Perennial vs Annual: What Are The Differences Between These Flowering Plants?

If you’re looking at planting flowers in your garden for the first time, there are a lot of terms that are confusing when it comes to plants, what they do, how long they live for, and what they look like during the different seasons and stages of their life cycle. 

One of the first things you’ll notice is some plants are annuals, and some are perennials, but what does that actually mean? This refers to how often a plant lives for. 

Annuals last for a single year – usually one spring or summer – before they die. They may set seed – so you may get one or two (if you’re lucky) plants of the same type next year, but most likely you won’t. 

Perennials come back year after year. That’s it. That’s the difference! 

While you cannot change this, there are some perennials which don’t survive colder weather, and they’re treated as annuals because of this. You can do something about that.  

If you live somewhere cold, and you’re growing tender perennials, you can pop them somewhere warm or even in your house during winter, so they survive the year.

Scroll down to discover the difference between annuals and perennials, and how you can extend the life of both, to get the very best out of your flowers.   

What’s the Difference between Annuals and Perennials?

Annual plants – like the name might suggest – live for only a single year, but their flowering period is often longer than perennial plants. 

In general, annual plants tend to be showier, and come in brighter shades than perennials, but this isn’t always the case. They will also die at the first hint of frost. 

Perennial plants will come back year after year, providing your garden with beautiful blooms that you’ll barely need to do anything with, besides the odd deadheading.

You can also get biennial plants, where the plants grow the first year, and flower, produce seed and die within the second. You can collect these seeds to grow more plants for next year, but you’ll need to time it right. 

The best time to collect seeds is when the pod looks very ready to burst, and all you have to do is store them in a brown paper bag, somewhere cool and dry for next year.  

Annual plants can often be sown exactly where you want them in the garden, instead of having to grow them indoors or in a greenhouse until they get to a decent size. 

All plants do have a recommended time when they should be sown or even planted out, and all good labels will tell you this. 

Some perennial plants will need ‘renewing’ – some plants, like dahlias (see also Dahlia Flower Meaning and Symbolism), won’t do as well after the second year, so it’s a good idea to take cuttings to form new plants. If the original plants do survive – great! More plants!

Popular Varieties of Annual Flowers and Perennial Flowers

Annual PlantsPerennial Plants
Tithonia (in cool climates)Tithonia (in warm climates)
Scented Sweet PeasHellebores

Should I Grow Annual or Perennial Flowers?

Perennials are great for low-maintenance gardens. They’ll come back year after year with you hardly needing to care for them. 

They’ll be more expensive to start with than annuals, but more cost-effective in the long run. Perennials are perfect for a permanent spot in your garden that needs filling. 

They often require less water, but they’ll still benefit from a good soaking in hotter weather. 

Annuals are great for when you don’t know what to do with empty space in your garden. There’s little commitment involved, and they just might give you ideas for a more permanent display. 

They are also perfect to fill in the gaps where perennial plants haven’t come up yet, or they’ve finished for their season, and you need to fill the empty space with something. 

They also attract a wealth of pollinators to your garden – not that perennials don’t, but having a mixture of both types will help attract all sorts of wildlife into your garden.

Tips for Planting in Your Garden

Not sure which you’d prefer? Do you have to choose, though? No! Who said you had to? 

Growing a variety of types of plants helps add a wealth of color and interest into your garden, not to mention the more pollinators you’ll attract, benefitting all of your garden.

In this way, you’ll have the benefit of both long-lasting beauty, parts of your garden you never have to think about besides the occasional weeding, and parts which become an ever-changing display as you play with color and form.

The more types of flowers (See also 300 Flower Names And Types) you have, the more beneficial insects you’ll attract into your garden. 

Choose a range of plants that are both foreign and local to your area, that way you’ll be providing much-needed sources of food and shelter for a whole range of species, maybe some you’d never expect to see.

How to Get the Very Best Out of Your Flowers and Make Them Last Longer

The first thing to do is to make sure the plants you choose are right for your garden. Does your space have full sunlight? Where does it get the warmest and the brightest? Where is it windiest? Where is the shadiest spot in your garden? What kind of soil do you have?

In most cases – depending on the plants, of course – flowers will want full sunlight for as long as they can get it, in soil that drains freely, preferably with more nutrients in it, the better your plants will grow. This is not true of everything, but it is the general rule.

Make sure to read the labels on everything you buy – they’ll give you tips in order to get the best out of the plants. 

In the case of perennials, it will take longer for them to establish –  even up to three years – but in a way, this is a good thing. Every year, your garden will get bigger and better. Every year, you can look forward to an ever-changing display, one which will get greater. 

Experiment. Gardening is essentially a huge experiment, unique to every one of us. You’ll have endless “what if I do X?” questions in order for your plants to grow better, and only you can answer them. 

That’s the fun of it, and when you discover a better technique, and you see your flowers bloom the best they ever have, well, there’s nothing quite like it. 

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