What’s the Difference Between an Annual and a Perennial?

Should you pick annuals or perennials when planting your garden? Here's a rundown on the differences between these two types of plants and the pros and cons for each.

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A flower filled garden with outdoor table and chairs for dining.

Photo by: Nancy Kennedy

Nancy Kennedy

You see the words annual and perennial on plant tags and in garden books. What do these terms mean, and why should you care? Simply put, annual plants die in the winter season. You must replant them every year. Perennials come back every year. You only plant them once. Here’s a rundown of annual versus perennial.

Perennials are less work than annuals. They grow back each year from roots that go dormant in the soil in the winter. Annuals only grow for one season. New plants come from seeds. So why would anyone plant annuals instead of perennials? Annuals produce more flowers and bloom for a longer period of time than perennials. Annuals bloom from spring till the first frost. Perennials generally bloom for a single season: summer, spring or fall. There are ever-blooming perennials that bloom longer, but annuals produce the most flowers for the longest amount of time. There is no such thing as an annual perennial. A plant either lives for one year or it lives for many years. 

Annuals produce more flowers because they have just one season to make enough seed to reproduce. To make a lot of seeds, the plants needs a lot of flowers. Annuals are making the most out of the short life they have. Since annuals live for just one season, they aren’t assigned climate zones. An annual will grow for the same amount of time in Michigan as it will in Florida. 

Perennials don’t have the same pressure to reproduce as annuals do. They will be around from year to year, so they put their energy into growing strong roots instead of growing lots of flowers. 

Some of the most popular perennials are coneflowers, blanket flowers, clematis, veronica, Russian sage, yarrow, peonies and coreopsis. Popular annuals include zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, petunias, bachelor’s button and marigolds.

Should you pick annuals or perennials when planting your garden? If you want showy and colorful plants for a single season, choose annuals. Annuals also let you change the color palette in your garden every year. If you want permanence and as little maintenance as possible, choose perennials. You’ll have a less colorful garden that will be the same year after year.

For a garden that has the best of both worlds, plant a mix of annual and perennial plants. You’ll have flowers everywhere and a backbone of plants that provide structure and reliability.

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