All posts by BioGrounds

Culbreth Road – A-School

Built on a hilly area and surrounding the architecture school at the University of Virginia, it comes as now surprise that the Culbreth Road area of Charlottesville contains a number of great instances of nature views in such a condensed space. Every detail of the area has clearly been thought out, and the spaces themselves cooperate seamlessly with the natural landscape around them.

Image 1 is of the fairly recent performing arts building added to the area. The shape of the building, with its layers and wavy nature are a testament to the hilly terrain that it occupies. The curves of the structure fit seamlessly with the serpentine turns of the hill it sits on, blending them together. Additionally the architects made great efforts to incorporate the structure with nature itself, installing a garden on the top of the building.


The second photo depicts the view from the top of the performing arts building discussed earlier. It provides a view of the grassy area directly below, and, in particular, the work of natural art that is the centerpiece of the architecture school. This work is a site to see from any angle, but viewing it from above really gives a good perspective as to how the wooden forms are arranged. The view also allows an onlooker to really appreciate the scale of the project. This view stands out because it allows an observer to see almost the entire architecture school, with a 360 degree position that is essentially unmatched in height by anything other than the buildings of the architecture school itself close by.


Image 3 is of the band building just across the street from the architecture school. The bend in the grass surrounded by bricks represents a way of altering the landscape to accommodate the large band building, while simultaneously maintaining the importance of the natural environment to the area. Viewed from a nearby parking garage, the ferns planted around the edge of the construction are a nice touch, and merge perfectly with the building next to them. This is a great example of industrial build-up occurring without really tarnishing the view of the natural environment around it.


Image 4 is again a view from the top of a parking garage close to the architecture school and shows Culbreth road itself winding through the landscape. Of particular note is the variety of trees dispersed along the road. From this perspective and free of traffic, the road almost looks like a river winding along the hillside. The lack of uniformity of the trees is indicative of something that might be seen in the wild, and provides a refreshing lack of organization that ironically can be difficult to achieve even with architectural planning.


Post by Charles Gillock

Green Rooftops Results – part 2!

Our second week of sampling proved to be slightly more exciting than the first! One morning we went onto the hospital roof, our control roof, and found 28 gnats and one fly in our brightly colored bee bowls filled with soapy water. This was the first time we collected any insects so we were very pleased with this result. This was definitely an interesting discovery because these were all found on the one non-green roof we were sampling. One theory that may explain this is that the hospital roof was actually warmer than the green roofs we studied due to the vents along the exterior walls.



On the very last day of sampling we found two more gnats, another fly, and a yellow jacket on the Rouss-Robertson roof. These were our first and only insects collected on the green roofs we were sampling this semester.



It is interesting to note that all of these insects were also found in the bee bowls. Throughout the entirety of our project, we did not collect any insects in the malaise trap or sweep nets. As the plants were still in a more dormant stage and temperatures were pretty low, there were not very many insects just flying around on the rooftops and it makes sense that we did not catch anything in the sweep nets. Using sweep nets in the summer would probably prove to be more effective as I think the warmer weather and fully-grown plants would attract more insects.



Throughout the second half of our sampling, we continued to find the Malaise trap collapsed after somewhat windy nights. It is not surprising that we kept finding it collapsed on the roof as it is relatively flimsy tent and unprotected against the wind at least three stories above the ground. Other groups monitoring green roofs have had success using the Malaise trap, so we may need to reevaluate how we secure it. For this sampling period we were using the stakes that came with the tent and two bricks to secure the tent. Perhaps in the future we should try to secure it differently.

Unfortunately, we were unable to secure a list of all the plants on the green roofs we studied before the end of our project. It could be interesting to take a look at the various species used to see if they are native or non-native. If they are non-native, perhaps that is part of the reason they were not attracting the insects we were hoping to see?

