Garden Primer: Perennials vs Annuals

April 12th, 2013 Posted in Lifestyle

What’s the difference between “Annuals” and “Perennials” in gardening?


An annual is a plant that lives out it’s entire life cycle in one season.

A perennial is a plant that lives for multiple seasons.

For example-the marigolds most of us planted in primary school as kids (remember planting marigolds in cut off school milk cartons?) are annuals.  You plant the seed, it grows, it flowers, the flowers turn into seed pods and eventually the plant dies. One season.

Daffodils on the other hand are perennials.  You plant the bulbs once and then every year a daffodil sprouts up from that bulb in the same place.

Now on to the confusing stuff! (there always seems to be confusing stuff doesn’t there?)

1.  There are plants that in their native conditions are perennials but which we grow as annuals because our climate is too harsh for them.  For an extreme example-all pepper plants are annuals in the US, but some varieties are perennial if grown in the tropics.  For a more mundane example-the herb sage is perennial in the more southern parts of the US, but in the north where I live the cold of winter kills the plant and it acts as a annual, needing to be replanted every year.

2.  Some varieties of plants are what they refer to as “self seeding”.   The seeds of these types of annuals fall to the ground and grow the next year without any help from you.  These can act somewhat like perennials, coming back most years in more or less the same spot.  They are not true perennials however since it is a completely new seed and new plant, not a continuation of an old one.  The Marigolds I mentioned above can self seed very easily.

3.  There is a third category of plants called “Biennials”.  That means that the plant grows the first year, dies back, then the second year it starts growing and at that point flowers and produces seed.  There are things that we grow as if they are annuals (and they get referred to as annuals) because the part we want to eat is the first year growth.  An example of this is a carrot.  We refer to them as annuals, but if you leave them in the ground the second year they will produce a flower stalk (at which point the root isn’t any good to eat quality wise).  It’s important to know which plants are biennials if you are going to practice seed saving, otherwise I wouldn’t worry about it.

note:  most of the vegetables that we plant in our gardens are either annuals or perennials that act as annuals.

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