Monday, December 10, 2012

Our back garden, the next step?

Someone recently commented that if I'm talking about doing something (specifically a project in the garden) then I've probably already made up my mind to do it. While that might be true in some instances, it certainly isn't now. This particular project has been tumbling about in my mind for awhile. I can't seem to decide whether to move forward or not. Of course you know what that means...I'm looking to you all for feedback. Here's the situation...

Subject: our remaining lawn
The Question: leave it alone, make it smaller or make it go away

Last winter I was pretty sure I would, at the very least, be making the lawn smaller. I planned to move a few of the bordering edges out, about a foot. Giving maturing plants a bit more room and slightly decreasing the lawn as a result. However when spring finally rolled around I was still finishing up the Bishops Weed project and unexpectedly removing the huge back garden Rhododendron, by the time I finished both of those I was done with projects for the year.

Just as well because then I started thinking bigger. What if it was finally time to get rid of all the lawn? I pictured a center planting area, built up for drainage with a nice masonry wall around it. There would be a wide (3 foot-ish) gravel border around it with a few pavers for solid footing. This idea started to formulate after visiting this garden. I really started to dream. After all a raised area like this would just beg for amazing agaves, opuntia, and all manner of spiky madness...but there is the little issue of money. This dream isn’t something I could do myself. This would require hired help. The idea was shelved.

Then I spent a warm summers evening in the garden of Sean Hogan. The tall bamboo and palms created such a feeling of enclosure, you could easily lose track of your surroundings and be anywhere but in urban Portland. A seed was planted.

That was late in August. Come mid September I was standing in a different garden jungle, this one just outside London when I visited Mark and Gaz. I loved that feeling of being enveloped by the garden. Maybe I needed to revisit my idea of taking away some of our lawn and creating a more dense planting area?

So that’s how we got to this point, are you ready for some pictures? This photo (and above) was taken as you enter the back garden, looking to the northwest corner.

Here you’re looking at the northeast corner; the side of the neighbor’s garage and the back of our house (sorry for the disconnect of lighting and containers, I took these photos on two different days in October).

Now you’re looking at the back of the house and to the entrance in the southeast corner…

And finally the garage and southwest corner, towards the shade pavilion (and yes the Hydrangea is still scheduled to go away in the early spring).

Here’s an amazing (kinda sort of to scale) graphic I made to show you a bird’s eye view. I know, try not to be so dazzled by computer graphics skills that you lose sight of what we’re talking about, oh and remember, what’s white here is actually green lawn. The edges of the lawn really are jagged like this, it's just harder to see in the photos because the plants (especially the Japanese Forest Grass) soften the edges, and the planting borders are deeper than they appear here. If you're curious the overall dimensions of the lawn are about 20.5ft (north to south) x 18.5ft...

In the green text box I note that the entrance sight-lines are important. This is the view we get of the back garden from the driveway, it's all we see unless we are in the garden. I want to make sure the view is kept the same or improved by any change that I make, some of the options I present below are better at this than others. In all the options some lawn remains. Not only because of the large undertaking that removing it all would be, but because I really like having it as a resting place for your eyes, a sort of negative space to counteract all the crazy plants. Also I like being able to move the lounge chairs around to capture the sun or shade, depending on my mood and the temperature. Lila feels strongly about this too, afterall lying on the lawn itself is so d√©class√© don’t you think?

So …options abound! Please tell me about your favorite, tell me why a certain option sucks, bring up totally new ideas, or convince me I’d regret it and I should just leave well enough alone (or hold off until I can revisit the idea a built-up center island = $$$). Here we go!

Option 1 - this is meant as a sort of compromise of my expensive idea. Here lawn is cut out of the center of the yard and maybe mounded up a bit but would have a flush grey brick border just like the rest of the lawn does currently.

Option 2 - in this option the planting border off the back of the house grows larger.

Option 3 - here the new planting area shoots off the existing border between the lawn and patio.

Option 4 - and this one is a compromise between #2 and #3...

So that's where I'm at...what do YOU think?