Despite the aforementioned issues that we encountered, we believe this has been a great learning opportunity that should be continued over the summer and next semester as well. With the chilly spring weather we had anticipated lower catch rates, but had clearly underestimated the lack of insects this time of year. Summertime sampling should not be an issue in this way. As for the Malaise Trap, weighing it down was not our issue. Each time it blew over, the stakes and bricks were still anchoring the bottom edges of the tent to the roof. A tall stake placed inside the tent vertically (anchored into the ground but reaching all the way to the top of the tent to hold it up) is one potential solution to safeguard the trap against wind. Now that the logistics of getting permission and safety harnesses has been taken care of, next spring’s class could start making a sampling schedule with UVA Facilities Management earlier in the semester. This way, a tentative schedule with everyone’s availability could be drafted then changed according to when warm days are in the forecast. The summer’s sampling team will have to report how much better weather improved results and reevaluate any further improvements to our methods from there.

groofs5-5 groofs5-4

Post by Jennifer White and Amanda Askew, Fourth-Years, Environmental Science

Examining Soils Around Grounds

Now that we’ve established the composition and components of soil, and described a brief history of soil in Virginia, we can expand on what properties in soil promote growth. We can do this while examining different soils from around central grounds. Three areas we will highlight are Observatory Hill Field (Figure 2), Fayerweather Hall (Figure 3), and the Lawn (Figure 4).

Organic matter

Organic matter broadly alludes to the assortment of dead plant and animal material in the soil. This includes everything from ground-up leaves to compost. Organic matter is essential to soil for its wide range of benefits that it provides. These benefits include being able to “supply nutrients for plants by providing surfaces where nutrients can be held in reserve in the soil, facilitate better drainage by loosening soil structure, store water in soil, help increase air drainage, and increase the activity and numbers of soil microorganisms” (organic matter). The optimal level for organic matter in soil is about 5 to 6 percent. From Figure 1, we can see that most places meet this level, or come close to it. Interestingly, Observatory Hill Field has the lowest level or organic matter listed, measured at just 1.33% (Refer to Figure 1 for all measurements). Desert areas have around 1% so its possible that this soil sample was taken when they were reconstructing the field, and did not have any grass there at the time. On the other hand, Fayerweather Hall, with 7.83%, had the highest recorded percent of organic matter. While this may initially seem like a very good situation for growing plants, it has been ascertained that too much organic matter can actually be detrimental. It can heighten the levels of phosphorus to the point where it becomes poisonous for plants, and can also “over stimulate microorganisms, which then consume so much nitrogen and other plant nutrients that soil fertility temporarily declines” (organic matter). Between the two extremes, is the lawn, with all flats retaining an organic matter percentage of 4.65-5.59%. Since the Lawn is iconic to UVa, there may be more of an effort put into regulating this area, which would explain the good levels of organic matter. However, overall, the majority of sites around grounds have recorded mainly optimal percentages.


Another key determinant of soil fertility is pH, which is important because it allows plants to easily dissolve nutrients in the soil. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14, with 7 being perfectly neutral. Anything below 7 is increasingly acid, while everything above 7 is increasingly alkaline. Like organic matter, there are damaging effects if the pH is too low or too high. For example, plants nutrients rapidly leach out of soils, bacterial activity “that releases nitrogen from organic matter and certain fertilizers” does not take place, and the overall texture of the soil changes to make it difficult to cultivate (Perry). Specifically, when the pH falls below 6, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are leached more rapidly. When it is above 7.5, iron, manganese, and phosphorus are not easily absorbed (Understanding PH). Therefore, a good range for pH is about 6-7.5. Every plot recorded on grounds fell within this category, with 6 being the lowest pH and 7.2 being the highest. Observatory Hill Field had a pH of 6.8, Fayerweather was recorded as 6.1, and the Lawn flats ranged between 6.2 and 6.6. These pH levels are consistent to Virginia’s natural levels based on the amount of rainfall and vegetation.

Although these are just two predictors, they can adequately show the health and growing potential for the soils around grounds. If you wish to further examine other predictors, they can be found in the Turfgrass soil summary table in Figure 1.

Figure 1: UVA Turfgrass areas soil results. 9/13/2013.
Figure 1: UVA Turfgrass areas soil results. 9/13/2013.
Figure 2: Observatory Hill Field.
Figure 2: Observatory Hill Field.
Figure 3: Fayerweather Hall.
Figure 3: Fayerweather Hall.
Figure 4: The Lawn.
Figure 4: The Lawn.

Works Cited:


“Organic Matter.” Organic Gardening. Web. 27 April. 2014.

Perry, Leonard. “Department of Plant and Soil Science.” PH for the Garden. Web. 22 April. 2014.

“Understanding PH.” What Is Soil PH and What Does It Mean?: Organic Gardening. Web. 22 April. 2014.


Fayweather Hall. 2006. Charlottesville. Office Architect UVA. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.

Observatory Hill Dining Hall. 2006. Charlottesville. SaylorGregg Architects. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

The Lawn. 2010. Charlottesville. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.

