There is no final winner when choosing between annual vs. perennial plants. Annual plants give you a gorgeous summer show but only last for one year, while perennials offer enduring beauty for years but take some time to get started.
So, if you’re craving a garden full of brilliant blossoms, you need to understand everything about these types of plants – from their pros and cons to maintenance needs. Apart from the benefits and disadvantages, you’ll also discover plant ideas for your specific yard type, whether you live in a drought-prone desert or rainy region.
- Difference between annual vs. perennial plants
- Plant care tips for annuals and perennials
- FAQ about annual vs. perennial plants
Difference between annual vs. perennial plants
Gardening enthusiasts often find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to selecting the right plants for their outdoor spaces. The choice between annual vs. perennial plants can be a pivotal decision, shaping the long-term aesthetics and maintenance requirements of your garden.
However, it’s smart to plant both types of flowering plants to give your garden visual variety and immediate interest. Perennials should be the base of your garden – the “main characters” – while annuals should act as supporting accents – the “side characters.”
The entire life cycle of annual plants is just one year. They grow from seed in spring, bloom in summer, set seed in late summer or fall, and die in fall or winter (depending on their cold hardiness). Then, you’ll have to regrow them in the next season.
When you plant annuals, you get a big burst of color and a long blooming season. But they need a lot of watering, fertilizer, and maintenance to keep blooming.
Types of annuals
Annuals can be categorized into three groups based on their hardiness and ability to withstand different growing conditions. Understanding them can help you choose the right annuals for your garden:
1. Tender annuals
Tender annuals are highly sensitive to cold temperatures and frost. They thrive in warm climates and are typically grown as annuals in slightly colder regions. It’s best to plant them in spring, two to three weeks after the last frost.
Popular tender annuals:
- American marigold
2. Hardy annuals
Hardy annuals are resilient and can withstand cooler temperatures, making them suitable for early spring or late fall planting in many regions. They often reseed themselves but may wither and eventually die if the weather gets too hot.
Popular hardy annuals:
- Sweet alyssum
3. Half-hardy annuals
Half-hardy annuals fall in between tender and hardy annuals. They can tolerate mild frost but are best grown in regions with a milder climate. In colder areas, they are often treated as tender annuals. You can plant them two weeks before your region’s final spring frost date.
Popular half-hardy annuals:
Pros of annuals
✓ Bloom immediately
While perennials often take two years to bloom profusely, annual flowers bloom the very spring they are planted. This means your yard won’t look barren while perennials are getting their act together.
✓ Longer blooming season
Annuals tend to bloom from early spring up to the first frost of fall, while perennials bloom for a shorter window of the growing season (generally two to four weeks, depending on the plant type).
✓ Large variety and many color choices
Annuals come in an awe-inspiring assortment of sizes, colors, and patterns. For example, you can find dwarf or regular-sized hollyhocks with bright red, pink, yellow, white, blue, black, or purple flowers, and the flowers can be one color or bicolor with vibrant centers.
✓ Good filler plant
When harsh winter causes your border plants to die more than usual, annuals will save the day come spring. They’ll fill in gaps where perennials used to grow, giving the perennials time to recover while keeping your garden looking full and tidy.
✓ Great to experiment with landscape design
If you want to play around with your lawn’s color scheme and aesthetic, you can fill it with annual plants without committing to a specific look for years to come. Try tall, vibrant yellow and white flowering plants one year and switch to short, pastel purple and blue flowers the following year.
✓ Strong self-seeders
Just because annuals live for one year doesn’t mean they’re all “one and done.” Many annuals (like poppies, cleome, snapdragons, cosmos, and amaranth) release hundreds to thousands of seeds that germinate the following spring. If you’re happy with a wilder, more meadowy lawn look, you can skip the reseeding and let the new annual seeds grow where they have fallen.
✓ Less expensive than perennials
Annual seeds are typically cheaper than perennial seeds or seedlings. However, you’ll have to plant them every year or every other year (depending on how well they self-seed), so you may end up spending more money than you would on perennials.
Cons of annuals
✗ Need a lot of water
Because annuals only live for one year, they don’t spend time digging deep roots. Instead, they focus their energy on their foliage and blooming. This means most annuals need to be watered daily, while established perennials generally only need to be watered once or twice per week.
✗ High maintenance
You’ll need to cut spent flowers daily or every other day during the blooming season. This deadheading process redirects your flowering plant’s energy from producing seed pods to growing new blooms.
While you get to enjoy the beautiful flowers for a longer period of time, cutting flowers can take a bite out of your daily routine. Annuals also require more pruning and trimming to prevent them from getting spindly in summer.
