Annuals vs Perennials: What’s the Difference?

Every plant and flower has a life span, some of them can only be planted for a season, and others will come back year after year to delight and decorate your yard. Find out the difference between annuals and perennials to make the best plan to enjoy your favorite petal color, bloom times, and the types of plants you love.

What are Annual Plants?

Original Latin is annus, meaning year. These plants and flowers will only last through the season and will not come back next year.

Life Cycle of Annual Plants

Annual plants cycle annually or per year. You plant a seed or young plant after the last frost and it grows in a colorful array and long-lasting bloom time throughout that one warm season. You have to replant every year, or annually because they spend themselves growing and producing seed-producing showy blooms. Their stems don’t grow as hard and they are easier to grow from seed than perennials that take more patience.

How Do You Care for Annual Plants?

Annual flowers are show-offs, blooming profusely in a myriad of color varieties for the whole warm season. If you dead-head or pick off the spent flowers regularly, they bloom even faster and more profusely and add a beautiful pop of color to your yard. However, if you don’t deadhead and let them ‘go to seed,’ they still blossom, and plants, such as dainty, white sweet alyssum, and blue petaled forget-me-nots, give you seeds to grow next year or allow to reseed the garden bed to come back next year as baby seedlings. Collecting seeds allows you to replenish the bed for next year’s growth of annual plants that because of their intense life cycle need the extra nutrients. In some hardiness zones (more on that later) annuals will bloom from fall through the late spring, such as cool-season pansies in the warmer, southern zones.  

These plants often need more frequent watering, but learn about each type plant’s needs. These need the quicker water soluble plant food to feed that profuse and short-lived growth. 

What are Perennial Plants?

Original Latin is perennis, from the prefix per-, “through,” plus annus, or “year.” These plants and flowers will come back every year in your flower beds.

Life Cycle of Perennial Plants

Perennials flower throughout the years, often establishing themselves well the first year and returning the next season stronger with more showy flowers than ever. They have shorter blooming times because part of their energy is spent growing leaves, branches, stems, and roots. They often have the energy to grow harder, stabler stems.

Some make you wonder if perennial flowers are dead, but their roots, bulbs, or tubers hunker down like hibernating bears. Wait and watch for their return in the next warm season. Some perennials in some zones remain active, or evergreen, throughout the year. Rosemary is hardy and perennial to a certain coldness in the south, while it won’t survive the northern winter. Tropicals might continue to thrive through the winter in your home.

If you start growing perennials from seeds one year, expect to wait until the following year for it to produce perennial flowers or lush leaves. Sometimes even young plants need a growing season to establish themselves. Each year they grow and blossom more wonderfully. 

How Do You Care for Perennial Plants?

Perennials, because of their long lives, need special care for them to survive the winter and/or grow better the next year. Some perennials do not completely die down but they may leave some kind of branches or stems behind that may need pruning. Some perennials grow more and therefore denser roots, bulbs, or tubers and occasionally need to be dug up and pulled apart. The good news is that it means more plants to expand the palette of your glorious garden bed. There are also perennials such as exotic tropicals that winter well inside your house.

Part of the care is once they are established they require less water than annuals, and you leave them alone to grow. Don’t forget to feed these plants with slow-release plant food on a regular basis.

Which is better to buy, perennial plants or annual plants? 

The answer is both. Keeping a mix of annuals’ showy colorful array and perennials’ shorter-lived rich blooms offers several benefits for the palette of your garden. The benefits are:

  • Broader color scheme and an array of textures in the garden
  • Less expense for annuals initially, but payback in the long run for perennials
  • Vegetable, herb, and flower annuals; and tree, bush, and flower perennials
  • Variety in color, shape, and texture annually or less work for it perennially
  • Annuals without and perennials with zone hardiness constraints
  • Mixed plants help control pests and diseases

Zone Hardiness of Annuals vs Perennials

What is the zone hardiness referred to in the above descriptions of annuals and perennials? For one, it does not apply to most annuals. For another, it refers to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Don’t let the complexity of the map overwhelm you. 

Seed packets and plant tags of perennials tell you in which zones plants are hardy. To find out whether you are in zone 8 where some annuals grow perennially, simply punch your zip code in the box to the right of the map. It shows where you are exactly, including, most importantly what zone you are in. Read down the page from the map and find out generally when your first and last frosts are. This tells you when it is best to plant and how long a growing season each zone has. The farther north you are the later spring your annual and perennial plants grow and bloom.

Go out and grow–confident in your knowledge of annuals and perennials. Find your local nursery or garden center here and start planting after the last frost in spring!

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