What’s the Difference Between an Annual and a Perennial?

Should you pick annuals or perennials when planting your garden? Here's a rundown on the differences between these two types of plants and the pros and cons of each.

You see the words annual and perennial on plant tags and in garden books. What do these terms mean and why should you care? Simply put, annual plants die in the winter season. You must replant them every year. Perennials come back every year. You only plant them once. Here’s a rundown of annual versus perennial.

Garden with a mix of annuals and perennials

A Cottage Garden's Soft Planting Palette

The soft planting palette used in this garden is composed primarily of pink, white yellow and blue flowering shrubs. The designer avoided oranges and reds in order for the palette to complement the natural shingles of the home, creating a cohesive design. Here, flowering shrubs like roses and other annuals and perennials ensure the garden is in bloom from March until late fall.

Photo by: Andrew Grossman

Andrew Grossman

What is an Annual?

An annual is a plant that lives for just one season. Whether you plant from seed or purchase seedlings to plant, an annual will sprout, flower, seed and then die — all in the same year.

Annual Flowers for Your Garden

Annuals tend to bloom all season long and are often bright and showy. Though you will have to replant next year (or choose another plant to put in your annual’s place), annual plants tend to cost less than perennials and are less of a commitment.

Some annuals are “self-seeding,” meaning you may wind up with new flowers the following year without having to plant them yourself, though they won’t be exactly where you planted them this year. Since annuals live for just one season, they aren’t assigned climate zones like perennials are.

What is a Perennial?

Perennials, on the other hand, live for three or more growing seasons. They are less work than annuals because they grow back each year from roots that go dormant in the winter. They will be around from year to year, so they put their energy into growing strong roots instead of growing lots of flowers like annuals do.

Our Favorite Perennial Flowers

Perennials can be planted from bulbs or seeds. Often bulbs must be planted in the fall to produce spring-blooming plants. Perennials generally have shorter blooming periods than annuals, so gardeners often pair them with annuals or perennials that bloom at various times of the year to maintain constant color.

The best way to know what perennials will do well in your yard is to take a look around your neighborhood. If it grows well at your neighbor's house, given the same conditions sun, soil and water it should grow well at your house.

Though many popular garden plants can be classified as either annuals or perennials, there is actually a third category to consider: biennials. Biennial plants grow for two seasons but won't bloom until the second year.

Biennials can be tricky to get started because they need care over the winter between their first and second growing season. But once they’ve lived out their second season, biennials will drop seeds and in two years, you’ll have blooms from the new generation. Gardeners often stagger plantings in order to have blooms every year. Poppies, sweet William and foxgloves are popular kinds of biennials.

Planting a variety of perennials that bloom at different times can create the backbone of your garden and will save you work down the road, while annuals can be a great way to experiment, maintain constant color and refresh your garden year after year. And while biennials may take a little extra work, many gardeners find them extremely satisfying to grow. No need to make a hard decision: Mix it up!

Tips: Annuals and Perennials 02:30

Ahmed explains annuals and perennials and tells how to garden with both.

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