Annuals vs. perennials—here's everything you need to know
Give your garden some flower power
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But how do you choose what to grow? Annuals vs perennials? Seedlings vs seeds? Here are some tips on how to buy and care for the best flowers to fill your yard, deck, or windowsill with color all season long.
Annuals vs. perennials: What’s the difference?
Annuals provide fast results, at a price
Most of the flowers and foliage plants you see in hanging baskets or in little plastic pots outside the supermarket are annuals. That means they are plants that sprout, flower, and die in a single year.
Annuals give you fast results—they’re blooming when you buy them!—but they’re one-shot plants. They’ll die at the end of the season, and you’ll have to buy them all over again next year.
Perennials are commitments that pay off
Perennials are plants that survive year-round in your area. One you plant them, you can look forward to seeing them bloom year after year. The downside? Perennials usually don’t bloom all summer long because they need to put energy into growing roots to survive the winter.
The best perennials combine long-blooming flowers with attractive foliage that looks great in your garden when they’re not in bloom, especially if you’re planting in containers. Some gardeners use a “pot in pot” method, where they put perennials in small pots inside a larger container and rotate them out when they’re done blooming.
Always check to make sure that a “perennial” plant is perennial in your area. Some perennial plants need a winter dormant period to rebloom, and others are killed by deep freezes. If you live outside the survival zone for a perennial, you can still plant it and enjoy it—but for you, it will be an annual plant. The plants we list below will generally grow anywhere except in the extreme south and desert climates.
So the debate of annuals vs. perennials can come down to the amount of work you want to put in.
How to care for annual plants
Some annuals will grow over the course of the summer, like wave petunias, but blooms can get sparse after the initial show. For example, some annuals do best in cool weather. They’re called “hardy annuals,” and include pansies, snapdragons, and violets. They’re tough enough to stand near-freezing temperatures in spring, but once the weather gets hot, they may stop flowering and turn brown. You may want to replace them with heat-loving annuals like geraniums, marigolds, or zinnias.
For maximum bloom, “dead-head” your annuals by removing their old flowers. Marigolds, zinnias, geraniums, and petunias will all flower longer with deadheading.
Make sure your annuals in the ground get at least 1 inch of water per week. They’ll look greener if you add a little compost side-dressing between rows or apply a balanced fertilizer too.
How to care for perennial plants
The best way to care for perennial plants is to choose plants that are adapted to your conditions. If your site is hot and dry, look for drought-tolerant plants like yarrow, agastache, or penstemons; if it’s damp, you’ll have better luck with plants like swamp milkweed, while amsonia lights up dry shady sites.
14 annuals to consider for your yard
If you want to grow from seeds
Beyond deciding to go with annuals vs perennials, you'll need to think about starting with seeds or plants. If you’ve got more time than money, starting plants from seed is a great way to get more flowers for less cash. Here are some foolproof flowers that are easy for beginners to grow—and great choices if you’d like to get kids into gardening, too. They’re also available as plants from most garden centers.
Sweet alyssum is a one-stop shop for everything you’d want in an annual flower. Low-growing honey-scented white, purple, or pink flowers provide the perfect accent for any color scheme in your garden bed while attracting pollinators. With weekly watering, sweet alyssum will bloom all summer long.
Marigolds are the classic grade-school plant project for a good reason. They reliably sprout in a week or less, and they bloom from early summer until frost.
Nasturtiums require a little planning—the seeds sprout better if you soak them in water overnight—but the reward is bright jewel-toned red, yellow, cream, orange, purple, or multicolor blooms. As a bonus, they thrive in poor, dry soils, and both hot and cold conditions. Nasturtium flowers also have edible peppery-tasting petals.
Sunflowers come in all sizes now. If you’re in the mood for a giant in your garden, opt for the Mammoth sunflower, which grow to 12 ft. with foot-wide flowers. If you’re container gardening on a deck or porch, try a dwarf sunflower variety like Tiger Eye, which maxes out at 30 inches tall.
Opt for zinnias if you want to have a bouquet in your house every week this summer. Some look more like daisies, some look more like chrysanthemums, some are interesting green and purple combos, and they come in lots of colors.
If you want to buy a plant already in bloom
Although it’s fun to start plants from seed, sometimes you want to get a plant fast to cover a bare space, fill up a container, or just put some color in your life. Here are five spectacular annuals to try.
Annual geraniums come in almost every color except blue and yellow, but the best-known varieties are shades of red. Several varieties have scented leaves that smell like lemons, roses, or peppermint. Put them somewhere in the garden where you can rub the leaves with your fingers and release the fragrance. At the end of the growing season, you can pot up your geraniums and bring them inside for the winter as houseplants.
