Annuals vs. Perennials — What’s the Difference?

Planning to grow a flower garden? Learn definitions to the common gardening terms you need to know before you visit the garden center.

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Annuals vs. Perennials and Other Gardening Terms to Know

Whether you are just beginning or you’ve been in the garden for decades, give yourself a refresher on some common gardening terms. The next time you chat with a garden center employee or a neighbor over the back fence, you’ll sound like a pro.

Annuals vs. Perennials

It may seem logical that an annual plant comes back annually. But that would be a perennial plant, as in a perennial star year after year. An annual plant blooms, goes to seed and dies all in one growing season, so it needs to regenerate itself annually. Annuals are typically fast growing.


A biennial plant sprouts one year, flowers the next and then dies.


This is another way of saying “going to seed.” Lettuce plants bolt as hot weather sets in. Sensing their time is short, they hurriedly form seed for the next generation.

Cover Crops

These are crops that are sowed quickly to cover the soil and protect it from erosion. Later, the cover crops are turned into the soil to release nutrients.


For gardeners, deadheading plants means removing old flowers after they wilt. This encourages new blooms and keeps the plant from going to seed.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate

A determinate plant has a predetermined size, at which point it stops growing. An indeterminate plant has a less definite mature size — it grows until something stops it, such as a barrier or a fall frost.

Hardening Off

In spring, a gardener transitions tender plants outdoors by slowly introducing them to wind and direct sunlight until they adjust to their new surroundings.

Growing Medium

This is a sweeping term describing whatever a plant is growing in, whether it’s topsoil, potting mix or compost.

Pruning vs. Pinching

Pruning is the purposeful removal of unwanted growth, perhaps using hand pruners to cut back a stem or a chainsaw to remove a limb. Pinching is a form of pruning during which part of the stem tip is removed near a node to encourage side branching.

Scarification vs. Stratification

These are two treatments to get seeds to sprout. Scarification is nicking the outer coat, while stratification is subjecting the seed to cold for a period of time, mimicking winter.

Top Dressing

This term simply means topping off the soil with up to an inch of fertilizer, compost or other soil amendment to replenish the area and aid growth.


Plants that sprout on their own without the intervention of people are known as volunteers, whether they come from acorns left by squirrels or seeds dropping on bare soil.


You are xeriscaping if your landscaping features plants that tolerate drought and need little irrigation.

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Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.