✗ Fewer size options
Annuals don’t get as tall or as wide as some perennials. Though annual sunflowers (“Russian giant” and “mammoth” varieties) can grow up to 12 feet and some annuals like lantanas and spider flowers up to 6 feet, you won’t find shrubs or trees in the annual section of your local garden center. Most annual plants are low-growing or upright flowers.
✗ Need more fertilizer
Annuals require frequent fertilizer applications to ensure healthy, dense growth throughout the summer, while many perennials (especially native perennials) require few to no synthetic chemicals.
✗ Less hardy and short-lived
Annuals typically cannot withstand drought, wind, cold, and severe weather like perennials can. Annuals are temporary decorations, not tough mainstays. Plus, their one-season lifespan means you’ll miss out on the consistency and established beauty offered by perennials. And since you’ll need to replant them each year, it can be time-consuming and costly.
✗ Less winter interest
Most annuals die in late fall or early winter (and may die earlier if you live in a cold climate), which means you can’t expect them to give your garden curb appeal during the winter months. Unless you live in a frost-free tropical climate, they won’t give you pretty red berries or evergreen leaves in January.
Best annuals for your yard
Whether you live in the hot desert or on a hurricane-prone coast, there’s an annual that will thrive in your yard.
Most annuals can grow from USDA hardiness zone 2 to zone 11, but certain annuals stand up to the heat and cold better than others. Before you buy a boatload of a specific species, look up which annuals are best for your hardiness zone.
Some popular annuals for drought-prone regions include:
- African daisy
- California poppy
- Common lantana
- Creeping zinnia
- French marigold
- Globe amaranth
- Moss rose
- Spider flower
Some excellent annuals for wet-weather regions include:
- Annual foxglove
- Flowering tobacco
- Garden balsam
- Monkey flower
- Wishbone flower
While most annuals prefer full sun, these annuals grow well in partial shade:
- Bush violet
- Calico plant
- “Diamond Frost” euphorbia
- “Molten Lava” oxalis
- New Guinea impatiens
- Polka dot plant
- Sweet alyssum
Perennials live for multiple years, from three years to hundreds and even thousands, in the case of the prehistoric ginkgo tree. They’re hardy plants that range from groundcovers, ornamental grasses, and flowers to shrubs and trees.
To ensure longevity, perennials spend their first one to two years establishing a deep root system and healthy, dense foliage. This means you’ll have to wait two years for your perennials to fully bloom, but once they’re established, you can enjoy beautiful yard color with very little maintenance.
Types of perennials
Perennials are the backbone of many gardens, offering beauty and character year after year. However, they vary in their ability to withstand different climates and growing conditions.
1. Tender perennials
Tender perennials are less cold-hardy and may require special protection or overwintering in regions with harsh winters. They offer unique and often exotic characteristics, making them well worth the effort. It’s best to plant them in spring after the threat of frost has passed.
Popular tender perennials:
- Black-eyed Susan
2. Hardy perennials
Hardy perennials are resilient and can withstand freezing temperatures. They return reliably year after year, making them low-maintenance and dependable choices for various climates. You can plant these perennials in early fall. Doing so will give them time to germinate before the weather gets too cold.
Popular hardy perennials:
- Blanket flower
3. Half-hardy perennials
Half-hardy perennials fall between tender and hardy perennials in terms of cold tolerance. While they can endure mild frost, they may need some protection in colder regions. You can plant them in spring – around two weeks after the final frost date.
Popular half-hardy perennials:
- Purple coneflower
Pros of perennials
✓ Need little to no fertilizer
Most perennials do not require fertilizer. In fact, they often produce more flowers without fertilizer because fertilizer diverts their energy away from blooming and forces them to focus on foliage growth instead. Unless you have sandy, poor soil, perennials will do just fine without chemical treatments.
✓ Hardier than annuals
Most perennials — especially native species — are more cold-hardy and drought-tolerant than annuals, and you can choose perennials particularly adapted to the conditions of smoggy cities, hurricane-prone coastlines, rocky mountain regions, and hot desert terrain. You won’t have to worry about all your perennials dying if you go on a weeklong summer vacation.
✓ More shade-tolerant options
While most annuals favor full sun and grow floppy in the shade, you can find an array of perennials that prefer partial or full shade. That dark corner of your yard doesn’t have to stay bare: Hostas, columbines, and foam flowers will save the day.
