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Types of Flowers & Plants: Perennial, Annual, Biennial Demystified

Collage with Cleome, Hollyhock and Coneflowers

When I was a new gardener i didn’t understand that different plants have different lifecycles and behave in different ways. Most importantly, I didn’t understand the difference between perennials and annuals.

So, if you’re feeling confused about what to plant or which plants will come back in your garden next year and which won’t, you’re not alone. Keep reading to learn about the differences between perennials, annuals, self-sowing annuals and biennials, so you can choose the right plants for your garden.

Perennials

collage of perennial plants

Perennials are plants and flowers that come back year after year. Since you don’t have to replant them, they are perfect for your garden beds, as accents to shrubs and trees, combined with annuals and bulbs and in containers and window boxes. Perennials often increase in size each year, so they can be divided and added to other seasonal plants and landscape areas.

conflowers and black eyed susans
Plant perennials like coneflowers one time and they will continue to reward you year after year.

Looking or some great perennial plant suggestions?

How to use: Trees, shrubs and perennial plants make up the majority of my own garden. These plants require less maintenance once established. But, they have a much shorter bloom period than annuals.

“Perennial” and “Annual” is sometimes determined by your location

Another interesting thing about annual plants is that a plant may be grown as an “annual” plant where I live, while considered a perennial where you live (this is all based on your gardening zone).

The correct term for this is “tender perennial” but it basically means that it’s actually a perennial plant (not an annual) that will NOT survive the cold temperatures in a particular climate.

The zonal range will tell you whether a certain plant or flower can survive the coldest winter temperatures where you live. If you are in Zone 5 and purchase a perennial that is hardy in Zones 6-9, there’s a very high chance it will die in the winter and not come back for you. Hence making it a tender perennial.

Annuals

collage of annual plants

Annuals complete their life cycle in one year; they will not rebloom year after year like perennials do.

A mix of annual plants can offer an array of vibrant colors in your garden beds. They are also a great solution for container gardens and decorative pots. Annuals are also great for newer gardens. They can fill in the space and keep down weeds while you wait for your perennials and shrubs to mature!

Although you have to purchase and plant new annuals each season, annuals create a beautiful swath of color in your landscape. I prefer perennials because they mature and come back from year to year. However, most years I will also buy a few flats of annuals to create color drifts and continuity in my landscape.

How to use: You can use annuals to fill the beds while your perennials and shrubs get established to “fill” the beds and make your garden look more mature. Annuals also bloom for a VERY long time, so they are great for carrying a color scheme throughout different seasons in your garden. Many gardeners use annuals in  container designs .

Dwarf sunspot sunflower with 6 heads
Annuals complete their life cycle in one year. But, they can provide so much long-lasting color and interest in your garden. Photo by PrettyPurpleDoor.

For most annuals, seeds may need to be collected at the end of their life cycle so you can replant them the following year.

Here are some of my favorite annuals that are easy to grow and care for:

  • Sunflowers (Dwarf Sunspot)
  • Cosmos (Rosetta)
  • Zinnia (Benary’s Giant Lime)
  • Supertunia (Bordeaux)
  • Gomphrena (Raspberry Cream)

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Self-Sowing Annuals

Self sowing annuals for beginners
Self sowing annuals for beginner gardeners

Self-Sowing Annuals are like other annuals in the sense that they have a life cycle that lasts one year. But what makes self-sowing annuals so unique and powerful in the garden is that they drop seed and the seeds will grow in your garden the next year.

So, even though you are getting a totally different set of plants/flowers the following year, they behave similar to a perennial because they don’t have to be repurchased year after year.

Califonia poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Califonia poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a self-sowing annual. So, plant it one time and as the plant dies off it will drop seeds that can grow next season!

A few examples of self-sowing annuals are:

  • Mexican poppy (Argemone mexicana)
  • Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata)
  • Cuphea (Cuphea llavea)
  • Button flower (Gomphrena globose)
  • Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
  • Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)
  • Cleome (Cleome hassleriana ‘Rose Queen’)
  • These are the best self-sowing annuals for beginners

Quick Tip: Check out this article on self-sowing annuals to learn more about them.

Biennials

collage of biennial plants

Biennials are very similar to annuals, except their life cycle takes two years to complete. So, they typically bloom every other year (unless you plant their seeds in consecutive years).

If you want your biennials to be present in the garden every single year, just start another seedling of planting of the same plant in the second year of your first planting.

How to use: If you like a biennial plant, my suggestion is to sow seeds in two consecutive years. That way, you’ll have flowering foxgloves or hollyhocks every year in your garden instead of every other year.

Pink Hollyhock bloom
Hollyhocks are an example of a biennial. They take two years to complete their life cycle… so they will only bloom every other year in your garden. Plant hollyhocks for two years in a row to ensure you have blooms every year.

Some common biennials are:

  • Canterbury Bells (Campanula medium)
  • Forget-Me-Nots (Myosotis)
  • Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)
  • Foxglove (Digitalis)
  • Money Plant (Lunaria)
  • Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Which Plant Type is Right for You?

So, should you use perennials, annuals or biennials in your garden? This is a great question.

Most people will choose perennials, but end up disappointed in their very short bloom time throughout the season. Most perennials only bloom for a few weeks and can leave your garden feeling kind of “meh” for the rest of the year. Annuals bloom for a long time but are a lot more work (and over time are a lot more expensive).

That’s why this is one of the three garden design “secrets” that I explain in my free class. So, if you’re interested in learning how to keep the color going all year long while using only perennials… check out that free video training .

I’ll show you why perennials are a FANTASTIC choice when creating an interesting and dynamic garden that changes every few weeks.

You’ll also learn about bloom sequencing and many of the other factors to consider when designing your dream garden.

👉️ The real info to know is that this is only one of MANY considerations for choosing the right plants. I always start with design FIRST. Whether you see yourself as a creative person or not artistically inclined at all, anyone can learn garden design. All of this info is covered step-by-step in my Design Your 4-Season Garden course.

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Collage of flowering plants
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