What you need to know about perennial, biennial, and annual plants

What You Need to Know About Perennial, Biennial, and Annual Plants

What are perennial, biennial and annual plants? As someone who wants to cultivate abundance, 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 and energy, and make your property even more abundant.


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Understanding Perennial, Biennial and Annual Plants

Perennial, biennial, and annual plants can be used together

This hedgerow mimics nature by having a relatively small number of perennial plants mixed in with a lot of annual and biennial plants. Nature repairs bare ground using a similar mix - just with different species.

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.

This post will walk you through these 3 plant types—annual, biennial, and perennial plants–and help you understand the pro’s and con’s for each type.

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

Nustrusiums like other annual plants are a core part of a garden

Nustrusiums are a beautiful annual plant that is also edible. The flowers are a great salad topping!

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

Annual plants are the core of a vegetable garden

Annual plants such as the ones in this container garden are often found in vegetable gardens.

What does this mean for your garden?

Most of the common vegetables you find in stores are annual plants—at least outside of the tropics and sub-tropics. A lot of flowers are annuals, too, like marigolds and petunias.

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

  • Provides quick harvests.
  • Blooms quickly.
  • Most common vegetables are annual plants.
  • Can quickly establish and start improving bare land.

Cons of Annual Plants

  • Must be replanted each year.
  • Require more watering than established perennial plants.
  • Requires the most regular work.

Introduction to Biennial Plants

Biennial plants live for 2 years

In warmer temperate climates like the west coast of Washington State plants like swish chard are biennials producing seed in their second year.

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

Onions are biennial vegetables

Onions are an example of a biennial plant commonly found in vegetable gardens. While you may often harvest onions during their first year, if you let them grow they would flower in their second year.

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.

Other common biennial vegetables are Swiss chard, beets, Brussels sprouts, and kale. Foxglove, hollyhocks, and forget-me-nots are common biennial flowers often grown in flower beds.

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

  • Provides quick harvests.
  • Provides a second year of harvests and blooms.
  • Several common vegetables are biennial plants.
  • Can quickly establish and start improving bare land.

Cons of Biennial Plants

  • Must be replanted each year to ensure future harvests.
  • Require more watering than established perennial plants.
  • Second year harvests may be tough and less enjoyable than first year harvests.

Introduction to Perennial Plants

Hedgerows can help you deal with drought on the homestead

My hedgerow is filled with edible perennial plants. In this picture there are seaberries, Turkish rocket, elderberries, coastal strawberries, lavender, and black cap raspberries.

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

Turkish rocket is a perennial vegetable that can be added to your garden

Turkish rocket is a perennial vegetable that has flowers buds that can be used like broccoli and leaves that can be eaten raw or cooked if you like a peppery addition to your foods.

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

  • Requires little watering once established.
  • Provides harvests year after year without replanting.
  • Once established can provide large harvests.
  • Require much less work than annual and biennial plants.
  • Can attract beneficial insects and help build soil.

Cons of Perennial Plants

  • Less flexibility since you don't replant each year.
  • Perennial vegetables may require some adjustment in your cooking and eating habits.
  • Tend to take up more space per plant than annual and biennial plants.

Choosing Between Perennial, Biennial and Annual Plants

The trade-offs of a rocket oven

When choosing between perennial, biennial, and annual plants, make sure to take the pros and cons of each into account. If you can use a mix of all 3 types in your garden and on your property. Credit: Alexander Henning Drachmann - CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

This creates a dynamic and beautiful habitat that will result in an abundance of flowers or food (or both!) for you to enjoy.

And of course you can just focus on perennials and skip the annuals entirely!

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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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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