UVA Turfgrass areas soil results. Charlottesville. 9/13/2013. April 19. 2014.

Post by Merrill Hermann, First-Year, Undecided

Quack Quack


From troubles of the world I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool,
Or finding curious things
To eat in various mucks
Beneath the pool,
Tails uppermost, or waddling
Sailor-like on the shores
Of ponds, or paddling
– Left! Right! – with fanlike feet
Which are for steady oars
When they (white galleys) float
Each bird a boat
Rippling at will the sweet
Wide waterway …
When night is fallen you creep
Upstairs, but drakes and dillies
Nest with pale water-stars.
Moonbeams and shadow bars,
And water-lilies:
Fearful too much to sleep
Since they’ve no locks
To click against the teeth
Of weasel and fox.
And warm beneath
Are eggs of cloudy green
Whence hungry rats and lean
Would stealthily suck
New life, but for the mien
The hold ferocious mien Photo Credit: Annette Cole
Of the mother-duck.

– Frederick William Harvey

(Part II & III of the poem located at:

Photo credit: Annette Cole
Photo credit: Annette Cole

The “Duck”:

Another trip to Dell Pond has led to the discovery of yet another species of birds on grounds—the duck! “Duck” is the common name for all birds, over 140 species, in the Anatidae Family. They are found on every continent except for Antarctica, and are physically adapted to swim, dive, and float in water.

Trivia Question (1): What species of bird, which has been previously posted about on this BioGrounds Blog, is also part of the Anatidae Family? (Answer at the end of blog post!)

Ducks are omnivorous species that are constantly foraging and looking for opportunities to feed off fish, grass, insects, amphibians, seeds, plants, fruits, etc. The diet of a duck varies based on the species, season, and habitat. Some species of duck are more likely to feed off fish and amphibians, such as diving ducks that live in marsh habitats, while some species are more likely to live in a grassy landscape and feed off seeds and grain.

Trivia Question (2): Is bread, which is commonly fed to ducks by people, good or bad for their diet?

The “Quack”:

Male ducks never “quack”, only females do. “Quack” is the general term given to ducks for a range of sounds including: “squeaks, grunts, groans, chirps, whistles, brays and growls”. 1

These noises are used as a sign for presence, mood, mating, warning, and various other communications to other birds.

Click here to listen to common Mallard (female) duck calls:

Wild vs. Domestic (Hybrids):

Photo from:
Photo from:


There are wild ducks, and then there are domestic ducks—and over forty breeds of them. More likely then not, if you find a duck around a pond or in a park—it’s a hybrid. The two species of duck that have been domesticated are the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and the Muscovy (Cairina Moschata). The pictures above show the differences between the Wild Mallard (left) and a Domestic Mallard (right). The two birds carry a clear resemblance, but there are many breeds of hybrid ducks that display varying physical attributes characteristic to their wild ancestors. A few domestic breeds include the Duclair, the Saxony, and the most common barnyard duck—the Pekin.

The Ducks at Dell Pond:

Photo Credit: Annette Cole
Photo Credit: Annette Cole


As I have passed by the Dell Pond this semester, I have noticed both the Muscovy and Mallard ducks in their domesticated form. Originally, I only saw the two hybrids in the above left picture. The duck on the left clearly reflects Muscovy with red surrounding her eyes, while the green patch on the right duck clearly resembles a male Mallard. Because crossbreeding between the two species is possible—is there a romance blooming at the Dell Pond? Breeding season for most ducks is generally late winter, spring, or early summer. While ducks are mating and breeding, most species are monogamous. The interaction between the two birds, definitely suggests that a seasonal relationship is a strong possibility!

The last visit I made, I noticed there was an addition I hadn’t noticed before—another duck of brownish-white color. I witnessed an altercation with the female hybrid and this third duck. The third duck seemed to be trying to keep the female underwater using force. The male hybrid, came to the hybrid female’s rescue pecking at the third duck and chasing it across the pond (as seen in the above right picture). Which left me leaving the Dell Pond with the question, the third duck—friend or foe?

I conclude by encouraging you, students and readers, to take the time to observe and decide for yourself!

Quack Fact:

It is a common myth that a duck’s quack doesn’t echo. So common, in fact, that it was “busted” on the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters”.

Trivia Answers:

Trivia Answer (1): The Canadian Goose!

Trivia Answer (2): Bad—bread lacks nutritional value towards a duck’s diet.



