“Are you looking for annuals or perennials?” is often the first question you’re asked when you go to a garden centre.
“Erm…I’m not sure” can be uncomfortable to say–perennial and annual are terms you’ve heard before but just haven’t quite remembered the definitions of as they only tend to come up occasionally–like right now, in the garden centre with a helpful staff member standing in front of you. All you want are some nice plants for your garden, and here you’re being faced with a quiz already. It’s enough to make you grab the first thing you see and flee. Or give up on the garden centre and grab a few pots of whatever is colourful the next time you’re at your local giant chain store, where the cashier probably doesn’t care and won’t ask you anything more complicated than “cash or credit?”
There’s no need to be intimidated by the question—the difference between the two is simple once you’ve had it explained. Here are the definitions and the little phrases I use to help people remember:
Annuals are plants that live for only one growing season (i.e. spring to fall) in your climate. You plant them every year, annually.
Perennials live for many years. The leafy green parts die off in the fall and then emerge again the next spring. They go on forever or continuously—they’re perennial favourites.
That’s essentially it.
Of course, there are more robust definitions, but that’s what you really need to know to get started.
Later on you can learn about biennials, self-seeding annuals, bulbs, corms, and tubers. And that what is an annual in your climate is likely a perennial in tropical climates. But you don’t need to know all of that to sound like you know what you’re talking about at the garden centre.
A couple more quick points:
Annuals – You have to plant annuals every year. If it’s a plant that you grow because of its pretty flowers (and not just its nice leaves), it will usually bloom for most of the growing season. Common annuals include geraniums, petunias, and marigolds.
Perennials – You only plant perennials once (provided you don’t kill them). Most perennials only bloom for one part of the growing season—not non-stop like an annual. Skilled gardeners often plant a variety of perennials with different bloom periods together—that way there’s always something flowering. Common perennials include hostas, peonies, and daisies.
Now you’re ready to head to the garden centre with confidence—you know what you’re looking for!