Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Annuals and Perennials for Containers

by National Gardening Association Editors

What says summer like an overflowing basket of pink petunias, or a windowbox filled with bright red geraniums? Most gardeners begin their foray into container gardening with baskets and boxes of colorful annual flowers. And with good reason: Annual flowers are readily available, reasonably priced, and easy to care for, and provide the most "bang for the buck" of all container plants.

Annuals or Perennials?

Annuals or Perennials?

What's the difference between the two? Botanically speaking, annual flowers complete their life cycle in one growing season. They sprout in the spring, grow foliage, then produce flowers and finally seeds. Once the plants have produced mature seeds, their mission is accomplished and they die.

Perennials also produce flowers and seeds, but don't die at the end of the growing season. Their above-ground parts die back, but their roots overwinter, and the plants resprout in the spring. Some perennials are relatively short-lived; lupines and primroses, for example, may live for only 2 to 5 years, though the seed they drop often produces new plants. Daylilies and coreopsis, on the other hand, can live for decades (though they'll need dividing every few years to remain vigorous).

Which should you plant? Let's look at some general characteristics of annuals and perennials.

Annuals

  • Live for one season
  • Must be replaced each spring
  • Bloom all summer long, up until frost (if kept deadheaded)
  • Compact root systems; adapt well to small containers
  • Can plant in decorative containers that could be damaged by winter weather
  • No dividing necessary
  • Do not overwinter

Perennials

  • Live for two or more years
  • Will resprout each spring from overwintered roots
  • Peak bloom often lasts a few weeks; may bloom sporadically throughout summer
  • More extensive root systems require generously-sized containers
  • Must use weather-proof containers.
  • May need dividing every few years
  • May need protection to survive harsh winters

So, should you plant annuals or perennials? The answer depends on what you hope to get from your planting. If you want consistent color all season long, annuals are the way to go. If you enjoy watching the seasons unfold as various plants enter their peak bloom period, and you're willing to do some annual maintenance chores, then a carefully selected mix of perennials will fit the bill.

There are literally hundreds of different annuals and perennials to choose from. See the sidebar to the right for some favorites.

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