✓ Lower water needs
While perennials require daily watering for the first two weeks, you’ll need to water them only once or twice a week once they are established. A deep, infrequent watering schedule encourages their roots to reach far down into the soil to seek out groundwater, which helps prepare them for drought.
✓ Save money in the long term
While perennial plants are more expensive than annuals (especially if you are purchasing a tree or large shrub), they survive year after year, which means you won’t have to buy new seeds. Plus, you’ll save money on fertilizer and water.
✓ Low maintenance needs
With a bit of trimming and deadheading, your perennials will be raring to grow. Cut back your new plants in the fall to encourage vigorous spring growth, trim them as needed through the growing season, and divide perennials every few years if overcrowding is an issue.
✓ Roots prevent erosion
Perennials have deep, strong root systems that help stabilize the soil and encourage water to filter through so the next rainstorm won’t leave your lawn messy and muddy.
✓ Native, pollinator-friendly varieties promote biodiversity
Native perennials are a fantastic food source and habitat for hummingbirds, butterflies, birds, and bees facing habitat loss. You can design an eco-friendly wildflower garden or butterfly garden filled with easy-care native perennials specifically adapted to your climate. These plants don’t require fertilizer or pesticides, and many drought-tolerant varieties don’t even need mulch.
✓ Yearly yard-to-table harvests
Perennial fruits and vegetables (like rhubarb, apples, blueberries, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes) will give you a heaping harvest year after year. A single rhubarb plant can produce delicious stalks for as long as 20 years, and most asparagus live for at least 10 years. This means you’ll have your own delicious, sustainable food supply year after year.
Cons of perennials
✗ Shorter blooming time
Perennials typically bloom for two to four weeks between spring and fall, whereas annuals bloom for the entire growing season (late spring to the first fall frost). There are certain perennial flowers, such as purple coneflower and salvia, that bloom for longer periods, but the majority of perennials won’t bloom all throughout the summer.
✗ No immediate flower gratification
For the first one to two years, perennials focus their energy on establishing strong roots and healthy foliage, which means you won’t see many flowers until the second or third year.
✗ Each plant takes up more space
Perennials are typically larger than annuals and may spread year after year. If you’re planting perennial bushes and trees, you’ll need to calculate their mature size when designing your landscape so you don’t end up with sun-loving perennial flowers underneath the canopy of a large shade tree.
✗ Less vibrant than annuals
Most perennials are not as colorful as annuals. While you can certainly plant brightly colored perennials like blanket flowers and black-eyed Susans, it’s hard to compete with the dazzling assortment of colors offered by annuals like geraniums and petunias. These annual flowers look beautiful whether you plant them in flower beds or hanging baskets.
✗ More expensive than annuals
Perennials — especially trees and shrubs — cost more than annual seeds and seedlings. You can buy a 12-pack tray of annual zinnias for about $12 ($1 per plant), whereas perennial purple coneflowers run about $7 per plant, and a small ginkgo sapling (2-3 feet tall) costs about $80.
✗ A design commitment
When you plant a perennial, you commit to having that plant in your yard for at least three years or much longer, in the case of many large perennials. If you decide its color, shape, or size doesn’t match the rest of your yard aesthetic, transplanting or removing the plant can be an expensive, labor-intensive process.
Best perennials for your yard
There’s a wealth of perennials for different regions, which can make researching the best perennials for your yard overwhelming. Here are some of the top perennials for drought-prone, wet, and shaded lawns.
Perennial species are pickier than annuals when it comes to where they’ll thrive. Check your USDA hardiness zone and choose perennials that will succeed in your region. For a list of perennials that grow in your state, consult your local university’s cooperative extension website.
Perennials for drought-prone regions:
- Blanket flower
- Butterfly weed
- Carpet sedum
- English lavender
- Foxglove beardtongue
- Globe thistle
- Purple coneflower
- Red bottlebrush
- Russian sage
Perennials for areas with wet soil:
- Bee balm
- Blue flag iris
- Canada anemone
- Cardinal flower
- Hardy hibiscus
- Joe-Pye weed
- Meadow rue
- Queen of the Prairie
- Swamp milkweed
Perennials for shady areas:
- Black snakeroot
- Jacob’s ladder
- Redwood sorrel
- Royal fern
- Solomon’s seal
Pro tip: Choose a variety of perennials with different bloom times to stagger flowering periods throughout the season. This way, your landscape stays colorful throughout the summer.
