Craving a garden full of brilliant blossoms? Annuals 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. Let’s walk through the pros and cons of annual and perennial plants — from maintenance needs to pricing to environmental benefits.
There isn’t a final “winner” when choosing between annuals and perennials. It’s a smart choice to plant both 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.”
Along with the benefits and disadvantages of these two types of plants, we’ll also give you some plant ideas for your specific yard type, whether you live in a drought-prone desert or rainy region.
Annual plants go through their entire life cycle in one year. They grow from seed in spring, bloom in summer, release seeds in late summer or fall, and die in fall or winter (depending on their cold hardiness). When you plant annuals, you get a big burst of color and a long blooming season, but they last only for a year and need a lot of watering, fertilizer, and maintenance to keep blooming.
Pros of annuals
✓ Bloom immediately
While perennials often take two years to bloom profusely, annual flowers bloom the very spring they are planted. That means your yard won’t look barren while perennials are getting their act together.
✓ Longer blooming season
Annuals tend to bloom from 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 bicolored with vibrant centers.
✓ Good filler plant
When a harsh winter causes your border plants to die back 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 plant annuals without committing to a specific look for years to come. Try tall, vibrant yellow and white flowers one year and switch to short, pastel purple and blue flowers the next 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 next 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. That 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 process, known as deadheading, redirects your plant’s energy from producing seed pods to growing new blooms. That means you get more beautiful flowers for a longer period of time, but 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
Because annuals grow for only one season, they don’t get as tall or as wide as some perennials. Though some annuals like spider flowers and lantanas can grow up to 6 feet tall, and annual sunflowers (“Russian Giant” and “Mammoth” varieties) can grow as tall as 12 feet, you won’t find shrubs or trees in the annual section of your local garden center. Most annuals 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
Annuals typically cannot withstand drought, wind, cold, and severe weather like perennials can. Annuals are temporary decorations, not tough mainstays.
✗ 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 all the way 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 ground covers, 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. That 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.
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 that are 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 foamflowers 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.
✓ Need less maintenance
With a bit of trimming and deadheading, your perennials will be raring to grow. Cut back your perennials in 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 butterflies, birds, and bees that are 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. That 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 through the entire 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.
✗ 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:
- English lavender
- Carpet sedum
- Purple coneflower
- Red bottlebrush
- Russian sage
- Foxglove beardtongue
- Blanket flower
- Butterfly weed
- Globe thistle
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
- Toad lily
Pro Tip: Choose a variety of perennials with different bloom times to stagger flowering periods throughout the season. That way, your landscape stays colorful throughout the summer.
FAQ about annuals and perennials
Biennials live for two years and can be a happy medium between annuals and perennials. They establish roots and develop foliage in the first year before blooming 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 biennials don’t bloom until their second year, homeowners often stagger biennial plantings so new seeds sprout as the older plants 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.
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 nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (the three key nutrients that plants need).
Before you apply fertilizer, order a soil test from your local cooperative extension service to determine what amendments and levels of fertilizer your lawn needs. 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.
If fertilization is needed, apply fertilizer right before or at the time that 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.
While most perennials are low-maintenance once established, they need a frequent watering routine to get started. Water your perennials as soon as they are in the ground. Then, water them daily for the first two weeks after planting.
After the first two weeks, transition to a schedule of two to three times per week for the first year. Wait until the soil dries out before watering to encourage 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.
Fill your yard with a variety of plants
A mix of perennials, annuals, and biennials will give you a healthy, vibrant lawn for years to come. Plant perennials as the base of your yard design, and then add annuals and biennials as decorative accents.
Spreading seeds and digging holes for your fresh young plants can be fun for the family on a sunny spring day, but garden and yard care in the peak of summer may not be how you want to spend your weekends.
If you’d rather relax by the pool or stay comfortable in the air conditioning, you can hire a local lawn care pro to do the weeding, trimming, and mowing for you, so your garden and lawn stay gorgeous all season long.
Main Photo Credit: Flora Westbrook | Pexels