56 comments:

  1. Intuitively I'm responding best to option #4 but I can't tell you why. Like you, I think it's important to retain some lawn, for the reasons you gave. But I have a hard time translating a 2D drawing into 3D reality in my mind so I'm not very good at exercises like this one...

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    1. Thanks Gerhard! (I'm sure the quality of the the 2D drawing didn't help much either...)

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    2. Your drawing is perfect!

      If you could only see the scribbles the planning department in my office uses when they are exploring options. This is just what it needs to be. Why should it be more? It's got all the info, and is easy to understand.

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  2. I'm kind of spatially challenged as well, but I've scrolled back and forth between your photos and the drawn-out plans to make sure I have it right. I like Option 1 best, for a couple of reasons. It's most like your original expensive idea (which makes me think that if in the future you decide you really want your expensive idea, you can more easily convert it.) I also think it preserves the view best, which you wanted to keep. Expanding that bed against the house in 2 and 4 will obscure your view, it seems to me, unless you plant really low plants there. Option 3 just looks awkward to me, the bed is now too deep and I would worry that it will be hard to reach the interior, to weed, cut back, etc. I'm in favor of getting rid of grass, I have way too much myself.

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    1. When I think back to how much lawn we had when we moved in here it sort of boggles my mind! Thanks for taking the time to weigh the options and share your thoughts Alison!

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  3. I like 1 and 4. One is epic cool, but a negative would be the way it cuts up the space. You still want use for sun Lounging. 2 would push your focus ahead to the path and not out into the garden. I think you want something obscuring your view ever so slightly to still see beyond but beckon someone into the space rather than past or away from. On the other hand 3 creates an epic nook and does a nice effect of bringing you into a space. I I like that 4 creates a room almost. With an entrance. You could have some epic pots flanking it too.

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    1. "epic pots"...you know how to speak my language don't you!? Hadn't thought of that one, but I like it...

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  4. You know how I feel about grass! I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I'm surprised you're not considering enlarging the north bed (or part of it) southward. I feel like it gets some of your best sun during the day, and it doesn't impair your sight lines into the garden from the driveway, or need height limits on plantings (as in in options 1,2 or 4) to preserve your views. And I think you could easily have more height up against the neighbor's garage along with that Trachycarpus and then stepping down, without blocking the view or light into that NE corner window of the house.

    Other than that radical thought, I'd be concerned your entrance area might feel a bit "pinched" in options 2 & 4. So I guess of the possibilities, I'd favor options 1 or 3.

    What's funny about this, is that I'm talking with Ben as we plan our similar back grass removal and patio, and he several times remarked to me, "Maybe you don't want a patio. Maybe you should just make that whole area of the garden into beds with paths between them." So maybe I'm not your best advisor!

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    1. Thank you for the radical thought Jane! I was hoping someone would hit be with something I hadn't thought of.

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  5. I vote for number 4. I have been in your garden and it is stunning! One of the things I love so much is your use of the pavers and IMHO it's important to keep enough grass to set them off. Number 4 doesn't have as large a planting bed by the site line, so it seems that you would have a better view of the pavers and garden.

    If you want more of an enclosed feeling, perhaps the bed next to the neighbors' garage could be expanded slightly. This would might require moving paver #3 (in the line of 3 pavers) to the left of paver #1. Of course the two proposed larger beds by the paver path would need to be adjusted then. Just a thought.

    Whatever you do, keep some grass. :-)

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    1. It was kind of an odd feeling to read "I've been in your garden..." you must be the fellow who works (or worked) at the Japanese Garden? Thank you for the feedback, seems you're one of the few to have voted for keeping lawn!

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  6. I like option 4, it seems to offer a hidden element as you enter, pulling you into the area, not opening up all at once. Keep some grass, as others have suggested. You need the offset and the negative space. Can you get something purple in the expanded bed areas? The existing garden seems very green, blue, and chartreuse -- a purple leaved Japanese maple would give it heft, and a more vertical effect in this small area with so many plants at mid level.

    Really, you've got such good bones going in the whole area already, that almost any of the new plans would work!

