Go Native for Wildlife!

Next Door Neighbors - May 2014 - by Susan Guthrie

With the help of native plants, Phillip Merritt uses science to create art. “Garden design is creative but also has a scientific element; I like how science and art fit together in nature.”

His mother’s side of the family was in the floral business and as a child he loved to play in his grandparent’s greenhouse. He was naturally artistic and received an undergraduate degree in fine arts. While attending UVA for his Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture, his favorite class was plant identification. The beauty of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains combined with his admiration for one of his professors, plant identification grew into more than a hobby. “I became interested in plants by seeing them in their native environment and learning how to identify them.”

Driving the scenic roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway, he found himself wanting to know what all of the plants were. “At first it all looks the same, you can’t tell one plant from another, but with a little experience it’s satisfying to see a blur of color and know exactly what it is. It’s surprising how much you can learn with a little practice.” His friends would mistake him for a crazy person wandering along the side of the road, but he was just identifying plants. “Wet ditches along country roads are some of the best places to spot unusual plants.” 

As a landscape architect and president of the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, Phillip has been transforming Williamsburg landscapes into art for 21 years. He has led many field trips in Williamsburg for the native plants society. “It’s like a puzzle; you go out with a group of people with field guides and see what you can identify.” The society offers two field trips a month, with approximately 20 people per group.

Since his presidential duties at the native plant society keep him from leading many field trips, he is looking forward to the native plant sale at Jamestown Beach Park on April 26. “The plant sale is a great place to pick up plants that members of the society have grown in their own yards and to get native plants that you won’t find in nurseries or garden centers.” He also recommends looking at Colonial Williamsburg for an excellent example that native gardens do not have to look wild and can enhance the beauty of your residential landscape. “They were designed to reflect the 18th century; most of the plants are natives that the colonists would have had available.”

If you love wildlife, use native plants in your landscape design. Native plants make up the base of the food web that supports wildlife and establishes the health of the ecosystem. Shelter and nesting sites provided by native plants are important to sustain native wildlife. The use of native plants in your yard and garden can be beautiful, good for the environment and will require less maintenance.

Phillip used mostly native plantings for his former house in Walnut Hills. The previous owners tried for a lawn, which did not do well in the shade, so he replaced the grass with between 10 and 12 species of ferns and a water garden. He now has three acres in Lanexa and is very excited to start with a fresh pallet. Native plants, especially those that support the most insects, will make up the majority of his new landscape. Phillip looks forward to the different habitat types on his new property where he’ll experiment with unusual native trees like farkleberry, horse sugar and umbrella magnolia.

Mention insects in the garden and people reach for the pesticides. Wait, insects provide one of the main food sources for birds. “I want residents to understand and appreciate how important insects are to the larger ecosystem and how important native plants are to insects.” Native plants are more resilient to occasional insect damage and recover easily. 

“Most insects do minimal damage to native plants, so it’s important to understand that not all insects are bad.” The best thing you can do to support wildlife is to contribute to the food web by using native plants to increase native insect populations.

“If you want songbirds; goldenrod, aster - black-eyed susans are a great place to start,” Phillip says. Everyone knows and requests roses and azaleas; however, they require chemicals and other artificial methods to thrive outside their natural limits. Phlox, roses, crabapples, euonymus, photinia and many other non-native ornamental plants are more commonly afflicted with disease and pests. The good insects cannot eat these and other non-native ornamental plants, which makes them more susceptible to infestations of destructive insects like gypsy moths and Japanese beetles.

Phillip recommends choosing plants that do not require many chemicals and putting them in the right place. For a distinctive low maintenance landscape, learn to appreciate native plants that are not as problematic.

He warns that invasive plants including English ivy, vinca, wisteria, privet, Japanese honeysuckle and bamboo can be very damaging to the ecosystem. “These have very little wildlife benefit and drive out the plants that do contribute to the food web.” Using alternatives like native honeysuckle will make the landscape attractive to wildlife and support a healthy ecosystem. Phillip says he understands that everyone wants fast results; however, he cautions that you should be suspicious of plants described as “fast growing,” especially Leyland cypress. “Leyland cypress can grow too big too fast for residential landscapes, and they can often blow over once they mature.” He encourages planting milkweed, which is the sole source of food for monarch butterfly larvae. The loss of milkweed in the past several years has resulted in drastic reductions in the monarch butterfly population.

Are there existing wildlife areas adjacent to your property? “Don’t think of nature as something ‘out there,’” Phillip says. Planting native species next to existing natural areas can increase the size of wildlife corridors. “Often, trees and other more natural parts of the yard get pushed towards the back property line. If you look at it from above, you see how these unintentional natural areas join together to create networks running through neighborhoods, so put your new plantings next to these already existing natural areas.”  