Post by Annette Cole, Fourth-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning

Listening at a Higher Altitude

Our group focused on the night flight calls of birds that pass through the Charlottesville area. This involved procuring special equipment that would allow us to catch the sounds of birds as they flew hundreds of feet above the ground. The sound recording system – while it did only come in a few weeks ago – proved a very effective way of capturing these calls. Of course, many factors played into the final result, including street level disturbances and recording timings, but I ultimately was able to collect some data.

From those in the group that recorded on nights before me, I was told that the ideal time for capturing bird calls was around dusk. In fact, the recording equipment had a setting that recorded from dusk until dawn. I placed the equipment on the roof of my building on 14th Street and waited until around 1 AM to take it down.

Around the beginning of the recording, most of what I heard was coming from appliances on the roof and music from people’s apartments. As the night wore on, however, I was able to hear what seemed to be various night calls. While I still have no way of being completely certain of what I heard, I compared some of the sounds I heard to established information of birds that travel through the Charlottesville area. I believe I recorded the movement of warblers, finches, and sparrows – many of which are passing by as they migrate. This data coincides with the fact that I see many finches and sparrows during the day – although I am not familiar with warblers. A very helpful resource for my resource was the Monticello Bird Club, which is the primary database of information on bird life in the area.

For future experimentation, I would definitely suggest grouping this knowledge with the other bird group in order to figure out which species are more native to the area and which are simply passing by.

Post by Pranay Advani

East Coast Bats Migration and White Nose Syndrome

On the east coast, there are two main species of bats: the little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) and the big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus). These two species of bats can either migrate or hibernate during colder seasons and live basically anywhere they can dwell like caves, trees, and man-made structures. The little browns and big browns do not have an area specific location, however, these bats usually tend to stick around their birthplaces and their usual hibernation sites. As to how they know where these specific locations are still continue to be a mystery. To get around, these bats use their high frequency sounds to travel and sense their location since they cannot detect color due to their nocturnal habits.

However, since 2006, the brown bats have been dying off by the millions from a disease called the white nose syndrome (WNS). Currently, WNS has killed over 5.7 million bats in the United States. White Nose syndrome is a white fungus formerly known as Geomyces sp., and is now known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd., and grows on the noses and hairless parts of the bats. This fungus is particularly suited for colder weather, which forces the bats to come out of hibernation and into the wild. Because the bats are about and flying around during the winter/colder weathers, the bats become sick and eventually die due to this devastating habit. It was first spotted in the New York region and has started to migrate down south and around the original location.

Photo from: Bat Conservation International.
Photo from: Bat Conservation International.

Efforts to stop this disease

As the bat group, we are hoping to house bats and study them in our very own bat house. Currently there are no signs of the white nose syndrome in Charlottesville but we can learn more about the disease in our locations by using the bat house.  Constructing bat houses supports the effort to control the disease by minimizing the disturbance to our homes and it takes cares of the bats by providing them with a place to live in. Another way to stop the spread of the disease is to avoid the hibernating bats during the winter in their natural habitat. If you want to learn more about the white nose syndrome or bat conservation in general, visit: or


“Bats – Bat Removal, Exclusion and Guano Clean up in Richmond and Charlottesville, Virginia.” Bats – Bat Removal, Exclusion and Guano Clean up in Richmond and Charlottesville, Virginia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“The Facts About Bats in New Jersey.” (from Rutgers NJAES). N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Hinterland Who’s Who – Bats.” Hinterland Who’s Who – Bats. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Over 5.7 Million Bats Have Died.” Bat Conservation International, Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“White-Nose Syndrome.” WNS Information Resources. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Post by Joshua Aries Cruz

Creating Awareness

While our group has yet to make any discoveries of deceased birds around UVA and Charlottesville, we know that these deaths exist and are most likely more prevalent in warmer months due to migratory patterns. For example, the ruby-throated hummingbird, a commonly affected species that is found in Charlottesville, migrates to Virginia around mid-April until the end of May (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries).

We have been looking into preventative methods that would be specifically beneficial to the UVA community. According to the Wilson School of Ornithology, one of the most effective ways of deterring bird strikes is the installation of fritted glass. Depending on how large the investment may be, UVA should look into installing fitted glass windows in Campbell Hall and Nau Hall, the two buildings we determined are most likely to encourage bird strikes. The Wilson School article also revealed that uniformly covering windows with decals or other objects that are separated by 5 to 10 centimeters was completely or near-completely effective in preventing strikes. This would be a cheap and effective option for UVA buildings to put on their windows. Finally, the study discovered that one in four bird strikes leaves no evidence of a collision after 24 hours, which may explain why our BioGrounds group has been unable to detect any birds. When buildings are not constantly monitored, 25% of bird strikes are undetected.