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    1. Funny you mention purple foliage as I love it...the husband not so much. You can't see them in the pictures but there are purple leaved Cannas, you've got me thinking I should add more. I also relied heavily on dark leaved Phormium, back before an ugly winter killed them all. One of the plants I've been thinking about adding to this new area is a Chocolate Mimosa that's languishing in a container...thanks for pushing me in that direction!

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  7. We like your garden as it is although I know that comment won't help :) Grass does offset planting borders nicely, a plain contrast that enhances the planting area. Saying that grass is actually high maintenance and we were glad we got rid of ours although we like gardens with some lawn too. It's all a matter of personal preference more than anything else, both options are good.

    If you want a feeling of enclosure and extra solitude, apart from your original plans the best options I reckon is to enclose your existing place even more, making it feel more of a room. Option 3 and 4 would seem the best ones for that effect, with option 3 my top vote. Extending a border will held create an extra 'half wall' for that intimate garden room feel.

    But if you feel strongly about your original plans, you know it will happen eventually :) so be prepared to make changes again when that time comes. But that makes gardening extra interesting, one never really runs out of something to do as long they don't want to.

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    1. Thanks guys...and you're right there is always something. We seem really good at dreaming up projects don't we? ("we" being all gardeners).

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  8. I like 1 and 3. With option one you'll be giving up some sunshine and change your view if you plant tall stuff but it sounds like you're looking at some agave/succulent/spiky goodness. You might loose the room feel with option one though and your lawn will be more of a runner in the hallway than a carpet in the living room but you'll still have the patio as a cool destination. I hear what Alison is saying about the depth of the bed in 3 but you'll have access from all sides. I like what 4 does in making the lawn area more of a destination but always worry about widening a bed close to the house where someone will have to get through it to paint or clean the gutters, etc. Lila might really like option one as it'll create a circle of lawn for her to run around in. Does option one leave enough room for Lila's chaise lounge to be moved about?

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    1. "runner in the hallway than a carpet in the living room"...very well said. And I would have to really work at leaving enough space for the lounge chair. Probably not realistic!

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  9. Option 2 appeals to me spatially as the most interesting, but I don't know if this puts lawn in areas of sun/shade at the times of day you most want those qualities. that larger foreground planting area at the entry could provide an opportunity for some framing Trachycarpus or similar to give a somewhat open but also partially obscured view at the same time. It does seem that the proportions aren't quite right, and maybe expanding the north bed south by a foot or 18" into the lawn, and shaving the north edge of your expanded bed southwards would "fit" better. In any case, I'd suggest getting out strings and stakes to lay it out visually first, and see how that "feels" to you, as opposed to only thinking in plan view.

    It is always a trade off between more planting areas and the visually pleasing negative space a larger lawn provides in setting a scene. I don't see the visual benefit of Option 1 at all, it seems to chop up the space too much, and vestigial lawn remnants seem useless as a result. It seems to work against the clean plains and graphic qualities that your grids of pavers set up currently. Option 4 just seems too static with the symmetry the evenly divided borders east and west set up, and seems to me that it limits the usefulness of the lawn in both sun/shade situations. With this option, wouldn't you only have one or the other at key times of the day?

    I may not be the best to give advice about lawns, as in my own garden I decided to get rid of lawn altogether, and have way too many plants crammed into too little space. My own garden isn't at all what I would design for a client, but as an obsessive/compulsive collector of plants, it has to accommodate my collection of too much stuff!

    Good luck sorting this all out, but know that ultimately you(and your husband), are the only ones needing to be pleased; and there are always trade-offs to be juggled.

    David in Berkeley

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    1. Great suggestion about the string and stakes. Something I can do now to start to visualize the changes. Your points about the sun/shade effect are also good for me to remember. We do get a considerable amount of evening sun in the summer time from due west so not much of that would be taken away but certainly some mid-day shadows would be a result.

      I loved hearing that you also suffer from obsessive plant collecting!

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  10. I'm solidly for number 1 for all of the reasons Alison mentions. You can enjoy planting this "island bed" now. Down the line, when you start itching for a new project, as we all know you will, you can go for broke (hopefully not literally) with a Mark and Gaz inspired structure. Actually, you might like the lower version better, taking sight lines into consideration. You also might consider making the island a bit smaller and widening the borders slightly.