Plant care tips for annuals and perennials
Caring for your annuals and perennials is essential to maintain their health, longevity, and visual appeal. While the care requirements may vary between these two types of plants, there are some general principles to keep in mind for both:
Annuals typically require consistent moisture throughout the growing season. Most annuals need at least 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week. You can use a drip irrigation system (instead of sprinklers) or a soaker hose to water the plant roots directly, minimizing water contact with the foliage to prevent diseases.
While most perennials are low-maintenance once established, they need a frequent watering routine to get started. Water them as soon as they are in the ground, and for the first two weeks after planting, water the new growth every day.
After the first two weeks, transition to a schedule of two to three times per week for the first year. Before watering, wait for the soil to dry out first. This way, you’re encouraging the roots to dig deep into the soil. In the second year and beyond, water perennials once or twice a week for a total of 1 inch of water.
Apply a layer of organic mulch around annuals to help in moisture retention and weed suppression, as well as to maintain consistent soil temperatures.
Mulch is equally beneficial for perennials. Apply it in the spring to insulate the roots and help reduce weeds. But keep the mulch away from the plant’s base to prevent rot.
Typically, you should fertilize your annuals once a week. Spread a slow-release granular fertilizer at the time of planting. Then, use a fast-release liquid fertilizer labeled “complete” to promote sustained growth throughout the season. A complete fertilizer has a 20-20-20 ratio of the three key nutrients plants need – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
If fertilization is needed, apply fertilizer right before or at the time spring growth begins. Give your plants no more than 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Remember, fertilizing perennials is typically only necessary if your soil is very sandy and nutrient-poor.
Pro tip: Before applying fertilizer, do a soil test to determine the levels of fertilizer your lawn needs and whether you need to apply lime or other soil amendments. A soil test will tell you the nutrients your soil is lacking and how to fix your soil for your particular landscaping plans.
For example, if your soil is highly acidic, you may need to spread lime or compost to raise the pH before planting acid-sensitive perennials, or you may want to work with your soil’s natural profile by planting acid-loving plants like azaleas and hydrangeas.
In colder climates, annuals are often treated as truly “annual” plants and are removed at the end of the growing season. However, some can be overwintered indoors or in a greenhouse for replanting.
Perennials will return year after year. In the fall, cut back dead foliage, and consider providing winter protection like mulch or burlap for certain varieties in colder climates.
Pruning and deadheading
Remember to deadhead spent flowers regularly to encourage continuous blooming. Trim back leggy growth to maintain a compact and bushy shape.
Pruning and deadheading perennials can vary by species. Some benefit from regular deadheading, while others may require pruning in the spring or fall to maintain their shape and encourage new growth.
Pest and disease management
Annuals and perennials:
Regular inspection is crucial if you want to prevent pests and diseases. Use organic methods like handpicking, neem oil, or insecticidal soap to manage infestations while minimizing harm to beneficial insects. Note, though, that integrated pest management is much safer and more effective.
FAQ about annual vs. perennial plants
How do biennial plants differ from annuals and perennials?
While annuals thrive for a year and perennials for several years, the life cycle of biennials lasts for two years. Biennials can be a happy medium between annuals and perennials. They establish roots and develop foliage in the first year, then bloom and set seed in the second year. In the fall of the second year, they release seeds and die.
In other words, biennials act like slow-starting perennials in their first year and fast-blooming annuals the following year. Because these flowering plants don’t bloom until their second year, homeowners often stagger biennial plantings, so new plants sprout as the older ones bloom.
Many vegetables like beets, carrots, kale, parsley, and Swiss chard are biennials, as well as some flowers like Canterbury bells, sweet William, common foxglove, evening primrose, and hollyhock.
Which is more environmentally friendly: annuals or perennials?
Perennials are generally considered more eco-friendly due to their longevity and deeper root systems that contribute to soil health.
Are there perennials that bloom all year?
Perennials that bloom all year, providing constant blooms throughout all seasons, are quite rare. In most regions, the changing seasons and varying weather conditions make it challenging for plants to maintain continuous blooming.
However, some perennials offer extended or recurring blooming periods, ensuring you have flowers in your garden for a significant part of the year. A few examples of perennials that provide prolonged or multiple blooming cycles include groundcover roses, catmint, coneflower, and meadow sage.
Fill your yard with lovely blooms
A mix of perennials, annuals, and even biennials will give you a healthy, vibrant lawn for years to come. Plant perennials as the base of your yard design, and then plant annuals and biennials as decorative accents.
If you’d rather relax by the pool or stay comfortable inside your home, you can hire a local lawn care pro who knows how to pick between annual vs. perennial plants. They can take care of the weeding, trimming, and mowing for you so your garden and lawn stay gorgeous all year long.