It is important to understand not only what causes these deaths and how to prevent them, but also why people should care to begin with. Birds have a restorative effect that is often overlooked, but that many people noted when directly asked about it. Studies have shown that people describe birdsongs as relaxing and have found them to supplement stress recovery (Ratcliffe 222). This is an instance in which birds show their inherent ability to enhance stress and attention restoration. People tend to dismiss birdsongs or classify them as an annoyance, but perhaps if they actually stopped to listen and appreciate the sound, they would experience its restorative benefits.

Works Cited

Ratcliffe, Eleanor. Birgitta Gatersleben and Paul T. Sowden. “Bird Sounds and Their Contributions to Perceived Attention Restoration and Stress Recovery”. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Sept. 2, 2013. Web.

Post by Susannah Saunders, Alison Lanshe, and Carolyn Albright

Edible Surprises in the Pavilion Gardens

“I rank [botany] with the most valuable sciences… it’s subjects as… delicious varieties for our tables, refreshments from our orchards, the adornments of our flowerborders, shade and perfume of our groves…”

Thomas Jefferson, 1814

View of one of the Pavilion Gardens. Photo from:
View of one of the Pavilion Gardens. Photo from:

Jefferson’s love of all things gardening is evident in his writings, his illustrations, his influence over the grounds of the University of Virginia, and particularly his own home. However, Jefferson did actually not design the pavilion or hotel gardens – defining spaces at UVA for their serpentine walls and distinctly unique spaces – at all. Rather, upon the completion of the walls in 1824, the design, initial planting, and maintenance of the gardens were left in the care of the hotel and pavilion residences. This resulted in a diverse and unconnected series of spaces, and as the residents frequently changed, so did the gardens. After some time, buildings, roads, and walls were added, but did not necessarily share characteristics or adhere to Jefferson’s original plan.

Whereas Pavilion III (left) has abundant dogwood trees and azaleas, Pavilion V (right) is much more formal with dwarf boxwood. Photos from: Virginia Historical Society.
Whereas Pavilion III (left) has abundant dogwood trees and azaleas, Pavilion V (right) is much more formal with dwarf boxwood. Photos from: Virginia Historical Society.

In 1948, a renewed interest was sparked for the Pavilion Gardens when the Garden Club of Virginia offered to restore and unify them in a way that was consistent with Jefferson’s designs. Alden Hopkins, the landscape architect for Colonial Williamsburg, began the process in the West Gardens, drawing plans and overseeing initial restoration. After his death, however, Donald H. Parker stepped into his shoes and completed what needed to be done in the East Gardens. As a result of two separate designers, the series of gardens have distinct style differences, yet they each draw inspiration from the gardens at Monticello and Jefferson’s writings.

Gardens at Monticello. Photo from: Artstor.
Gardens at Monticello. Photo from: Artstor.
Pavilion II features a grape arbor and is similar to some of the gardens present at Monticello. Photo from: Virginia Historical Society.
Pavilion II features a grape arbor and is similar to some of the gardens present at Monticello. Photo from: Virginia Historical Society.

The plants chosen for planting were drawn from a collection that would have been known to Jefferson, reflecting his vast knowledge and love of botany. Jefferson had a love of both native Virginian and exotic plants, and said, “the greatest service which can be rendered by any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Design elements in the gardens reflect international styles, and his legacy of extensive knowledge encouraged the great variety of plants. His interest in living self-sufficiently also inspired the designers and gardeners to include a number of edible trees and plants. The gardens’ main function remains ornamental, however, and the edibles do not generate the same yield as they would be if they were pruned for production.

Given better information about the pleasant spaces and natural foods available in the Pavilion Gardens, it is our hope that they can be better appreciated and utilized by the student body. That said, moderation is key, and the importance of maintaining a vibrant, healthy appearance in the gardens should be stressed.

