Difference Between Annuals & Perennials

A very common question we get is, “what is the difference between annuals and perennials?”. The easy answer is that perennials come back every year and annuals only survive for 1 growing season and die off in the winter. However, there is much more nuance to answering this question. 

What Are Perennials?

A perennial lasts three years or more. This means the plant will die back to the ground in the winter, and come up again the following year on the same rootstock. This will only happen if the plant is winter-hardy in the growing zone it’s planted in (more on this below). The root systems are what survive through the winter, because the plants put energy into making the roots stronger than annual root systems. These plants last at least 3 life-cycles, versus annuals which just last 1 cycle. Some perennials can be grown as annuals and some can actually be evergreen in some warmer growing zones.

Some popular perennials are coneflowers, bee balm, hostas, coral bells, daylilies, & clematis.

What Are Annuals?

An annual is there only for this year, just like the root of the word (annus, Latin for year). Usually these plants have more blooms and will produce flowers throughout the entire growing season. The plants typically grow faster than a perennial would too. That’s because the plants put their energy into growing foliage and blooms versus growing root systems that can withstand the winter.

In general, annuals will complete their life-cycle in one growing season. A life-cycle means sprouting from seed, producing flowers (which turn to seeds), seeds dropping into the ground. Once that all happens, the original plant’s roots, stems and foliage will all die in the winter. The only thing that carries an annual into the next year is the seeds, which produce new plants. 

Some popular annuals are impatiens, calibrachoa, coleus, petunias, snapdragons and sweet potato vines.

How To Tell The Difference Between Annuals & Perennials

This is where it can get tricky. Some annuals are actually perennials in their native habitat and growing zones. Most annuals are actually considered perennials in growing zones 9-11 (and sometimes zone 8). Also, some plants will come back each year due to the seeds or rhizomes spreading.

Even more confusing, plants can be considered “winter-hardy” or “half hardy”. There are also plants labeled as “biennials”. 

What Are Biennials?

Some plants will last for 2 growing cycles and typically won’t bloom until year 2, where the plant then produces seeds. These plants are classified between annuals and perennials because they take the characteristics of both.

Some examples of biennials are dianthus, foxglove, and hollyhock, & columbine.

What Are Tender Perennials?

Also known as “temperennials," these plants are perennials in warmer growing zones, but will die off in colder northern zones. These plants are also grown as houseplants often, especially during the winter months where temperatures drop to be cold enough to kill the plants.

Some examples of tender perennials are elephant ears, begonias, agave and many succulents.

What Are Growing Zones?

Growing zones are regions within the United States that the USDA will track based on the climate of each region. In the United States, growing zones can be from zones 2-11 (Hawaii is even hotter in zone 12. The higher the number, the warmer the zone is.

One gardener’s perennial might be another gardener’s annual. In other words, zone and general conditions can alter a plant’s ability to endure for more than one season. Geraniums are container plants or annuals in the mountains and high desert areas, but might be perennial in warmer regions like southern California and Florida. 

And just to add to the confusion, hardy geraniums (of the genus Geranium), are different from Pelargoniums, common geraniums, such as the scented flowers. And gaillardia, or blanket flower, is one of our favorite plants that might be an annual or perennial, depending on the cultivar and conditions. Some simply reseed throughout the garden year after year.

Some other plants that fit both categories are phlox and salvia.

Our advice is to pay close attention to the growing zone of the specific plants you are planning on growing if you want to determine if it will come back each year. That is the best and easiest way to determine if it will.

Which Is Better, Annuals Or Perennials?

There is no “correct” answer to this, as both have their place in the garden. We typically recommend growing perennials for larger areas and gardens. This will save money, time and effort each year, plus it’s generally better for local wildlife. So it’s important to have plants that are beneficial to the animals and insects. Annuals are great for adding a pop of color to areas that get more human traffic at your home or business. It can also be fun to switch up how the garden looks each year, which annuals are generally more conducive to doing. 

Typically the best looking gardens incorporate trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals for the maximum amount of interest in the garden that combines colors, textures & structures for all 4 seasons throughout the year.

Pros & Cons of Growing Annuals & Perennials

Annuals vs Perennials Perennials Annuals
Typically More Prolific Blooms   x
Typically Longer Blooming Season   x
Better For Wildlife x  
Can be Native x  
Less Maintenance x  
Less Cost Long Term x  
Can Spread To Unwanted Areas x  
Change the Look of Your Garden Each Year   x
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 Author Teresa Odle - Published 12-10-2020