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    1. Yes I think you're very right about making it smaller if I go that route. The lawn as it is drawn looses all value!

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  11. I'm going with No. 4 too, which retains most of what makes your garden work so well right now but lets you add lots more plants ;) I like the possibilities for screening both the dining terrace and the lounge/grass area from either side, providing that sense of enclosure you liked at Mark/Gaz and Sean's garden. I think 4 gives lots of planting options for interesting edging plants as well as for the big, screening stuff. I don't like 1, which seems to use grass as a pathway -- just not a favorite use of lawn for me, and it looks tricky to keep clipped.

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    1. And of course you know adding lots more plants is the main goal! Thanks Denise...

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    1. Every last bit! Why have a tiny patch of lawn that needs mowing?

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    2. Because it's green! And cooling and calm.

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    3. Then do a little patch of some kind of no mow alternative!

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    4. So really it's just the exercise you're against? (I've got a old fashioned reel mower and half-moon edger...no gas or electricity needed!)

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  13. Ok, I'll weigh in. I like #1, like Alison, because it's closest to your original plans and would make those plans more reachable down the road if you so choose. I too am in favor of getting rid of grass, but the patch you have is well cared for and has a lush 'carpeting' look that I'm sure you're proud of for backyard entertaining. I also like #1 because it does not change the lovely 'peek a boo' view that you've created into your backyard. Cheers, Jenni

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    1. Like Heather says below the lawn doesn't really see much entertaining, everyone heads to the patio! But it is a nice open space which we have used to set up tables for food when there are large groups. Thank you Jenni!

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  14. My main concern at first was Lila, but I see in the picture that if she has her big lounger she does not care if there is grass or not. How come she does not have her big garden hat and Chanel sunglasses on?
    I would go for #1, as long as you keep every low. Like an awesome desert garden. Maybe a water feature in the center? Otherwise it all goes.

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    1. Since it was late in the season she left the hat and glasses in the house. All the better to soak up the last few precious rays of sun you know.

      Do you have any lawn left in your garden?

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    2. I have a small patch left about the size you have, but if we did not have Diego Dogg it would be gone...................

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    3. Wait just a minute! Who's Diego Dogg and why haven't you posted a picture???

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  15. I'm with M&G, and they've analyzed it better than I ever could. Make yourself a secluded outdoor room to dream in. Then when you get tired of it, change it.

    Lila looks so adorable in her lounge chair!

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    1. Thanks Hoov, and Lila's blushing at the compliment.

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  16. Hi,
    I enjoy reading your blog but never comment. Today I thought I would make an exception. I prefer a previous commenter's suggestion that you increase the north-facing border in size. To me, that additional depth in your skinniest bed would balance the depth of the other beds and let you obscure more of the grey wall for that enclosed jungle clearing feeling you seem to be looking for.

    I am not so keen on the other plans as they would seem to narrow(or block) the sight lines in the garden, rather than creating an illusion of depth (the awesome thing about a jungle is that you can get lost in it!).

    Anyway, there might be lots of other reasons why you are not planning to expand the north facing bed. I am in Australia, so sometimes have trouble correcting for northern hemisphere aspects when thinking about garden design.

    Best of luck with the project! Whatever you decide to do is always changeable if you get sick of it.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment today, I'm not sure why it hadn't occurred to me to broaden that area...I must give it some thought!

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  17. Just go all out and build a koi pond with two waterfalls - one where the hydrangea is and the other in the NE corner so you can see it from the patio.

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    1. Wow that's certainly taking it outside the box! The hydrangea spot is already reserved for two fabulous scheffleras but I'll consider the NE corner...

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  18. If it were me, I'd go for option #1, but replace the lawn with gravel...that configuration of lawn would be a lot of work to maintain (and, well, I have no patience for it)! I think option 4 is truest to what you already have...just with more space for plants...and it maintains the bit of lawn for lounging...sort of the best of both worlds :-)

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    1. Best of both worlds, uhm. I like the sound of that!

