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What are Annuals, Biennials, and Perennials?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 17, 2024
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The life cycle of a plant can be looked at as having four stages. The plant begins as a seed; goes through the growth process of creating roots, stems, and leaves; flowers; and returns to seed. The classification system of annuals, biennials, and perennials informs you how a particular plant goes through this cycle. Keep in mind, however, that plants interact with their growing environment, and climate may lead them to behave differently than the classification would lead you to expect.

Annuals: Annuals are plants that go through a complete life cycle, from seed to seed, in one growing season. Annuals may reseed and grow in the next season, and their reappearance year after year can lead people to mistake annuals for perennials. Popular annuals include cosmos, impatiens, marigolds, petunias, snapdragons, and zinnias.

Biennials: Biennials take two years to go through a complete life cycle. The first season's growth only manifests a few, low-lying leaves, and the rest of the cycle takes place in the second season. Commonly used biennials include Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, and sweet William.

Perennials: Perennials continue growing, blooming, and seeding for a number of years. The root system or bulb, and sometimes the stem and foliage, last through the winter. Keep in mind that the garden's zone can affect how perennials behave — grown in a warmer locale, they may act like annuals. Favorite perennials include columbines, delphiniums, irises, lilies, peonies, and tulips.

Making choices: Knowing about a plant's life cycle can help you make good choices when planning a garden because you will know if a plant needs to be replaced every year, will only flower in the second year of growth, or will flower every year for more than two years. Other factors to consider in choosing plants include the soil quality, the degree of light/shade, and your hardiness zone, remembering that climate may induce a plant to act uncharacteristically. Resources like your state's Cooperative Extension Service (run through local colleges and universities) and the National Gardening Association can provide more detailed information for your particular area.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for WiseGeek, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By tlcJPC — On May 28, 2011

I know that all flowers and shrubs have their place in a garden, but I really love working with perennials. There is just something so satisfying about seeing your little flowers peek through the earth after winter is gone!

I love annuals, too! However, I‘ve got to say that perennials are by far the one’s that bring me the most joy and pride. After all, I nurtured them and tended them well enough to want to rejoin me another year!

By Eviemae — On May 27, 2011

I’ve used both annuals and perennial plants in my garden for years now, but have never even heard of biennials until I read this article! I may not be an expert gardener, so to speak, but I’d like to think that I’m not a novice either.

Are these less common plants, or are they just often confused with other types? Now I’m feeling the urge to go out and find some biennials so that I can at least say that I have one in my garden!

By angelBraids — On May 27, 2011

@Windchime - You're lucky to have such great weather most days of the year, though I know it may be harsh for some plants.

I know that lilies and roses do well in your kind of climate, but as you mentioned not being able to water your garden perennials too often I'd say lilies are the best of these options.

Most varieties, except Oriental, will do fine without watering daily. They are the most lovely of plants and will be a joy to tend to when you have time.

By Windchime — On May 27, 2011

I have just moved into my first home and would love to have some flowers next year. I don't have much of a green thumb or a lot of time to dedicate to upkeep.

Planting perennials sounds like the best deal for me, but is there something I should do to prepare the soil before I start?

I live in Southern California, so there won't be a lot of rain to water them when I'm away. If anyone has any suggestions as to the best types of perennials for my area I'd be grateful.

By MissMuffet — On May 27, 2011

My poor father is in the doghouse at the moment, as yesterday he tried to 'help' my mom do some work in her beloved garden. He is completely clueless when it comes to yardwork so I have no idea why he even tried.

Mom was horrified to come home from the store to find he'd dug up all the perennial garden plants that he thought were dead!

By behaviourism — On Apr 17, 2011

@minombre - Most annuals, if left alone, do seed themselves each year. Provided that the gardens are in good health and the seeds survive to the next season, they will usually sprout again, if conditions are good.

By minombre — On Jun 13, 2008

I have discovered that arugula, which is an annual, keeps reseeding itself, year after year. I have planted seeds one year, and now every spring I have new, beautiful arugula in my garden.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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