Annual & Perennial Plants – What’s The Difference?


Whether you wish to learn more about gardening or plan on buying some plants for your garden, you are bound to come across terms like annuals and perennials. And while all flowering plants have the same basic steps in their life cycle, they may have different life expectancies. This is what differentiates annuals and perennials from each other.

While annuals germinate, bloom, set seed, and wither within a span of one year (typically, from spring to fall), perennials germinate and grow in one year and blooms every spring (usually for three years or longer). Annuals usually bloom for a longer period of time as compared to perennials.

We will be talking about the different considerations and types for both of these plant types and what you can do as a gardener to make them thrive in the next few sections so, please do read on!

Differences between Annual and Perennial Plants

Several other things differentiate annuals from perennials. Whether you plan to grow a mix of both or pick one of the two, it is important first to get your basics right.

Here is some information that will help you make the right choice:

AnnualPerennial
Life Cycle1 yearOver three years
DiesAnnuallyOnly the top dies yearly
Reproductive StructureSeedsSeeds and bulbils
Blooming TimeAll season longDuring spring or summer of the following year
Flower TypeVibrant and attractiveLess vibrant

To supplement this information, check the next few sections to deeper dive into the differences between Annual and Perennial plants and their subtypes.

Annuals Plants and their subtypes

Besides blooming all season long and being quite bright and showy, annuals also have to be replanted each year. Else, you can pick another plant to replace them. Since they last only one year, they cost less as compared to perennials. They are also a popular choice amongst gardeners as they are less of a commitment.

Some annuals are self-seeding, which means that you may end up with new flowers in the second year without having to replant them.

However, they might not grow in the same spot you chose for them in the first year. Annuals usually tend to focus on the production of seeds since they have a shorter life cycle. Some of the most popular examples of annuals are marigolds, nasturtium, larkspur (as seen above), strawflowers, cosmos, and zinnias.

Annuals can be further subdivided into three groups:

Hardy Annuals

These types of annuals thrive in a cool and moderate setting. They can be planted in early spring or fall as they can tolerate exposure to some frost without needing some external protection.

Some of the most popular examples of hardy or cool-season annuals are forget-me-not and larkspur.

Tender Or Warm-Season Annuals

Tender annuals are native to tropical or subtropical climates.

While they usually require heat to thrive, tender annuals may even grow, though poorly, during cold weather.

Thus, it is better to wait until late spring to ensure their survival and get healthy-looking blossoms. Some of the most popular examples of tender or warm-season annuals are marigolds and petunias.

Half-Hardy Annuals

Half-hardy annuals are one of the most common types of annuals. As the name suggests, they have the traits of both hardy and tender annuals. They can tolerate a wider range of temperatures and climates.

They can be grown either at the beginning or end of the gardening season. Some of the most popular examples of half-hardy annuals are cosmos, nicotiana (as seen in the picture above), and tagetes.

Perennials Plants and their Subtypes

Perennials can be planted from seeds or bulbs. These should be planted in the fall season to ensure that the bulbs produce spring-blooming plants.

You would not see any blooms from perennials in the first year, so prepare yourself for that rather than be disheartened when the time comes.

Since perennials bloom for a shorter period of time, many gardeners prefer pairing them annuals or other perennials that bloom at different times of the year. This ensures that the garden has flowers blooming all year long.

Sometimes, annual plants become perennials

Another fact worth mentioning is that some annuals can also become perennials in warmer climates. If there is a lack of hard frost, the annuals may keep growing and exceed their one-year life expectancy.

Popular examples of perennial plants

Purple coneflowers (shown above), coreopsis, Black-eyed Susans, sedum, daylilies, asters, astilbe, and phlox are some popular choices of perennials.

If you are looking into growing perennial vegetables in your gardens, some of the more popular ones that you can look into are Kale, Asparagus, Rhubarb, and many more that are listed in an article of mine on 45 perennial vegetables that you can consider for your garden. It spans the benefits, descriptions, and even growing tips for these plants, which can be used to make your garden more diverse while also saving money due to the number of crops produced.

Five categories of Perennial plants

Usually, perennials are divided into five categories:

Perennial plant CategoryDescription
Woody PerennialsThese types of perennials are found all across the world. These include shrubs, vines, and huge trees that usually take years to grow entirely. Rosemary, lavender, climbing hydrangea, and wisteria are some examples of woody perennials.
Herbaceous PerennialsThese are grasses that typically grow in fire-prone areas and on prairies. Columbine, Montauk daisies, hardy mums, and peonies are some examples of herbaceous perennials.
Monocarpic PerennialsThese are the perennials that blossom, make seeds, and then die. The only reason why they are known as perennials is that they take more than a year to complete their life cycle. Wheat, rice, carrot, Bambusa tulda, agave, banana are some examples of monocarpic perennials.
Deciduous PerennialsThese are the plants that shed their leaves during the fall season. Goldenrod and mint are some examples of deciduous perennials.
Evergreen PerennialsAs the name suggests, these are the perennials that have long lives. They can keep their foliage even during the fall and winter months. Begonia is a popular example of evergreen perennials.

If you are still personally unsure about which plant type would be a perfect fit for your garden, lifestyle, and climate, let us talk about considerations between Annual and Perennial Plants.

Which One is a Better Choice between Annuals and Perennials?

