How to Know When to Use Perennials or Annuals in Your Garden

There are benefits to including each kind of plant in your garden, so mix and match for your most gorgeous garden yet.

Courtyard at dusk
Photo: Dora Dalton/Getty Images

If you've wandered the garden center (or perused plant catalogs), you've probably seen most plants and flowers divided into annuals and perennials.

But which ones make the most sense for your garden depends on a number of factors, from your current budget to how often you like to change things up. And for most gardens, a mix of perennials and annuals will give the most bang for your buck (and for your effort).

Perennials vs. Annuals

The difference between perennials and annuals is simple—perennials are plants that will come back and regrow year after year, while annuals die off when temperatures get too cold and require you to plant new plants the following spring.

To confuse things a bit, some plants may be perennial or annual, depending on which plant hardiness zone you live in. So in the South and parts of the country that have very mild winters, they'll come back, but they will die off if you plant them in the northern, colder parts of the U.S.

And how you plant them matters, too. "Perennials are great in planters for warmer regions, but in colder areas, many perennials won't last over winter because their roots freeze," says Blythe Yost, landscape architect, CEO and co-founder of Tilly, a landscape design site.

Benefits of Planting Perennials

If you're looking to make an investment in your garden for long-lasting results, perennials are definitely the way to go.

Perennials Are Cheaper in the Long Term

You might balk when you see that $20 price tag on a clematis vine or butterfly bush. But the up-front investment will pay off in a few years when your perennial is thriving in your garden—and you aren't making your annual trek to the garden center for more flowers.

"Plants like peonies and iris will easily live on for 50 years if left undisturbed, while coreopsis and nepeta have shorter life spans that can be lengthened with regular division," Yost says.

Perennials Require Little Maintenance

Because they grow back year after year, perennials are kind of like the "set it and (almost) forget it" plants for your garden—they will grow back bigger and more beautiful each new spring. (Perennials are a perfect pick if you aren't the kind of person who likes puttering in the garden all spring and summer.)

But even though you won't be digging in the dirt each year to replant new blooms, you still have a tiny bit of upkeep: Perennials thrive best when they're given a good pruning. "So many people are hesitant to really clip their perennials back, but you can get new growth and a fuller plant by not being afraid to cut back," says Georgia Clay, plant manager at Monrovia.

Yost recommends cutting your perennials back in the fall for stronger growth the following year.

Perennials Are Pollinator-Friendly

If you want to attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other wildlife, perennial plants are more likely to bring them to your backyard. "Perennials attract pollinators, which is a wonderful benefit," Clay says. Try perennial plants like lavender, calendula, and salvia to attract pollinators.

Benefits of Planting Annuals

Annuals are like the trendy clothes in your wardrobe—they add a little fun and excitement alongside your tried-and-true perennials.

Annuals Let You Experiment

Not sure if sunshine yellow works on your front porch? "Annuals are a fun way to try a new color for a while to see if you really want it in your palette," says Clay. Annuals leave you room to plant something new and shake things up in your garden each year—without feeling like you're throwing away money by digging up healthy perennials.

Annual Plants Tend to Bloom Longer

"Perennials typically have a shorter bloom cycle than annuals," says Yost. "Even long-blooming perennials such as coreopsis and nepeta have bloom cycles and resting periods when they aren't showing any flowers." With standard annuals like impatiens, begonias, and petunias, you're likely to see beautiful blooms into the fall—and you can replace them with other annuals when they start to fade.

Annuals Are Best in High-Profile Garden Spots

If you're going through the effort of buying and planting new flowers each year, don't tuck them away in a corner of your garden. Yost suggests placing them in high-visibility locations like near your entrance or your front windows to keep them in the spotlight.

What's Hot in Perennials and Annuals

Personal taste definitely plays a big role in how your garden grows, whether you're looking for a lush English garden vibe, or something more scaled back and modern. But every plant has its moment in the sun (so to speak), and these perennial and annual plants are currently popular.

Native Plants

Exotic blooms are fun, but it often makes better garden sense to choose plants that naturally thrive in your region. Yost suggests butterfly weed, bee balm, joe pye weed, and phlox as some perennial options for your garden.

Vintage Annuals

People are seeking out some under-the-radar annual options, in lieu of the traditional begonias and petunias. "We're seeing a lot of old-fashioned, whimsical annuals woven into perennial beds such as cosmos, verbena bonariensis, zinnias, and cleome," Yost says.

Clay recommends showy annuals like Daybreak African daisies or Brown-Eyed Girl sunflowers to brighten up your garden beds.

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