September 5, 2014
Perennials in a similar climate to ours in the South of France. Photo by Deborah Lawson
By Deborah Lawson
When I first learned to garden as a child in Wisconsin, we grew vegetables and flowers from seed. We planted things when the ground would thaw that would burst out with vigor as the weather warmed. We’d enjoy them for a few months, and then we’d start all over the next year. The only perennials I remember in our yard were my father’s roses, which he would prune and carefully wrap to protect them from the winter freezes.
It wasn’t until I got really hooked on gardening and started seeing all the amazing blooming plants that I realized that gardening was more than just green shrubs and annuals that died at the end of the season. Gardeners can invest in these amazing perennial plants that keep on giving year after year.
I’m now big on perennials, and like most avid gardeners, when I see something that’s not in my garden I just have to buy it and find a place in my landscape where it will do well. That’s not to say that annuals don’t have their place – they absolutely do! This article explores the benefits of both types of plants to provide you with knowledge to help you choose for yourself.
What is the difference between an annual and a perennial? As implied above, annuals live for a season – whatever that season might be. Here in North Florida we have summer annuals and cool weather annuals. Perennials are plants that typically return year after year in your particular climate. What might be a perennial in South Florida might be an annual in North Florida because it can’t handle even a light freeze. A good example is perennial blue salvia. It is not a hardy perennial and so, if we have a cold winter, it is not likely to come back, despite its name. But we have other blue salvias that will fill your garden with color and always return year after year. Not only do they return, but they multiply, giving you enough to share with friends or to move to another location. We are lucky here in North Florida to have a wealth of perennials, some that also survive in more colder northern climates, and some that survive in much warmer climates.
What works as a summer annual in my native Wisconsin is a winter annual here – old fashioned petunias and alyssum, snapdragons and pansies. With the exception of a few new varieties, these are things to plant when our weather cools that will play themselves out once our summer heat intensifies.
So, what can you expect from these different plants?
Generally, annuals are less expensive. You can buy whole flats of them and plant them en mass to give you great pops of color. To keep them looking good throughout a season you will probably need to prune spent blooms and stalks that get too rangy. When they play themselves out you just pull them up and throw them in your compost pile.
I consider perennials more of an investment, but the great thing about them is that they tend to multiply over time and so a great way to acquire them is to exchange plants with friends: “ I’ll give you a clump of my pineapple salvia – you give me some of your Mexican fire bush.” You will want to prune your perennials (after all danger of frost is past) which means there is some maintenance required to keep them beautiful, AND when you think spring has sprung in mid-February here in North Florida, you’ll need to be a little more patient because your perennials probably won’t start really showing off until much later. Still, watching them come alive is true pleasure for me.
In summary – annuals give you instant satisfaction and lots of color. Perennials are in it for the long haul. There are so many varieties, so many interesting flowering plants to give character to your landscape – why settle for one? Get them all!
Deborah Lawson is owner of Rejuvenation, LLC landscaping and design and a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov