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What's the Difference Between Annual and Perennial Plants?

When you're choosing which types of plants you want in your yard, the very first decision you have to make is whether you want annuals, perennials or a combination of the two. What's the difference you ask? Annuals have to be planted every year, or annually. Perennials come up year after year after year, or perennially.

Examples of annuals include petunias, pansies and impatiens. At garden stores, you can buy large trays of annuals, which are called flats. Flats contain 48 young blossoming plants, and they typically cost about $15. Garden stores usually place these toward the front of their displays in spring because they're bursting with color. They're also irresistible to avid gardeners who can't wait to get their hands in the dirt. They're usually fairly inexpensive--but they must be purchased and planted every single spring.

Perennials are a great choice for people who don't have a burning desire to dig in the dirt. You plant them once, and you're done. Unless, of course, they die, in which case you have to replace them. Examples of perennials include daisies, butterfly bushes and hostas. Perennials are more expensive than annuals. They are sold individually, and cost anywhere from $6 to $30 depending on whether it's a flower, bush or tree.

Certain types of perennials are only available as bulbs. They must be planted in the fall so that they will bloom in the spring. Examples include tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, irises and daffodils.

You can also purchase annuals and perennials as seeds--but that's not really recommended if you're not an avid gardener. It's much cheaper to purchase seed packets, which usually cost $2 or less for about 50 seeds--but it involves much more effort to grow the plants. That's because you have to dig the soil to just the right depth, space the plants appropriately, provide consistent and ample watering until the plants are established, and possibly thin them once they're established. You also have to beware of squirrels and chipmunks digging up the seeds and ruining all your effort. Seeds are best left to very hardy plants such as sunflowers, which also provide a fun and easy gardening project for children. It's much, much easier to buy plants that are already well-established.

If you want a low-maintenance but attractive yard, perennials are definitely the way to go. Here are some perennials that are easy to grow, hardy and proliferate easily:

  • Day lilies: Day lilies are tall, and they come in orange or yellow. It's near impossible to kill these things, and they proliferate quite readily.

  • Daisies: Daisies are medium height, with white petals and a yellow center. You may not realize this, but daisies do not have a particularly pleasing fragrance despite their cute, innocent appearance!

  • Coneflowers: Coneflowers look like big, tall daisies with raised, cone like centers. They typically come in purple or greenish white.

  • Black-eyed Susans: These look like yellow daisies with dark brown centers.

  • Coreopsis: Coreopsis is yellow, and it comes primarily in two varieties: tall or short. The tall varieties look similar to very tall yellow daisies. The short type is called moonbeam coreopsis. It is very compact and low to the ground, and sports small bright yellow flowers.

  • Phlox: Phlox proliferates very readily as sort of a low-lying ground cover. You often see it draping over short stone fences and covering entire sloped areas. It blooms in early spring, and comes in pastel colors such as lavender, pink and white.

You will want to avoid high-maintenance perennials that require a lot of pruning, fertilizing and thinning. Such high maintenance varieties include:

  • Roses: They exude intoxicating fragrance, but they're one of the most high-maintenance plants out there. Besides that, they're thorny! They have to be regularly pruned just so, which involves counting the hips, or joints, of the stalks. They also require very regular and very precise types of fertilizing. Roses can be daunting to even the most fervent of gardeners.
  • Irises: Irises proliferate quite easily, and they must be thinned out every year by digging up some of the bulbs. And if you throw the bulbs into the compost heap, they start growing!
  • Clematis: Clematis climbs beautifully on mailboxes, arbors and trellises. It's not necessarily a high-maintenance plant, but it has exacting needs for sun and shade: its roots must stay cool in the shade, and its vines and flowers prefer the sun.
  • Lavender: Lavender is a fragrant herb that requires well-drained soils. If you have average soil or clay-like soil, lavender will not thrive unless it's elevated on a small mound to facilitate proper drainage. But if you have really sandy soil, lavender will thrive.

What many people do is fill their landscape primarily with perennials, then add splashes of color here and there with annuals. Annuals can also be purchased in hanging planters or be planted in pots to perk up a porch or deck.

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