they have been in retirement for a while now). I try to use the basil as much as I can, so lots of fresh mozzarella, stonefruit salads, and pizza margherita!

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ktr
ktr
added about 2 years ago

That explains what happened to my basil last year. I didn't clip off the flowers. Do you need to trim off any of the other leaves or stems as well? I didn't grow anything this year (and given how cold and wet it has been here in northern man this year, I'm kind of glad I didn't), but I'm thinking I might plant just a couple things next year and then add to it as my kids get older and can help out and learn.

cv
cv
added about 2 years ago

When basil blooms, the plant will cease leaf production. You need to pinch/cut off the buds before they bloom.

In most basil-friendly growing regions, you should stagger your sowings by two weeks to provide consistent supply of basil leaves. Don't plant everything at once.

Source: Sunset Western Garden Book

Here in NorCal, basil grows well in all but the foggiest coastal areas.

ktr
ktr
added about 2 years ago

Thanks for the helpful advice. I've got a spreadsheet with gardening tips on it so when I do decide to start growing again, I'll have something to reference.

SKK
SKK
added about 2 years ago

Been following this conversation with interest. Don't know about growing basil in pots, and do know from experience, growing basil in a garden. Basil likes sun, with some shade. Growing it between pepper plants or tomato plants has it thrive. This is a Seattle gardener speaking.

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cv
cv
added about 2 years ago

In my experience, I have had no problem growing basil in containers with poor, unamended soil provided the plants A.) get enough sun, B.) are warm enough, and C.) have good drainage.

In my opinion, all of this discussion about fertilizers, worm casings, whatever are meaningless.

Susan W
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added about 2 years ago

SKK, I am moving to Snoqualmie in a couple of months. I'm, of course, investigating EVERYTHING Snoqualmie right now. Just started poking around the gardening stuff. I'm in Portland now, but have lived in Seattle. Snoqualmie appears to have a little micro climate thanks to the mountains. Any idea what gardening is like there?

SKK
SKK
added about 2 years ago

Hi Susan W - Welcome to the neighborhood! I am at sea level on the west side of the mountains. Snoqualmie is a little higher by 400 feet, as you know, still on the west side but in a different climate. (This spoken by a Denver native, and here in this part of the world, 100 feet makes a lot of difference.) Recommend doing a soil sample of your desired garden spot and send them to University of Mass. Your spot could be clay, ancient lava, sand, something great - who knows? You won't have to worry about water, just slugs :) Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

Susan W
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added about 2 years ago

Thanks SKK. :) We'll actually be on Snoqualmie Ridge in a townhouse (just call us ridgies) until we find a house to buy in old Snoqualmie (go townies) or somewhere outside of both. We'll be just under 600 feet (I think) growing in pots until we're permanent. Great idea to send a soil sample in!!

cv
cv
added about 2 years ago

I suggest you seek out your local nursery and/or Master Gardener when you move in. Most likely they will understand your microclimate and growing conditions far better than some soil scientist on the other side of the continent.

Soil has its own unique characteristics, but it does not clearly reflect weather patterns, humidity, temperature (degree days), sun exposure, etc.

If you can find a community garden in your neighborhood, it is worth walking through that area and talking to the gardeners. That will probably be more valuable than any sort of soil analysis report you get from a university lab.

cv
cv
added about 2 years ago

Of course, if the lab soil analysis is free, by all means do it. I wouldn't take their recommendations as gospel though.

But that's just me...

Susan W
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added about 2 years ago

Thanks CV. Of course I will seek out other avenues of gardening expertise in my area. The town only has a population of 16k, so we'll see what's available. For now, I am just gleaning info from people in the vicinity. Seattle is 30 minutes away, so SKK caught my eye.

The last time I did a soil sample, it was free. It's also extremely educational. Soil and climate are both interesting. Neither should be taken as gospel.

cv
cv
added about 2 years ago

Susan,

Good luck with your move. I figured you'd be wise enough to consult other sources. Mostly wanted to point it out for other readers who might not have thought about such avenues for information.

Microclimate is a big deal, but a lot of people online don't seem to recognize that. Hopefully they will stumble upon this discussion and take some notes.