Wildlife corridors not only provide food and shelter, they also reduce edge effects on native vegetation and provide a more natural range for larger species. “In the continental U.S. we’ve lost 95% of the wild areas, so homeowners should consider ways in which their yard can be added to what’s left.”

A frequent but often unexpected obstacle to using native plants in your yard can be your Home Owners Association (HOA) guidelines. Although the intent of HOA landscape standards is to promote beautiful lush yards, their standards often make achieving that goal difficult.

According to Phillip, height requirements for plant installation can result in plants that are too large for the available space. “Most homes need dwarf versions of shrubs but they tend to be too small when they come from the nursery to meet HOA requirements.” Therefore, he recommends reviewing your HOA guidelines prior to designing your landscape.

Want more information on using native plants to attract wildlife to your yard? Phillip promotes the use of native plants by continually updating his very informative blog (www.HowItGrows.com) and native plant photographs. The blog includes a link to an interactive map of plants and places to see in tidewater, as well as a diary of which plants are in bloom in Williamsburg for every week of the year. In addition, he contributed to approximately 100 photographs to the “Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain” identification guide by Helen Hamilton, which he recommends for wildflower identification.

There are many sources for do-it-yourself landscaping advice, but Phillip Merritt says not to worry about a lot of garden lore and complicated planning. “Dig a hole, put a plant in it and keep it watered. If something dies don’t give up or worry about it; just try something else.”

He says the best thing is to experiment with different native plants in different areas and attend a native plant society field trip to see the possibilities right outside your door. “Start small, you’ll have lower maintenance and see more results.” Once you have success, you will feel inspired to expand and have fun with the diversity of nature.

Go Native in the Garden

Daily Press - June 11th, 2009 - By Kathy Van Mullekom

When Phillip Merritt was in the landscape architecture program at the University of Virginia, he became familiar with the works of great designers like the late Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen.

Instead of bringing in non-native trees and shrubs, the two men were known for their use of native plants to maintain the unique features of a site.

Those lessons, as well as hikes to identify native plants along the Blue Ridge Mountains, stayed with Phillip, now a landscape architect in Williamsburg.

"It was sort of eye-opening to begin to learn the names of all the individual plants that were previously one big green blur," he says. "It's also very satisfying to be able to drive down the highway, catch a glimpse of yellow, and know what it is."


finding them. While local garden centers and big box stores may have some native species, it's hard to locate a seller if you want to try something a little more unusual.

Keep an eye out for native plant sales through the Virginia Living Museum and the Virginia Native Plant Society. And don't be afraid to try mail-order nurseries; I've tried lots of obscure online nurseries that I'd never heard of before and they almost always send high-quality plants.

Heronswood ( www.heronswood.com), Woodlanders ( www.woodlanders.net) and Plant Delights (www.plantdelights.com) are all good sources, though they are not exclusively native.


be showy enough, though there are plenty of species with big blooms. I recently saw a leatherwood bush in bloom for the first time; most people looking at it would be unimpressed with the small yellow flowers but I thought it was pretty cool. Another problem can be defining what a native plant is. Should you only plant something to coastal Virginia or is something native to Georgia OK? Are cultivars or hybrids acceptable? Some people get into fairly intense debates about these kinds of questions and the average gardener may be put off by that.

In my opinion, it's your yard, do what makes you happy. You don't have to plant only 100 percent locally grown native plants to have a beneficial impact on wildlife - although the more natives you use the greater your impact will be and the more songbirds and butterflies you will see.

Doug Tallamy makes a strong argument for using native plants in his book "Bringing Nature Home." He points to songbirds that need the insects that feed on native plants to raise their newly hatched chicks. The seeds and berries that we usually associate with bird food come later in the year, after the chicks are older, so more native plants mean more songbirds.

In my yard I have many exotic shrubs and perennials that I couldn't do without, and some that just happened to come with my house. I think they look just fine mixed with all the natives I have - only the most hard-core plant enthusiasts would be able tell which is which.

I also like to use lots of non-native annuals throughout my yard to provide extra jolts of color - I just avoid plants that I know have a possibility of becoming invasive.


Little Henry sweetspire, or Itea virginica. This is a compact cultivar, three to four feet tall, that often grows on the banks of local streams but it's also suitable for drier locations. It tolerates shade and has long, droopy white flower clusters in spring; plant it in more sun and you get more flowers and a richer red fall color. The plant spreads, forming dense colonies, making it a good choice for filling in an area and stabilizing soil.

Foamflower, or Tiarella. This low perennial has lots of wispy white blooms in spring and when it spreads into a patch it can be really spectacular looking. Plant the perennial in a shady or semi-shady site and provide adequate moisture, especially the first year. Foamflowers in garden centers are often hybridized so purists may want to check the label for exact species information.

