Choosing plants can seem like a daunting task for new gardeners. There are so many beautiful options but which ones work best in your garden? What’s the best way to take care of them? Will they come back next season? One of the most common questions I get asked by new gardeners is if they should plant annuals or perennials. Both annuals and perennials will give life to your garden, but it’s important to know the differences before you choose. Annuals and perennials not only have different lifespans, but they also need unique care once they’re planted.
What are Annuals?
The biggest difference between annuals and perennials is their lifespan. As you can guess by the names, annuals only live one growing season after planting, whereas perennials can come back year after year depending on plant choice and care (see chart below). Many people may see this as a reason to avoid annuals - but don’t be fooled! Planting an annual doesn’t mean you can only enjoy it once! Believe it or not there are some annuals you can enjoy in future seasons. But how?
Once the flower seed head dries up on the plant, you can save it and plant the seeds the next year. There are some annuals that you can actually sprinkle the seed immediately and it will likely germinate and grow the next season.This is a great way to have free plants next year! Keep your eye out for future blog posts on “How to save your seed & have FREE plants next season!” Below is a list of a few of my favorite seeds to save from this year’s annuals. (Keep in mind when you have multiple varieties of one plant, you may have some cross pollination that could possibly create a variety that is not true to what you intended. However it is also fun to see what surprises you will get in those cases!)
Perennials - Know Your Zone!
Perennials are a different breed. They are appealing to many gardeners because they often come back year after year. In some cases, like with peonies, they can live up to 20 years! In general there are two classifications of perennials. First, there are herbaceous perennials, which will die back to the ground and have new stem growth from the base of the plant the following year. Then there are woody perennials that don't die back to the ground but instead keep their hard stems through the winter.After a killing frost, it may appear as though your perennial plant is dead BUT in reality it has only gone to sleep (dormant)! Some woody plants keep their foliage all winter (picture an evergreen forest) while others shed their leaves in the winter and all you see are bare sticks (picture hydrangeas in the winter).
Important Note: You will need to double check your growing zone to know if a certain flower is considered a perennial! Don’t know what a growing zone is? Your location (aka zone) determines if you have to treat a perennial as a true perennial or as an annual. ALWAYS evaluate if the perennial will survive your garden zone before planting. Here is a great resource to find out which zone you are. For example, Purple Fountain Grass is a perennial if you are in growing zone 9 thru 11, however; in my zone 6B/7A I have to treat it as an annual. With that in mind, don’t be fooled by the ‘perennial’ classification on your plant’s tag - double check your zone first!
Country Living said it best: “Some annuals are perennials in warmer climates. And just to make life interesting, some plants take two seasons to flower; they’re called biennials.” Biennials means they take two years to bloom and then the plant dies.
It may seem like an easy decision to choose perennials over annuals BUT you’re also committing to more maintenance. Perennials can grow to such a size that they need to be divided from one individual plant to many plants. Sometimes one perennial can grow to a size that it can be divided to become two, three, or even four plants as it spreads! With that knowledge, it’s important to consider how quickly it spreads before you commit. Some perennials will spread more than others, so it is good to do your research. For example, black-eyed susans are very prone to spread.
So, if you don't want them to consume your garden, you will need to stay on top of dividing or pulling out any extra plants that you don’t need over the plant’s life cycle. You can even share with your friends and family! Don’t be intimidated - perennials can be beautiful additions to any garden, and - if you love getting your hands dirty like me - it’s an excuse to spend more time in your garden!
So gardeners - be brave! Don’t let either one scare you. Annuals will be your one season plants unless you are able to save their seed to plant immediately or the following year, where perennials will spread independently and come back every year! Both will enhance your garden, so don’t be afraid to try either! Want to be the first to read my upcoming post about planting spring bulbs this fall? Join our e-newsletter group here to stay in the loop with our gardening tips and as a gift receive the Hello Green Thumb’s Watering Guide in your inbox! Happy Gardening!
Owner & Founder of Hello Green Thumb
*Keep in mind the above is based on the zone I personally garden in. We are in zone 6b/7a, depending on our winter.
**For the purpose of familiarity with the basic gardener, I have chosen to use the common name of most of the above plants. As you grow in garden knowledge, seek out the botanical (formal scientific) names.