Melissa Reese’s 2008 report entitled Edible Lawn: An Inventory of the Edible Landscape at the University of Virginia on the Lawn Pavilion Gardens is a tremendous resource for anyone looking to learn more about edibles in the Pavilion Gardens. Beautifully arranged, with a simple, effective layout, the report lists and graphically presents the various edible trees, plants, and herbs that can be found in different gardens, including when they will be in bloom. In addition, at the end of the report is a photo guide to the plants previously listed, which is enormously helpful for novice gardeners and botanists.


The 2011 University of Virginia Sustainability Assessment details the initiatives that have been completed since 2006, and relevant items include: expand procurement of local and organic foods in all dining facilities, host special events and establish specific dining outlets to promote local organic foods, explore opportunities for establishing a University demonstration garden/farm. While the university has certainly made good strides toward these objectives, it seems that an additional possible action could be to make students aware of the abundant edible foods present on grounds. Slow Food at UVA recently held a workshop that taught students how to make dandelion wine, and it seems that similar (perhaps more applicable) workshops regarding the cultivation and treatment of edible plants and trees would be educational, helpful, and interesting.

Reese, Melissa. Edible Lawn: An Inventory of the Edible Landscape at the University of Virginia in the Lawn Pavilion Gardens. Fall 2008.

Post by Emma Troller, Second-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning

The Rivanna River: Part II

Hello, my name is David McQuillen and I am a second year at the University of Virginia studying Economics.  I, along with my colleague Henry Peltz, decided to explore the Rivanna River as part of our BioGrounds research.  As my other team members have attested, the weather has been an issue.  Luckily, I was able to make a couple of visits to Riverview Park in order to see the Rivanna.

I have always been comfortable with numbers, so I decided to take a more scientific approach to seeing how the Rivanna is able to support aquatic life.  Henry provided a good background on the types of species found in and around the river, but I wanted to test the river’s health to see how it could support such a diverse ecosystem.  I used a water testing kit to accomplish this.  I was able to test for the river’s pH and Temperature, along with levels of Dissolved Oxygen, Nitrates, and Phosphates.  This data allowed me to make an evaluation of the river’s overall health.



Temperature (̊C)

Dissolved Oxygen (ppm*)

Nitrates (ppm)

Phosphates (ppm)













*ppm=parts per million

Each measurement can give information about the river’s health.

–       pH level is very important, as organisms are often suited to a certain range and can die if this fluctuates.  It is good, then, that the pH was consistent in both samples.  8 is a solid pH level; the testing kit rates it as a 3 (“Good”) out of 4 (“Excellent”).

–       Temperature change is the next statistic.  Again, consistency is highly desirable.  The temperature in the samples was a small 2 degrees Celcius; the kit rates this figure as “Excellent.”

–       Dissolved oxygen is necessary for the continuation of aquatic life.  Aquatic organisms need oxygen just as humans do.  Therefore, a high level of Oxygen is desirable in the samples.  The Rivanna did not perform too well in this test, with average ppm numbers.  These, coupled with the relatively high temperature of the water, give the Rivanna a “Fair” score.

–       Nitrogen, while a necessary nutrient for plant growth, is not desirable in excess in an aquatic ecosystem.  In bulk, it lowers Oxygen levels.  The Nitrates test was hard to read, but the two samples averaged out to just less than 5 ppm.  Again, this is a average result, and the kit gives it another “Fair” grade.

–       The final measurement performed sought to determine Phosphorous levels.  Akin to Nitrogen, Phosphorous is a key nutrient, but is harmful in heavy concentrations.  High levels of Phosphates often stem from human waste, industrial pollution, and other runoff.  The Rivanna scored well on this metric, with an “Excellent” score of 1 ppm on both samples


After examining the data, it seems that the Rivanna is a healthy river.  This is not surprising, as Charlottesville is not home to many large industrial firms that pollute.  Though there is runoff and drainage, as Henry discovered during his visit, this water has probably already been treated and is not too detrimental to the Rivanna’s underwater world.

One interesting observation of aquatic life I had was not part of the river itself.  Along the trail there was a large puddle that had formed.  This puddle had obviously been there for awhile, as it was full of tadpoles!  This was a good reminder that we can find nature in all places; puddles in cities, for example, are teeming with microscopic aquatic life.


In this case, our observations about the health of the Rivanna were corroborated with the testing kit.  Such a healthy river is good for a city like Charlottesville.  It provides safe drinking water, outstanding aesthetic benefits, and a good environment for aquatic life.  If we are to incorporate bodies of water in our future designs of cities, we must ensure that they stay healthy and do not simply become a dump for industrial waste. It is good to include water in biophilic urban design within reason, and a healthy river can be a great addition to any growing city.

