What Are Annual Plants? Plus, Gorgeous Annual Varieties That Make for a Stunning Garden
Plus, how they're different from biennials and perennials.
As the pansies in Alice in Wonderland once sang, you can learn a lot of things from the flowers. And as any amateur gardener knows, the same can be said for everything from house plants to veggie gardens too. But if you're going to start planting, you need to know what you're planting, so it's important to ask: what is an annual plant and how are they different from perennials and biennials?
Annuals are an excellent starting point for all gardening levels—beginners to amateurs to those who don't have a green thumb at all. Most annuals are pretty hardy—meaning they are strong and can handle a lot of exposure, like chillier weather. Will they last all year long? Probably not (depending on where you live) but the best part of annuals is that they can be planted in early spring and late fall.
Grab those gardening gloves and keep reading for more information on annual plants—from the hardiest of all to cold and warm season annuals.
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What Is an Annual Plant?
An annual plant is defined as "any plant that completes its life cycle in a single growing season."
If you're a green gardener—AKA new to gardening—there are several different categories of plants. The main three are annuals, biennials and perennials.
According to Texas A&M, annuals are "plants that perform their entire life cycle from seed to flower to seed within a single growing season. All roots, stems, and leaves of the plant die annually. Only the dormant seed bridges the gap between one generation and the next."
Confused? The easiest way to remember what annuals are is to focus on their life cycle. Annuals are plants that only grow for that one year—AKA annually. They'll die in the winter and then you'll have to plant them again next year.
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Do Annuals Come Back Every Year?
No, people often get confused between "annuals" and "perennials" but annuals do not, in fact, grow back every year. Because annuals die off in the wintertime, they will need to be replanted (or replaced by something else) next season.
Annuals, Perennials and Biennials: Overview
The difference between annual, perennial and biennial plants is whether or not they grow back each season. Annual plants die in winter and must be replanted the following season; perennials, on the other hand, usually return every year.
Texas A&M explains that perennials are "plants that persist for many growing seasons. Generally, the top portion of the plant dies back each winter and regrows the following spring from the same root system."
Then, there are biennials. Biennials last for two seasons (or years); the first year, they usually appear as small leaves and buds at the ground's surface while in the second year, biennials elongate their stems, flower and create more seeds. Then, they die.
However, because different regions have different climates, different types of plants respond and behave differently too. For example, jasmine grows evergreen—all year long—down south while up north, it dies in the wintertime.
That's because the south has a longer growing period due to its generally warmer weather.
For more information on what grows where, find your hardiness zone through the US Department of Agricultural Research Service (USADA).
Hardy Annual Plants
A plant's hardiness is "a plant’s ability to withstand cold winter temperatures." However, there's an important distinction that should be made—hardy plants and hardy seeds aren't actually the same. While a seed itself may be hardy and up to growing in chilly conditions, it may become more fragile as it grows and flowers.
Hardy seeds can grow in frozen soil and survive during winter frost, which means they can be planted in fall and spring.
Hardy Annual Seeds
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Hardy annual plants can also be planted in late fall or early spring as they are relatively tolerant of colder temperatures. However, hardy annuals can't survive winters with drastically low temperatures. They'll do fine with one or two chilly days, but a couple of winter storms might just do them in. For that reason, your hardiness zone doesn't matter for annuals.
Hardy Annual Plants
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Half-hardy Annual Plants
This is where it starts to get a little more complicated... Half-hardy annuals refer to annuals that require winter protection for anything below a USDA zone 7.
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Cool and Warm Season Annuals
Then, there are both cool- and warm-season annuals and both mean exactly what they sound like: cold-season annuals are those that grow well during the colder seasons while warm-season annuals do not grow until the last frost.
As such, warm-season annuals usually aren't planted until late April, May, or perhaps even June depending on the weather. The general rule of thumb, however, is to start planting on Mother's Day weekend.
Cool-season annuals include poppy, godetia, larkspur, violas, bachelor's buttons, pansies, snapdragons and sweet alyssum.
Warm-season annuals include impatiens, marigolds, petunias, geraniums, salvia, celosia, zinnias, wax begonias, dianthus, moss rose and periwinkle.
If you're a veggie gardener, then you need to know which vegetables are annuals too. Annual veggies include corn, cauliflower, beans, lettuce, as well as garden, snap and sweet peas.
Tomatoes and most varieties of peppers are usually perennial on the vine but in colder climates, they're usually treated as annuals. Broccoli is also usually annual (though it can present as a biennial sometimes).
Rice, watermelon and wheat are also considered annuals.
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Why You Should Grow Annual Plants
Annual plants have a lot going for them—they're typically less expensive than other types of plants, they give you the option to change up the look of your landscape frequently and you're not stuck with them forever if you decide you're not a big fan of a particular type once it blooms.
And when it comes to annual vegetables, it's beyond satisfying to switch up the veggies you want to grow yourself. Talk about intentional meal prep!
Next up, start your first container garden with these hot tips and tricks.