Welcome to Josef’s Lab Group


“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” – Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1500’s

And, there is still much to be done. Although we have learned much about soils since Da Vinci made his famous comment, the astronomers have not been idle either. But, somewhere it is all stardust … More seriously though, the planet and the way we are producing goods and services are changing, profoundly affecting soil processes. The dynamic nature of soils assures that a soil scientist’s work is never done. And thus we roll up our sleeves, put our noses to the grind stone and the augers to the soil … The lab is busy.

Our lab is working on a wide range of soils issues that affect ecosystems in Vermont and elsewhere. “Feeding the 9 Million” challenges us to find ways to better manage soils for agriculture and to develop more effective farming practices. However, soils are more than that:  “Probably more harm has been done to the science by the almost universal attempts to look upon the soil merely as a producer of crops rather than as a natural body worth in and for itself of all the study that can be devoted to it, than most men realize.” – C. F. Marbut, 1920. Soils are central to the cycling of elements with many implications for climate change, mitigation of pollution, and supporting land use beyond agriculture.

With this in mind, the lab is presently working on the effect of flooding on soil fertility, the utility of vermicompost as a replacement of Chilean Nitrate in organic agriculture, the invasion of European and Asian earthworms into important forest resources, the contribution of these invaders to trace gas emissions and C sequestration, pasture soil management … The list could go on but there are only 24 hours in a day and only so many coppers in the research treasure chest …

Most of these research projects are headed by my graduate students whose fresh ideas and hard work have added much to the success of the lab. Equally appreciated are the collaborative efforts of my colleagues at UVM and elsewhere. Present lab workers and collaborators are introduced in the People tab.

The above quotations were lifted from the NRCS education webpages (http://soils.usda.gov/education/resources/quotes/). There are many more there. Have a look.

I will do my best to keep you up-to-date on the research pursuits and results of this UVM laboratory.




5 thoughts on “Welcome to Josef’s Lab Group

  1. I am pleased to discover your thoughtful writings on Amynthas agrestis. I have worked on a site where they have been present in numbers since at least 2012. (Katonah, NY, beside a river and opposite a nature reserve). We did bring in soil and compost and this may well have been the source; they may also have come down the river. Originally the worm population was very high and there were also mole tunnels. After one year, the mole tunnels seemed not to be active anymore. At the time, not much was being published by extension services or Ag Stations. I read about a croquet society in the UK using dry mustard mixed with water to get the worms out of the croquet courts. I bought the powder cheaply in bulk at a Chinese grocery store, but didn’t really see much of a result from applying it.
    At another site in New Milford CT I walked onto in summer of 2000 and my boots sunk into powdery soil reminiscent of chocolate pudding power. After planting out these weed infested beds, the problem seemed greatly diminished, but I don’t know how or why — or where they came from on this uncultivated hillside. It wasn’t till later that I learned about the invasive worm.

    What might be helpful is to get citizen participants to try out hypothetical protocols for limiting them and report back results. For example, scraping the top inch off any potted plants purchased and bagging/solarizing that soil, pouring hot mustard “tea” over them before planting and bagging any worms that surface, removing castings found when prepping beds for mulching or planting, making a point of using seeds and plugs whenever possible, shredding rather than transporting fallen leaves, solarizing compost or soil before applying it to a garden bed are a few examples of practices people might be willing to test.

    Another possible strategy would be to bare root as far as possible any plants purchased in containers before planting (yes, better yet, buy plugs or already bare root plants!). Nina Bassuk at Cornell has a list of trees that adapt well to bare rooting (and those that do not). A common issue with transplants is the mismatch between the qualities of the containerized or B&B planting medium and the soil into which it is transplanted, so bare rooting might actually help certain plants do better. Since we keep hearing about this worm problem with Hostas and they have fleshy roots that might withstand this approach, maybe Hosta transplanting is a good place to experiment with bare rooting container-grown plants.

    What about doing an annual scan for worms when they would be about 1-2″ long and solarizing them? We also experimented with shredding the autumn leaves that fell on the lawn rather than blowing them into the woods ( a common practice around here — they can be a foot or two deep). The idea was to decompose this lawn portion of the fallen leaves over the winter so as to have less dry leafy food available on the site when the eggs hatched. Yes, this could backfire if the worms then decimated the duff.

    I don’t know if planted ground cover in garden beds will prove less hospitable than woody mulch, but that is another possible strategy to test. the question I would have is whether the nutrient composition of the substrate in which the eggs exist in any way signals to the eggs that there is a rich environment to be born into (or not) and thus stimulates or inhibits hatching.

    Is there any data comparing incidence of Amynthas agrestis in hot composted compost vs. cold composted? Somebody in comments mentioned finding the worms at the interface between their hot composted compost pile and the ground beneath it — once it cools down, I expect it’s just as vulnerable as any other mulch or compost.

    I hope you and your students will continue to post your findings — this is very worthwhile and informative.

  2. HI John,

    Please see the reply to Michael above. Interesting to see them in Buffalo area but it join the trend of finding them in more northerly places now.

  3. Hi Michael,

    It is not surprising that you have them in Saugerties. Some research was done on them near Poughkeepsie by colleagues as far back as the 1990ties. Their pheretimoid species was called Amynthas hawayanus. However, Amynthas agrestis has been present in NY state for a while. It was first reported in the 1940ties from compost piles in and around New York City and the Huson Valley as far north as Albany (I think I remember that correctly). And, oddly enough, from the Bronx Zoo where they were cultured as food for platypuses.
    Yep leaf mulch is one way that you get them. However, you could have gotten them through a plant purchase and the mulch is just feeding them. Gardens are great for them. They are exposed to the sun a lot more than a forest, so soils warm up faster in the spring. They also get plenty of water and if you are keen to mulch or increase your soil organic matter, there will be an endless supply of food provided by the great human master. I have noticed that in my compost pile they are now (in mid-May), three times the size as the ones that I am finding at my woodland research sites. I inherited my community of Amynthas worms from the previous owners of the property. They were avid gardeners involved in exchanging plants with neighbors who were master gardeners and belonged to garden clubs.
    In Vermont we have three species of pheretimoid (snake worms). These are Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas tokioensis and Metaphire hilgendorfi. In New York you have at least one more species.

    By the way, New York joined Wisconsin as a state that lists these as invasive, controlled species … . Best, Josef

  4. Morning Martha,

    Great suggestion. However, my graduate students are so busy that I can’t put more on their plate. I just have to moderate more frequently. One of them is actually working on controlling these earthworms. she is isolating bacteria and fungi and is screening them for vermicidal effects. She found 3 agents so far that worked in the lab. We’ll take the work into the greenhouses and the field soon. Lab results are great but doing a bioassay in actual soil is quite a different matter. We expect that the efficacy will be less than the 100% we found in the lab..


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