Anyhow, best wishes for your move.

Susan W
Susan W

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added about 2 years ago

Good point CV. These discussions do reach more than those who contribute to the thread.

cv
cv
added about 2 years ago

A lot of people still don't get how these Q&A forums work.

Someone signs up, asks a question, then NEVER EVER POSTS AGAIN. This is essentially a drive-by. Maybe someone gives an answer, but in 99% of these situations, the original poster provides ZERO feedback. That feedback is critical in helping others in the same situation understand whether the proposed solution worked. It legitimizes the community's purpose.

But no, radio silence is the typical response. It's mostly just TAKE, TAKE, TAKE.

Admittedly, this reprehensible "non-behavior" is not unique to Food52, but is pretty typical of any online Q&A forum.

Appalling.

BerryBaby
BerryBaby

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added about 2 years ago

SusanW, why are you moving from Oregon?

BerryBaby
BerryBaby

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added about 2 years ago

cv, maybe it depends on the variety of basil, the soil and climate. It appears many of us have different results depending on where we live. I wish I could grow basil like you do! I'd be :)!

cv
cv
added about 2 years ago

@BerryBaby:

Yes, yet another good reason to consult your local nursery, master gardeners or neighbors.

Cultivars can vary substantially. Usually certain ones grow better in any given place than others (temperature, precipitation, soil composition, length of growing season, amount of sunlight, etc.).

That said, much of it is determined by one's specific situation. Basil grows great at the nearby community garden, yet I am unable to grow it at my place because my little condo unit is shaded by large trees. Some other units at my complex have better sun exposure, some others are probably even more in the shade. That's just the way it is.

Susan W
Susan W

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added about 2 years ago

BerryBaby, my daughter, her husband and their almost 7 month new baby daughter have just moved to Snoqualmie after spending 2 years in an oil boom town in North Dakota. He has accepted a job through his union in that area. We all love it there, so I've decided to make the move as well. It's an awesome area and only 30 minutes from Seattle, a city I'm also crazy about.

SKK
SKK
added about 2 years ago

Susan W. welcome to the west side of Washington State! Have no talent for growing in pots, except for flowers. Annuals at that. Soil and organic amendments I know! One of the people starting a community garden (Magnolia Manor Park P-Patch - check out the P-Patch program) and we took clay and made it alive using organic matter.

Picholine
added about 2 years ago

Pinch and use, pinch back again. Water.

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Smaug
added about 2 years ago

Third crop of seedlings for the year is up- the second crop was sort of a bust; Ibought the seeds from Amazon (last time for that) and the "Large Leafed Italian Basil" turned out to be African Blue Basil- a neat plant,but I don't really like it for cooking. Still have one usable plant from the first crop, though. This will be my last batch this year, though they often keep growing well into November here. Also decided to try a late batch of Zucchini- the young plants are so much more productive, but I'm not sure if I have time.

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PHIL
PHIL

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added about 2 years ago

I grow Thai basil also to use in any Asian dishes. nice difference from the Italian basil.

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BerryBaby
BerryBaby

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added almost 2 years ago

Well, it looks like one basil plant this year. It's doing fairly well, so I won't complain. Here are the few tomatoes that have ripened so far. They aren't ripening as fast as previous years. Interestingly, the apple tree, that is in a pot is doing the best it ever has in 12 years! Go figure!?

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PHIL
PHIL

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added almost 2 years ago

Is that a Brandywine?

Smaug
added almost 2 years ago

Anybody ever have any luck with Brandywines? I tried a couple of times- they were some of the best tomatoes I ever had, but HUGE plants produced only a handful of tomatoes.

BerryBaby
BerryBaby

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added almost 2 years ago

Going left to right, 2 Tiger Toe, 2 Patio, 1 Black Zebra, 1 Green Zebra, many Sun Gold (which is VERY flavorful this year).

PHIL
PHIL

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added almost 2 years ago

I like the tiger toes too . Brandywine is one of my favorites

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PHIL
PHIL

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added almost 2 years ago

So so luck with them but worth it

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