Below is some consideration one can look into when choosing between Annuals and Perennial Plants.

For vibrant aesthetic appeal, choose annuals

If you plan on a garden with an aesthetic appeal all summer, you should go for annuals. Since the annual blossoms are much more vibrant and bloom for a longer period of time, these will serve as an attention-grabbing element for your garden.

For budget constraints, choose annuals unless you have enough time to truly focus on your plants

Moreover, if you are on a budget, annuals would be a great choice as perennials cost more. This is not entirely because they offer more value but because they also demand more care.

Perennials may take months or even years before they are ready to be sold.

However, once perennials are ready, they offer more value and require much lesser work in the long run. This is the reason why some gardeners prefer perennials. They focus on making perennials’ roots stronger to ensure that they grow again rather than replanting annuals each year.  Moreover, there are specific perennials like daisies, lupine, daylilies that will multiply each year.

Thus, depending on your preferences and requirements, you can get either or even both of them.

Why Mix it Up Perennials and Annuals?

As they say, variety is the spice of life; you can definitely try mixing annuals and perennials in your garden. Having a variety of plants in your garden will invite more and different pollinators along with other visitors, which can play a major role in promoting biodiversity.

With a wider range of perennials, you get different blooming times and life cycles which can help you create a strong backbone of your garden, while the annuals are an amazing way to have a garden full of blossoms.

And as mentioned earlier, annuals offer vibrant and season-long blossoms, while perennials provide more value for money.

Using both annuals and perennials give variety to your garden

Annuals usually focus on producing seeds, while perennials focus on building structure.

Together, they can offer you the best of both worlds. And although biennials take some extra effort, they can be quite satisfying as well. There are many reasons why you should mix it up in your garden and reap all these benefits for each plant type.

What are Biennials?

Although some of the most garden plants are usually classified as perennials or annuals, there is also a third ‘lesser-known category – biennials, that should also be considered.

Biennials take two seasons to flower before dying.

They grow roots, stems, and leaves in the first year before going dormant during the winter months. The following year, they will bloom and produce seeds and then die.

Biennials and perennials are rather similar

However, some plants may have a life cycle similar to short-lived perennials. These plants may flower in the first year when they are planted quite early in spring or even started indoors during the winter season.

Biennials can be tricky to foster

That being said, biennials can be quite tricky to grow. This is because they require a lot of care during the winter months, i.e., between their first and second growing season.

However, once biennials have survived their second growing season, they will drop the seeds so that you have a new generation without actually replanting them.

Some of the biennials that are quite popular are – poppies (as seen at the start of this section), money plants, sweet William, and foxgloves.

Examples of popular biennials

Spinach, fennel, and lettuce are some biennial veggies. These have a survival mechanism known as ‘bolting,’ which makes them inedible the following year. This is triggered when the temperature rises beyond a limit that the plant can tolerate.

This is when the plant focusing only on saving all the energy and directing it towards producing seeds or flowers. At this stage, leaf growth stops, and the plant’s only aim is to ensure the next generation’s survival.

Things to Consider when choosing between the annuals, biennials and perennials

While picking between annuals, biennials and perennials are quite straightforward, there are a few exceptions.

I think of love and marriage in the same way I do plants: We have perennials and annuals. The perennial plant blooms, goes away, and comes back. The annual blooms for just a season, and then winter arrives and takes it out for good. But it’s still enriched the soil for the next flower to bloom. In the same way, no love is wasted.

Glennon Doyle Melton

The life cycle may get altered if it is grown in a different region or different climatic settings, and we will be stating plants below that follow through with this.

Annuals can be Perennials or vice versa depending on the climate and region it is fostered in

For instance, lantana is a trailing bloomer that grows as an annual in northern regions.

The plant grows well during the summer month and then dies before winter approaches. However, that same plant is often categorized as a perennial in southern regions where the temperature is higher and usually no winter season. In such conditions, plant-like lantana can live and bloom for years.

This is because plants like lantana are quite different from typical annuals such as marigolds. They fall in the category of tender perennials. While they perform like annuals in cooler climates, they can live for years in warmer climates.

Examples of plants that can be Perennials or Annuals depending on the climate

Other such flowering plants include petunias (as seen in the picture above), begonias, geraniums, snapdragons, coleus, rosemary, euphorbias, viola, dusty miller, and salvias. And when it comes to veggies, tomatoes and peppers can also be referred to as tender perennials and not annuals.

Thus, it is important to ensure that the plant you plan to grow provides an ideal environment. It would help if you skimmed through the plant label to get a proper idea about the plant requirements.

Conclusion on Perennials and Annuals and what are the differences

We hope that this information will help you know some of the major differences between annuals, perennials, and even biennials. It must be noted that neither is superior to the other.

The final decision should depend merely on your preferences and needs. Consider first experimenting in your garden and mapping out which plants you hope to see bloom in your space before fully considering only one plant type or all of them together. All in all, it just takes a little bit of loving care, creativity, and a bit of elbow grease to make your garden bloom and thrive with these plants.

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Tony O'Neill

I am Tony O'Neill, A full-time firefighter, and professional gardener. I have spent most of my life gardening. From the age of 7 until the present day at 46. My goal is to use my love and knowledge of gardening to support you and to simplify the gardening process so you are more productive

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