When browsing the garden center and finding plants you like, does it really matter if they are a perennial or an annual? While it is easy to be discouraged at the thought of making the wrong choice and ending up with a dead plant, choosing one over the other is a simple choice that depends on what you’re looking for.
The terms “annual” and “perennial” simply refer to the type of lifecycle a plant has. Perennial, refers to plants that will return each year, after staying dormant for the winter. Depending on the type of plant, perennials can last anywhere from a few years, to decades, to thousands of years (in the case of trees). Because of this, these plants are popular as borders and ground covers, although they can virtually be grown anywhere (yes, even containers). The term perennial does not only refer to flowers, but also includes shrubs and trees. Many of the plants you are probably familiar with are perennials, returning every year until they die off. Some popular perennials include apple trees, asparagus, astilbe, and asters.
Annual refers to plants that live their complete lifecycle in one growing season, meaning they do not return each year. This makes them a great choice for the gardener with ever-changing tastes. Some annuals you may be familiar with include cilantro, petunias, and marigolds. Annuals are a great choice for beginning gardeners, as they are easy-to-grow and widely available as young plants at garden centers. Many are so easy to start from seed that they can be sown directly in the garden. For the more enthusiastic gardener, annuals can be started from seed indoors in the spring, prior to being transplanted outdoors.
Note that in climates with cold winters, some plants commonly grown as annuals are actually perennials in mild, winter-free climates. These plants are often called tender perennials. Examples include peppers, zonal geraniums, and tuberous begonias.
Biennials are plants that are started from seed during one growing season, but don’t flower until the next growing season, after which they die and do not return for another season. Biennials require more patience than annuals, but they can be worth the wait. For a more consistent display of flowers from biennials, they can be planted yearly, so that both vegetative (non-blooming) and flowering plants will be in the garden each season.
Examples of common biennials include purple foxglove, parsley, and some varieties of hollyhocks.
So whether you are planning your garden, sprucing up the front lawn, or just adding some color to your patio, the choice between annuals or perennials (or biennials, for that matter) is simple, and merely depends on what you’re looking for.