3 Plant Types You Need to Know: Perennial, Biennial, and Annual
What are perennial, biennial and annual plants? As a gardener and homesteader there is a lot to know when picking out what types of plant to use. Knowing when to use perennial plants, biennial plants or annual plants can save you time, energy and make your garden and homestead even more abundant.
Understanding Perennial, Biennial and Annual Plants
Have you seen the words perennial, biennial, and annual on plant descriptions but never really knew what they meant?
These words refer to three main types of plants. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with these categories if you want to make the right planting decisions for your garden.
Don’t worry about taking notes – I made a free, easy-to-print cheat-sheet that you can download. This cheat-sheet has everything you need to understand annual, biennial and perennial plants.
Introduction to Annual Plants
Let’s start with annual plants. If you have a vegetable garden (check out Square Foot Gardening for help with growing vegetables), chances are you are growing annuals. Annual plants are plants that complete their entire life cycle in less than a year.
That means they go from a seed, to a full plant, produce their own seed, and die, all in one year.
Annual plants are nature's cleanup crew-anytime there is bare ground, annual plants are the first to show up.
Annual Plants in Your Garden
What does this mean for your garden?
If you grow annual plants, you will get a quick growing plant that will give you a harvest or flower that same year.
That is great to get quick flowers or vegetables, but annual plants will quickly go to seed and die that fall or winter.
This means you will need to replant your annual plants the following spring, either from seed or by transplanting young plants. Doing this every spring and summer can be a lot of work, depending on the size of your garden.
Also worth noting, most weeds that you will deal with in your garden are annual plants.
Remember how annual plants are nature’s cleanup crew?
If you have a lot of bare ground, or just too much open space between your shrubs, you’re just inviting weeds to move in. You can pull them, but they will be back the following year if the open space remains.
Whether from planting or from weeding, annual plants will create the most work for you in your garden but also the quickest rewards.
Pros of Annual Plants
Cons of Annual Plants
Introduction to Biennial Plants
So, what about biennial plants?
These are plants that take 2 years to complete their life cycle. In the first year they will grow from seed to an established plant, but they won’t produce any seed.
Biennial plants will overwinter and come back in the spring. During their 2nd year they will produce seeds and then die.
Like annual plants, biennial plants are often part of nature’s efforts to cover bare ground. Some common weeds such as mullein are biennials.
Biennial Plants in Your Garden
Shifting back to your garden—several vegetables that are often grown as annual plants are biennial plants in warm temperate climates (such as western Washington State).
If you let a carrot overwinter in the ground, it will get a tall flower stock producing hundreds of small seeds. During this second year, the carrot root is too tough to be harvested, which is why most people don’t let them overwinter.
But you can still harvest the carrot seeds if you leave a few to overwinter and flower the following summer. For help saving seeds check out the above link or Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners.
Occasionally, if conditions are harsh, biennial plants will act like annuals and flower during their first year. A lot of biennial vegetables become tougher or less edible in that scenario because they get more bitter once they start flowering.
Biennial plants can save you some time and effort compared to annual plants.
Plus, if your ground doesn’t freeze, (a thick mulch layer can help with this) biennials can make for an easy winter crop. You can harvest carrots all winter long instead of storing them in your fridge.
But since the plant is often too tough or bitter to eat in the second year, you will still need to replant your biennial flowers and veggies each year to ensure you always have a good harvest and great blooms.
Pros of Biennial Plants
Cons of Biennial Plants
Introduction to Perennial Plants
My favorite type of plants are perennial plants.
I love that I can plant them once and have them come back year after year. Unlike annual and biennial plants, perennial plants can keep growing for years after being planted.
This can save you a lot of time each year.
But you have less flexibility than with annual and biennial plants, since once you plant a perennial plant it will be there for a while.
Perennial plants tend to take longer to mature than annual and biennial plants.
Asparagus is a common perennial vegetable that you probably know. It can take up to 3 years after planting asparagus before you can get a harvest.
This is also true for other perennial plants such as fruit trees and berry bushes. You may get a harvest the 1st or 2nd year, but the harvests are likely to be small until the plant is fully established.
Perennial plants also tend to need less watering once established because their root system is larger.
Perennial Plants in Your Garden
Most garden vegetables that you are used to are probably annual plants. Because of this you will probably have to expand your taste or cooking habits somewhat if you want to grow perennial vegetables in your garden.
In natural areas, perennial plants tend to show up after annual and biennial plants have already been growing for a while.
Over time, perennial plants will become the dominate type of plant in most environments since they tend to grow much larger than annual and biennial plants.
This means that most perennial plants will not act like weeds in your garden or flowerbeds.
One exception to this is the common dandelion, which, I must add, is edible, and can be great in salads if you harvest the young leaves.
Since perennial plants tend to grow much larger than annual and biennial plants they also tend to provide much larger harvests per plant. But it takes longer to get your first harvest.
Think about how many apples you can get from one apple tree!
Perennial plants are an excellent type of plant to include more of in your garden and on your property.
Pros of Perennial Plants
Cons of Perennial Plants
Choosing Between Perennial, Biennial and Annual Plants
So, should you use perennial, biennial or annual plants? I like using all 3, since they each have their own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Annual plants will die after during their first year, but they will also flower and give you an abundant harvest if grown for food.
Biennial plants will give you a bit of a longer harvest and flower period, but you will still need to replant them each year.
Perennial plants will last for years and save you a lot of time and energy, but you will have less flexibility, you may have to expand your culinary comfort zone, and you will need to wait longer for your first harvests.
My ideal setup is to plant perennial plants as the foundation of the garden or flower bed. Then, around these perennial plants, you can grow annuals and biennial plants.
Just as in a natural landscape, you should plant far more annual and biennial plants than perennial plants.
This creates a dynamic and beautiful habitat that will result in an abundance of flowers or food (or both!) for you to enjoy.
Have you experimented with annual, biennial, and perennial plants? What do you think?
Please share your experiences in a comment below!
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