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.