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  19. Are there any particular plants that you want to grow in the space created? If it's agave and opuntia, then I think #1 makes the most sense. Maybe tie it in with your crevice garden idea? One problem with that is that the grass left over is a bit of a void space. Oh and kind of did something similar to #1 in my own garden but unwisely ignored the advice to keep it low.

    An alternative might be to extend the northern border as others have suggested. That way the plants would get maximum sun (they need all the sun they can get where I live). You might add some pavers inbetween the existing border and the new xeric area, for easy access.

    If it's taller plants you have in mind, then i'd either go for #4, as I think that makes the space more like a room, or #2 and plant gunnera and a couple of characterful evergreens (year round interest) so that they kind of smack you in the face as soon as you enter the back garden. It would block the sight line, but you could make a feature of that by usiing some in-your-face planting.

    I don't think #3 could bring anything new to your garden.

    Good post!

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    1. I almost mentioned that this new planting area (which ever option it is) would possibly be home to the crevice garden. Very perceptive of you! I am thinking about adding a couple of taller plants...and I do like the "in your face" planting feature you suggest!

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  20. I like #1 best, I think. I was less drawn to spend time ogling the plants up in the grassy section, I think because I was eager to get to the patio below. If there was a bit of a path I'd be more inclined to wander.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this Heather...you're not alone in your desire to get to the patio, everyone does that! Do you see any of that pull to wander in option #4?

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  21. I like option 4 which would give you the sense of enclosure both at the patio and near the house.

    The patch of green works nicely with your borders. A no-mow lawn like sedge might be the answer. It's hard to picture the raised bed in the middle (option 1) working visually though it would work well for the plants.

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    1. Thanks Shirley, comparing the sense of enclosure at the patio to what option 4 provides near the house gives me a great way to think about it. And you know I really don't mind mowing the lawn. It's sort of a meditative activity for me. With the reel mower and my half moon edger it's quiet exercise.

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  22. I vote for option 4, as it gives you more room in 2 different beds, but still lets you create a central bed in the future if you still want one (albeit a bit smaller than option 1). To me it makes sense to keep the center of the yard open though.

    I'm still not sure why the central bed couldn't be a DIY project.

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    1. Ah...yes! I can see that. A smaller raised bed in the center of the smaller rectangle created by the two new kick-outs. I like it!

      Oh and it could be a DIY if the husband was available. But right now his time is taken by the 9-5 (or rather the 8-7 and two or three hours on the weekend). Right now any DIY projects I take on I have to be able to take care of myself.

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  23. Thank you to everyone that took the time to comment, your thoughts and insights are most appreciated! I've got more thinking to do now...

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  24. You have taught me over the years to really go after the plants and projects that you want/crave/desire. So, I heartily vote for option 1, done in phases. You can start by framing your raised bed with green fir boards or even corrugated galvanized steel and get your soil, gravel, and plants going and then remove a board at a time and slowly build your wall on your budget and schedule. I've done this in my garden with minimal help from my hubby. And I like some grass in the garden, but I keep finding myself removing a strip each year to make more room for my plants.

    I know that whatever you choose to do that it will turn out beautifully and suit your garden space.

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    1. You present an interesting idea! I hadn't thought of doing something phased, I tend to be an "all or nothing" sort of person. But I could come up with an alternate material and use it until I can afford to build the wall of my dreams. Smart, and thank you for the kind words!

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  25. I'm actually going to advocate for keeping some lawn. Yes, really. For one thing, your short, dense lawn is like a beautiful, finely woven carpet to my eyes; we have such coarse, ugly lawns here in central Texas. For another, it really does offset your dynamic, densely planted borders and give the eye a welcome place to rest in your garden.

    That said, I can certainly see shrinking your lawn a bit more, allowing you to have fun with deeper borders, and I really like the idea of creating a grassy "room" by hiding the openness as you enter the garden from the driveway. So I like option 4 best.

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    1. This from the "Lawn Gone!" lady!!! Actually that's what makes your take on loosing the lawn so wonderful, you're not militant about it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Pam.

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