The Difference Between Annual and Perennial Plants—and How to Choose Between Them

Both annuals and perennials have their pros and cons. When you understand how these plants are different, it's easier to grow a beautiful, affordable garden.

In gardening, you've probably heard plants described as annuals and perennials a lot. That's because knowing the difference between annual and perennial plants will help you understand how each type will behave in your garden. Specifically, you'll have a big clue about blooming times and if the plant will survive through winter. When deciding between annual vs. perennial plants, both offer pros and cons you'll want to keep in mind. (There are also biennial plants in the mix.) Then, you can more easily plan a colorful, productive garden that will look gorgeous from spring to fall, all while making the most of your gardening budget.

variety of annuals such as cosmos, zinnias and coneflowers in garden
Matthew Benson

What is an annual?

All plants have a life cycle, spanning from when a seed sprouts to when the plant dies. When a plant is described as an annual, that means that it grows from seed, flowers, makes more seeds, and dies all within a single year. You can save seeds to replant later. The baby plants may not look exactly like the parent plant, but that's part of the fun.

Annuals are relatively inexpensive, compared to perennials. They give you a lot of flower power for your money and many bloom almost constantly until winter. Most are low-maintenance, self-cleaning plants, which means they drop their flowers naturally when the blooms finish. Other annuals need to be deadheaded to encourage the blooms to keep coming. When annuals die, all you need to do is pull them up and compost them.

What is a perennial plant?

Perennials live for more than one growing season. Unlike annuals, perennial plants go dormant in the winter and return the following year. Some perennial plants, like peonies, can be very long-lived, coming back for decades. Different perennial plants bloom at different times of the year, so you might get flowers in the spring, summer, fall, or even the winter in some cases. However, you usually won't have flowers throughout the entire growing season. Perennials don't rebloom as often as annuals, either.

Perennial roots can survive the winter where they are hardy. Depending on where you live, you may need to mulch or otherwise protect them from freezing weather. Some perennials may need to be dug up and stored. Dahlias, for example, are considered perennials and can remain in the ground in regions with warm, mild winters. But in cold winter areas, the tubers should be lifted and stored where the temperature stays above freezing.

Popular perennials include phlox, poppies, daylilies, Shasta daisies, and coneflowers, but not all perennials are flowering plants. They can be vegetables and herbs like asparagus, rhubarb, mint, parsley, and sweet potatoes. Apples, figs, and blackberries are a few perennial fruits. Trees and shrubs are woody perennials, as opposed to herbaceous perennials, which have green, flexible stems and few or no woody parts.

What is a biennial?

Biennials finish their life cycle in just two years. They produce foliage the first year, waiting to bloom until the second year. After that, the original plant dies. Foxgloves, hollyhocks, pansies, sweet William Dianthus, and forget-me-not are biennials. Like annuals, some biennials self-sow, so it can seem like they keep returning year after year.

What should I grow: annuals vs. perennials

Annuals are the top choice when you're looking for instant gratification. They grow quickly from seed or transplants to fill up containers or beds with color. However, you'll need to replace them every year.

Perennials usually cost more up-front than annuals. But, perennials come back reliably each year, so they make up for their initial cost in the long run. These plants are often tricky or slow to grow from seeds, so most gardeners buy them as small plants or get them from a friend or neighbor who's dividing their plants. When your perennial plants mature in a year or two, you also can divide them to fill your garden without spending more money.

For a gorgeous garden that will look colorful throughout the growing season, mix annuals and perennials in your beds, borders, and containers. Read plant tags and labels to know when your perennials flower, so you can plant them for staggered bloom times. Give some thought to where you put your perennials, too, because they won't be pulled up and discarded every year, like annuals.

Annuals will flower almost constantly while perennials go in and out of flower, so you can plant for an ongoing display of different colors, shapes, and textures. If your perennials finish blooming, or even before they start, tuck annuals around them to fill in any gaps. Just be sure to combine plants that have the same basic needs for light and water. Shade-loving annual impatiens, for example, won't last long beside perennial sun-lovers like coneflowers.

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