Perennials Vs. Annuals In The Garden

Is it better/easier/wiser to grow annuals or perennials? Learn here!

So you like flowers, want more color in your garden, but don't have time to study what to plant in depth? You keep hearing the same words around flowers and in nurseries: perrenial, annual. What do they mean, and what on earth should you plant?

An annual plant is a plant which blooms only once, during its annual cycle. Spring annuals flower in spring, summer annuals in summer, etc. If you plant petunias by the garden gate and they blossom in May and you want them there again next May, you'll have to replant. Except for a possible stray survivor that may come up next year, those particular plants are finished with their job by your garden gate.

The one exception to the rule is the half-hardy annual, often designated by "HHA" in seed catalogues. This is a plant which is not devastated by early frost, and may, given the right conditions, come up a second or more time. Biennials, on the other hand, are perennials which only bloom in the second year of their life and then some.

Perennial plants, on the other hand, come up over and over again, year after year, as long as conditions for their blooming remain beneficial. If you plant cone flowers by the garage this year, they will bloom in season, die out during the winter, then come up next year, and the next, to bloom again.

So why would you choose annuals if they require more replanting? What are the benefits of annuals? What are the possible drawbacks of perennials, and which plants are which?

First, since annuals like petunias, marigolds and impatiens are born, grow, bloom and die in one season, it seems clear that they are more labor intensive than plants that continue blooming over time. One benefit of using annuals in the garden, however, is ease of availability. Such plants are big favorites of commercial growers, and appear in the spring in a large variety of colors and types, such as double or single flowers, low or medium height plants, and a multitude of colors. Since they are often already in bloom when they are purchased, the gardener can easily visualize the appearance of the garden with their addition.

Many annuals continue to bloom and grow all through their season. They can be clipped, their spent blossoms removed, and new blossoms will form, making for long lasting color and texture in the garden. In addition, annuals are inexpensive to produce and obtain. If some of the annuals purchased fail to thrive, they can be ripped out and more annuals replanted. When a bare spot in the garden suddenly appears it'' a simple matter to buy an annual plant or two and fill in with them until more permanent plans are possible.

Generally speaking, annuals are extremely versatile in the garden, usually bright and outgoing flowers, and predictable in habit. If you grew impatiens before, you pretty much know how they'll grow again. They are also fairly easy to start from seed yourself, without waiting for an extensive and undependable germination or growing time.

Both annuals and perennials come in differently brnaching habits--some may contain clusters of small flowers, others, a single, flat or conical blossom on a stem. All perennials, however, are sometimes difficult to germinate. Their germination times are usually longer, and somewhat uneven. My experience with delphiniums, a favorite of mine, for example, is that of a 50% germination rate, despite trying three different seed brands and two different varieties. Perennial seedlings are usually extremely small, thin stemmed and delicate, except for the hardiest of varieties. This makes them hard to start in the home greenhouse.



Most times, the grower must rely on local greenhouses and therefore, on limited varieties of species. Some perennials are almost impossible to find when you're ready for them, although they can be ordered in plant form from many catalogue houses, which are quite reliable. Fall planted perennials, however, do not seem reliable in the southern New England area where I live""it's possible they do not get a good enough start in the ground before weather turns harsh, but again, many nurseries do not carry what the home gardener is seeking, and one must depend on catalogues and their often unreliable delivery systems.

If a perennial plant does not make it in the garden and needs to be replaced, it's often next to impossible to find the species, color and size you're looking for in nurseries. In general, perennial flowers are also not as vivid as annuals, although the sweet news is that they will return to bloom again and again in future years. Some colors come up short in perennials; admittedly there are fewer flowers in bright red shades, more in subtle and pale colors like pink, mauve, lilac, white and peach.

While perennials are not always clip-and-come-again flowers, and sometimes have a shorter blooming season than most annuals, their heights are more variable than annuals; there are tiny, low growing perennials, medium height perennials and very tall perennials. Annuals, on the other hand, do not seem to come in such varying lengths""they tend toward mid-size flowers, but here are some in varying heights which are among the more popular annuals in the northeast.

Low-growing( eight-to-ten inches or less): sweet alyssum, certain gazanias, gerbera, hybrid pelargonium (geranium), pansies and lobelia. Mid-sized (1-15 inch plants) are many: aegeratum, impatiens, petunias of many kind, lisianthus, marigolds, nasturtium, celosia and phlox. Taller varieties include rudbeckia (black-eyed susans), snapdragons, larkspur, leonotis, hollyhock, strawflowers, statice, baby's breath, cleome and cosmos.

Perennials in the different height ranges include: low-growing""perennial candytuft, lily-of-the-valley, ice plant, plumbago, low-growing eidelweiss (alpine flowers), dianthus; myrtle and creepingthyme; medium height--arisaema, perennial alyssum, anemone, silene, dianthus, perennial gaillardia, scabiosa; tall growing""asclepias, a frikarti asters, baptisia, astilbe, clematis, canna, acchillea, agastache, bleeding heart, columbine, chrysanthemum, delphinium, digitalis, shasta daisy, lupine, penstemon, hardy phlox, potentilla, coneflower and sedum.

If you are new to gardening, it might be wise to start with annuals placed in your garden where you think they may work, taller flowers at the rear of the border or area, mid-sized ones in front of them, and finally, low-growers at the front. Study the garden in bloom, and decide where you want different color and form in the years to come. Begin to invest in the planting of perennials for height, subtle color, and variety.

Even when you have a nicely blooming perennial garden, you still may want a spot for a splash of color, different each year, for which annuals may fill the bill. In other words, don't rush in with perennials""they're expensive, long-lasting but you may tire of them year after year. On the other hand, planting tens or hundreds of annuals every year can be exhausting""and expensive!

The choice is yours. Whatever you decide, the color, scent, and joy of flowers can be yours""in your own unique way.

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