Gardening 101: Annuals, Biennials, & Perennials

As you know, from the Gardening 101: Introduction, this series is tailored to those who appreciate and admire the beauty of a well-planned and cared-for garden, but have never been confident enough to create a garden of their own.

For those of you that fit into this large category of people, there are a few fundamental and basic things to know before you start this REALLY fun and rewarding hobby.  Let’s start with the three main categories of plants and flowers.

  1. Annuals,
  2. Biennials, and
  3. Perennials

There are exceptions to these rules/definitions, which we’ll cover in later posts.  But for now, we’ll focus on the simplest of definitions.


Annuals live only one year.

The term “annuals” always use to confuse me because I would think of “years”, something that should come back annually.  So why is it the short-lived plant?  But think of it as living for a single year.  Just remember… how often do I have to put out the work?  … annually.

Biennials generally live two years.  “Bi” means two, such as bi-lingual (speaking two languages), or binary code (the computer language consisting of only two numbers – “1’s” and “0’s”).

The first year these plants have no flowers, but the second year they do.

Perennials live for more than two years.  Some perennials live many, many, many years. 


Here are some of the pro’s and con’s to annuals and perennials.  Since biennials are not as common, I’ve excluded them from the comparison.

Annuals (Pro’s) :)

  1. Depending on where you live, you could purchase flowering annuals as early as the middle of spring (with flowers already on the plant), and still have flowers clear into the middle of fall.  So, you could have months and months and months of flowers.
  2. Annuals are less expensive than perennials.
  3. Annuals produce their own seeds.
    If you begin to enjoy gardening, you may enjoy starting the seeds indoors in the winter, so they are ready to transplant after the last frost.  There’s just something about seeing seedlings emerge from the soil.  (I’m sure those who have worked with seeds would tell you this.  Since I’m not a big fan of annuals, I can’t say this from personal experience, although I imagine this would be true if I were to give it a try.  ) 

Annuals (Con’s) :(

  1. Annuals die after the first year.
    You go to all the expense (although it’s not a lot of money), and the time, energy, sweat, and emotional investment, to create a beautiful garden, knowing that come next spring, you’ll have to start from scratch!!!
  2. Because annuals are so small (when first purchased), and sometimes very dainty, they can be flimsy and a little challenging to plant.
  3. Annuals may require more watering than established perennials. 

Perennials (Pro’s) :)

  1. Perennials can live many, many years.
  2. Perennials tend to “multiply” by either new plants emerging from the roots, or by the same plant getting larger and larger, to the point that you’ll need to divide it into two or three plants.  It’s as if the plants give birth to babies that you never had to pay for.

Perennials (Con’s) :(

  1. The actual flowers on a perennial are short-lived, when compared to annuals.  Expect perennial flower-bearing plants (not all have flowers) to be in bloom for a matter of weeks as opposed to numerous months for annuals.  The exact length of bloom time for perennials will vary depending on the plant species.  (The leaves live numerous months though.)  However, you can plant a variety of perennials together that have staggered blooming times so that there’s almost always something in bloom.
  2. Perennials are more expensive, although… I hesitate to even say that, and this is why…                                   Cost Comparison 

    For less than $2 you can purchase a small container of 6 annual plants.  Say you spend $6 to purchase 18 tiny annuals, which is cheap, and they grow into larger plants.  And for the next 12 years you do the same thing every spring, since the plants die at the end of each year.

    $6 x 12 years = $72 = 0 plants at the end of the 12th year (since they die each year).


    You spend $25 to purchase 5 medium size perennials, and never purchase another plant.  [This is clearly a hypothetical, to make a point.]

    $25 x 1 year = $25 = 40 plants at the end of the 12th year (since they multiply).

    Year 0,   =   5 plants
    Year 4, divide the 5 plants in half = 10 plants
    Year 8, divide the 10 plants in half = 20 plants
    Year 12, divide the 20 plants in half = 40 plants

    With the initial investment of $25 (at $5 each), you end up with 40 plants that only cost $0.63 each ($25/40 = $0.63), and they’re ALIVE (kind of important).

By knowing what each can offer in beauty, and require in expense and upkeep, it will better equip you to choose plants that best suit your personality, budget, and lifestyle.  You can always plant annuals and perennials, to allow greater variety in plants and colors and invest in your future garden.

The next few posts, like today’s, are simple explanations of garden terminology.  But don’t worry, we will move on to plant selection, digging the garden bed, and all the other fun stuff.

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2 comments to Gardening 101: Annuals, Biennials, & Perennials

  • Amber

    I personally like the instant pop of color annuals bring, but you’re right — they need to be handled with care. The root system in the potting mix is so incredibly delicate. It feels like planting really soft angel food cake that keeps crumbing in your hands. They also need a lot of water to keep from drying out… Why do I like them again?? :)

    • Holly

      Yes, I can imagine it’s very nice to have immediate color in your garden… And I think I’m slowly coming around to the idea of having some annuals. I admit, there are some really beautiful ones out there. (All flowers are pretty, but I find some more pretty than others. :) )

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