Fothergilla. It's a great little shrub for its fluffy white flowers in the spring and its intense, almost neon red, yellow or orange color in fall. The dwarf variety, Fothergilla gardenii, is probably best for residential gardens, growing three to four feet tall. The honey-scented flowers can be very fragrant, but try to buy it while it's in bloom, just to be sure. This plant likes a bit of shade, but can take full sun, and it mixes well with other acid-loving plants like azaleas.


Trees: Serviceberry, river birch, sweet bay magnolia, eastern red cedar, maple, fringe tree, bald cypress and American holly.

Shrubs: Oakleaf hydrangea, beautyberry, winterberry, Southern bayberry, inkberry, holly, viburnum, swamp azalea, mountain laurel and Virginia sweetspire.

Spring perennials: Christmas fern, wild bleeding heart, wild columbine, Virginia bluebells, Mayapple, wild geranium, marsh marigold, wild blue phlox, Jamestown lily, golden ragwort, Jacob's ladder and beardtongue.

Summer perennials: Butterfly weed (host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars), ironweed, Great Blue lobelia, spiderwort, wild bergamot, snakeroot, goatsbeard, Trumpet honeysuckle, coneflower, lanceleaf coreopsis, Joe-pye weed, brown-eyed Sudan, cardinal flower, blue vervain, green-headed coneflower, rose mallow, seashore mallow and summer phlox. American wisteria is native and less invasive than Chinese wisteria.

Fall perennials: Maryland golden aster, sweet goldenrod and boltonia.

For more native plant recommendations, visit the Virginia Native Plant Society at www.vnps.org.

Lost in Williamsburg Headed to Kansas City

Virginia Gazette Online - May 19th, 2016 - By Phillip Merritt

Williamsburg, Virginia residents beware. All the secrets and unexplained mysteries of your humble little town will be exposed to the world on June 10th in Kansas City, Missouri. That's the day the locally produced podcast Lost in Williamsburg will be presented at the 2016 HEAR Now Audio Fiction and Arts Festival. The four day festival features a day-long listening event showcasing a jury-selected sampling of audio programs from around the nation, and Lost in Williamsburg creator Phillip Merritt will be on hand to introduce an episode of his podcast.

So what is a podcast? That's a question show creator Phillip Merritt was asked a lot when he began his project. "Podcasts are like radio shows for the internet age," he says. "But instead of being broadcast over the airwaves, they're downloaded from the web." And like radio shows, podcasts can be about anything: news, comedy, talk, or in the case of Lost in Williamsburg, a serial drama.

Mr. Merritt has always been a fan of the classic radio dramas of the 40's and 50's like Suspense or Inner Sanctum, which you can now find archived online. And when he heard the first episode of a Welcome to Nightvale, an immensely popular new audio drama, he decided to try his hand at a story focusing on his own hometown. "With hundreds of years of colonial history and numerous famous residents, Williamsburg is bursting with dramatic potential," he says.

The question Mr. Merritt's show explores is this: Is the charming little town of Williamsburg really as quaint and quiet as it seems or could there something sinister lurking amongst the town's historic homes, B&B's, and campus courtyards? To find out, The show's story weaves back and forth between the 18th century and present day. Characters include the young student Thomas Jefferson, a tavern owner (and sorceress) Hexabeth Blackhard, and members of Cats with Benefits, a William & Mary rock band whose lead singer mysteriously disappears.

Finding actors for portray the dozens of characters required for the production was tricky at first. Mr. Merritt posted flyers around town and cajoled anyone he could think of into finding their inner thespian. Friends, co-workers; no one was spared. "One of the things I enjoy most about the show is working with locals to get that authentic tidewater feeling," he says. " I haven't been able to convince everyone though. There are a couple of people I know with the most amazing Gloucester accents. I'm still hoping to get them to take on roles someday."

While many of the actors had little or no theatrical experience, neither did Mr. Merritt. "Figuring out how to write a script and music and to get the voices and sound effects to work together required a bit of trial and error. "The early shows are bit clunky, but I think the show improves a lot as the episodes progress." Others seem to agree as the show has picked up acting, music and production nominations from both the Audio Verse Awards and Parsec Awards, including a win for Best Actress in an Ensemble Role for Colleen Kennedy's performance as Hexabeth Blackhard.

If you're interested in exploring the twilight world of Williamsburg, you can download or stream the program for free on iTunes and SoundCloud. With a bit of strong language and the occasional murder, it's probably not for the kids, but if you're not intimidated by poltergiests, possessions, or passive-aggressive parents, give it a listen. You don't have to be a native Williamsburger to enjoy the program, but if you are, you might be very suprised to find out what your neighbors have been up to.