Annual vs. Perennial – Gardeners Decisions

It is one of those topics that pop up in gatherings with new gardeners present or first-time homeowners who discovered their flower beds are work, not self-sustaining, and weeds are mean. I heard a friend say, “I’ve had it with planting annual flowers that are DEAD in the fall. Why use flowers that have to be planted year after year when I can plant a perennial that is good, well, forever? I’m not stupid ya know.” 

No, she isn’t stupid, it is a valid question because, on the surface, it looks like perennials are less work. Yet by learning a little more about flower gardening and she would have a better understanding of how to successfully use both. My advice to those new to gardening is to spend time with seasoned gardeners. There are informative moments I recall teaching Master Gardener Classes, at 21 years old, fresh out of college. The average age of my class might have been 65-70 years old.

In reality, they had been gardening 2-3 times longer than I had been alive. Fortunately, they were kind to me; I was informed of my errors when a soft chuckle would arise among them. I shared horticultural academics, they shared real-life gardening savvy with me. Truly a golden experience. So, I lean towards seeking advice from older gardeners but when you find someone has hands-on experience gardening for 5+ consecutive years, they should suffice to instruct on the basics. 

To the Annual vs Perennial question posed by those new-to-holding-a-hoe, let us look at Annuals first.

annual flowers (vs perennial)

After all, because they were bashed by my friend (the one that’s not stupid ya know) in her proclamation earlier. For our purposes here, I define Annuals as those plants that are planted with the intent of lasting one year or growing season (spring to fall). That clarification is necessary because there are plants that are considered annuals in the north, but in areas that do not experience heavy frosts and persistent cold, they may act as perennials and come back the following year.

Also, there are plants we know as perennials, but varieties have been developed to give an all-out flowering show. This feature usually involves an extended bloom period, with larger and more plentiful flowers than the standard version of the perennial. By the end of the season, they are often spent and thus removed. It is though they’ve given an exhausting performance and there’s no need to try and repeat (at least that’s what I tell them). 

Frankly, to be clear, Annuals cannot be beat for season-long, floral color. Most have a flower or are soon-to-bloom when planted in the spring and then remarkably crank out the flowers through spring, summer and into autumn. At season’s end, Annuals only give up after a killing frost or succumbing to insects and disease attack or out of complete exhaustion. From personal experience, I have found them more durable, sturdy and less vulnerable to problems compared to perennials, in general. Annuals are admirable, period.

annual flowers (vs perennial)

Perennials have come a long way in the last 30 years.

When I started working in a garden center in the late 1970’s we had display table after table of Annuals, most in bloom and looking glorious. Our perennial plant selection consisted of taking a little space at the end of one of the large Annual tables. They were not in bloom and most looked stretched and weak. Needless to say, perennials were not that popular then like they have become. Why? There has been considerable advancement in genetic research by the plant breeders and growers on a global level. Species that did not have any varieties, now have varieties numbering in the hundreds. Heuchera, aka Coral Bells, was green with a little spray of pink flowers and a bit of a yawn. Now, they are amazing with probably over 100 colorful varieties.

perennial flowers (vs annual)

Perennials have been developed to bloom longer and better. Disease and drought resistance has improved as well. Garden designers and authors have helped us all find successful ways to use perennials, whether it is successive blooming or how to mix among annual flowers as well. It is difficult to list the improvements that have occurred with perennials if interested check on-line with the university research that supports the growers and their flowers.

perennial flowers (vs annual)

The bottom line to which do we advise gardeners to use: Annuals or Perennials? The answer is obviously both, for all the reasons stated here. It is a great time to be in gardening. Never before have there been so many quality species available and capable garden centers to offer the plant selections.

-Rob McCartney, Horticulturist

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