Sustainable Soil Life and Vermicomposting in the UVA Community Garden

Superstar sustainable beyond-organic farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms sums up the diversity of life under our feet when he proclaims in his book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, that more individual life exists in one double handful of healthy soil than there are people on the face of this earth! He imagines the microscopic universe inhabiting the very soil that nourishes our plants and forms our landscape:

“A six-legged grazing microbe, lollygagging along on hairlike cilia, comes into view. Without warning, a nautilus-looking four-legged predator rockets in form two o’clock, impales the grazer with the saber-like spear affixed to its head, and sucks out the juices from the soft belly of the grazer. Before the hapless grazer microbe can fall to the hairy pasture, however, another predator enters the viewscape from ten o’clock and lops off the grazer’s head, devouring it contentedly as the now-decapitated and fluid-deflated carcass hits the ground. Within moments, other smaller scavengers enter the viewscape and polish off the carcass crumbs.”

As Salatin imagines, beyond the earthworms macroscopic enough for us to see with our naked eye, an entire world of microbes makes its home in the damp, dark earth. Bacterial decomposers called actinomycetes lend the soil its trademark earthy odor. Microbes called azotobacter fix nitrogen from the air into the soil to provide nutrition for plants. Mycorrhiza refers to the relationship between fungus and plant roots in the soil that results in stronger plant immune systems.

Photo from:
Photo from:

Soil, the earthy medium in which all plants grow, must be full of nutrients to support healthy plants. In agricultural systems, soil health proves even more important not only because the plants grown in the soil directly nourish our bodies, but because careless agriculture can actively destroy the soil. However, with sound agricultural practices, sustainable gardening and farming can actually improve the health of the soil beneath us. One method to enhance the nutrient-fixing capacity of the microbes already present in the soil is composting. Composting is the process of breaking down organic material like food and plant waste into a nutrient-rich soil supplement that greatly increases the viability and nutritional content of the crops it nourishes. Rerouting food waste into composting systems saves key nutrients from ending up in the landfill, where they decompose into a greenhouse gas called methane that is about 25 times more toxic than carbon dioxide. Instead, those nutrients create compost that works as an effective fertilizer by lightening the soil, which allows for better air and water filtration. It improves the soil structure, which combats erosion, and allows for the formation of stronger root systems by imparting nutrients and minerals.

Photo credit: Joi Ito, Creative Commons.
Photo credit: Joi Ito, Creative Commons.

Composting can take many forms, but vermicomposting takes advantage of organisms that thrive in soils: worms! Patricia Boudier of Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply touts the benefits of incorporating worms into composting systems. Worm manure contains five to 11 times more nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus than regular soil, negating the need to dump environmentally harmful chemical fertilizers into the earth. Vermicompost has more micronutrients than regular aerobic compost that doesn’t use worms, potentially enhancing the nutritional content of the plants we eat.

What types of worms work best for vermicomposting? Several types of earthworms prove suitable, and they go by common names like red worms, red wigglers, tiger worms, branding worms, and manure worms. Several species such as Eisenia foetida, Lumbricus rubellis, and Lumbricus terrestrius work particularly well.

This spring, the University of Virginia Community Garden saw the establishment of its own new vermicomposting system! Previously, the garden used an aerobic composting system that lacked efficiency, so the incorporation of worms will enable quicker compost creation to enhance the microbiotic activity in the soil. Engineering Students Without Borders has designed and constructed a wooden structure the size of a regular garden bed with eight compartments to allow for various stages of food waste decomposition. After the finishing touches have been added, the new vermicomposting system will use Lumbricus rubellis, a worm particularly effective at both composting organic matter and working the soil, or Eisenia foetida. Clearly, the life beneath our feet, from the micro to the macro scale, proves incredibly beneficial and necessary to the nutrition of our plants. Protecting the health and biodiversity of soil life, those miniscule organisms we often don’t appreciate due to their invisibility, should be a top priority as we plan our cities for a more sustainable future!

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Works Cited

“Decentralized Composting.” Waste Concern. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Patricia Boudier. “Vermicomposting.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 20 June 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.

Salatin, Joel. Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. New York: Center Street, 2011. Print.

“Vermicomposting: Composting with Worms.” CalRecycle. California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, 22 July 2011. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.

Post by Love Jonson, Second-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning Major and Global Sustainability Minor