Petunias are inescapable at garden center displays for good reasons. They bloom all summer, come in colors ranging from yellow to red to purple to black with dozens of patterns.
Salvias are related to culinary sage, but the salvias at your garden center aren’t for eating—at least, not by humans. But hummingbirds, butterflies, and pollinators love these flowers, which grow on spikes on bushes 2-3 ft. tall. Salvias are also drought-resistant, and thrive in dry, sunny sites.
Verbenas are hot-weather powerhouses that feed birds, bees, and butterflies on thirsty days. Verbena bonariensis is a tall heirloom flower originating in Brazil with sprays of tiny blue-purple flowers on stems 3-4 ft. tall, while rose verbena is a native to the eastern U.S., and sports rose-pink blooms.
If you have a shady yard
If your yard gets a fair amount of shade, consider one of these annuals.
Begonias are the classic big-flowered crinkle-leafed plants for containers and shady yards. Most begonias will reliably bloom all summer as long as they’re not in full sun, and will grow about 12 inches high. They can’t tolerate frost, but many varieties will thrive as houseplants if you bring them inside in the fall.
Caladiums are also known as “Elephant ears.” They’re tropical plants grown for their big, bright, attention-getting foot-long leaves, which can be bright fuchsia pink, variegated silver and white, or a spidery mix of pink, white, and green. Caladiums thrive in containers and in shade or partial shade, growing to 12-18 inches tall. The leaves can be toxic to cats and dogs if eaten.
Coleus plants are a surefire way to get color into shady spots where most plants won’t flower. Coleus are grown for their leaves, not their blooms—and those leaves can be lime green, bronze, bright purple, and more. They’ll generally grow from 6-12 inches in a season. As a bonus, most critters don’t like the taste of their leaves.
Nicotiana offers sweet-scented star-shaped flowers in shades of white, pink, red, and sometimes lime green or purple on 2-foot-tall plants. Otherwise known as flowering tobacco, nicotiana attracts hummingbirds and resists nibbling by squirrels and chipmunks—but it is poisonous, and shouldn’t be planted where curious pets and children might investigate it.
10 perennials to consider for your yard
If your yard gets a lot of sun
Check out these perennials if your house is on the sunny side of the street.
Yarrow bears rafts of small flowers perfect for bouquets on 2-foot stalks all summer long. Bees and butterflies love it, and deer and other critters avoid it.
Catmint is a classic “set it and forget it” perennial that comes back blooming every year with little or no care. Catmint forms a mound of violet-blue flowers 2 ft. tall from early to mid summer. The flowers attract butterflies and bees, while the fragrant leaves repel rabbits, but true to its name, catmint may attract cats.
Coneflowers are prairie daisies that flourish on hot, dry sites and grow 2-5 ft. high, depending on the variety. Butterflies thrive on the native purple coneflower, and finches relish their seed heads in the fall, but deer ignore them. They also make great cut flowers for bouquets.
If you prefer earthtones, black-eyed Susans also thrive in hot, dry conditions and attract pollinators, but sport daisy-like flowers with dark brown centers and golden yellow petals.
Penstemons, also known by the amusing name “foxglove beardtongue,” are drought-tolerant plants with clusters of little tubular flowers on top of 3-foot spikes. Penstemons are butterfly and hummingbird magnets, and they thrive in hot sites and “lean,” dry soil with lots of sand or gravel. Plant the native foxglove beardtongue for the best chance of attracting wildlife.
If you have partial sun and shade
These perennials are great if you have a mixed amount of sun and shade in your yard.
Agastache, also known as anise hyssop, grows lavender-blue flowers. The leaves are edible and taste like licorice with a hint of mint, and butterflies adore the flowers. Drought- and shade-tolerant, it’s an all-around winner. You can find selections that are light orange or hot pink, but opt for the original for the most vigorous plant.
Amsonia grow cascades of star-shaped blue flowers in the spring, then offer a second show when the feathery leaves turn bright lemon-yellow in the fall.
Milkweeds are famous for hosting monarch butterfly caterpillars, but they’re also terrific long-blooming garden plants. Butterfly weed brightens your garden with clusters of bright orange blooms from summer into fall. Butterfly weed thrives in full sun and dry soil, but it flowers well in part-shade as well.
If you have a shady yard
These plants thrive with less sunlight.
Coral bells have tiny white or pink flowers in the spring, but their colored leaves pack a punch all year long.
Perennial geraniums are different from the red geraniums you see in pots at the garden stores. Perennial geraniums bloom all summer long with five-petal flowers in cool colors from white to pink to blue. They spread slowly but surely, and can serve as a ground cover for tricky sites.
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