Tips for Growing Annuals and Biennials

Annuals are flowers that bloom the first year they are planted, often flowering just a couple of months after sowing. The following tips will help you to get to know these flowers a bit better.
  • Most annuals are started indoors or in greenhouses in late winter or early spring. But when spring frosts are over, plants such as zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos can be sown directly in the garden for a summer full of flowers.

pots of flowers
Annuals bloom the first year they are planted.
See more pictures of annuals.

  • In colder climates, tender perennials such as alstroemeria, wax begonia, and some species of impatiens will behave like annuals and must be cultivated as such. These same plants, however, will grow as perennials in their native hot climates.
  • Biennials like cup and saucer, some foxgloves, and some hollyhocks produce greenery the first year only. During the second year of growth, they flower and set seed destined to become the next generation. If you allow plants to self-sow for at least two years, you will have a steady supply of blooming plants.
In the next section, we'll give you some great tips for choosing the right annuals and biennials for your garden.

Annuals with Everlasting Flowers
Grow annuals with everlasting flowers to dry for winter arrangements. If seedlings of everlasting annuals are not available at your local garden center, consider starting your own seedlings indoors. Some everlasting annuals:

  • Cockscomb: plume or comb-shaped flowers in bright red, orange, or yellow
  • Annual baby's breath: cloudlike drifts of small white flowers
  • Bells of Ireland: spikes of green trumpet-shaped flowers
  • Globe amaranth: ball-shaped flowers of white, pink, purple, and orange
  • Love-in-a-mist: maroon-striped seed pods
  • Statice: bright sprays of pink, purple, yellow, white, and blue flowers
  • Strawflowers: double daisylike flowers with straw-textured petals in red, pink, white, gold, and bronze


Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Choosing Annuals and Biennials

Home gardeners have many lovely varieties of annuals and biennials to choose from. The following tips will help you choose the best annuals and biennials for your garden.

  • In informal gardens, plant nonhybrid annuals that may return from self-sown seeds allowed to mature and fall to the ground. Suitable annuals include the heirlooms love-lies-bleeding and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate; wildflowers such as cornflowers, California poppies, and verbenas; and open-pollinated annuals such as snapdragons, portulaca, cockscomb, and spider flowers.

    Pot of flowers
    When selecting annuals and biennials,
    choose plants with bright green foliage.

Choose healthy plants when shopping at the garden center or nursery in spring. Here is a checklist to use before buying any new plant:

  • Leaf color: The foliage of naturally green-leafed plants should be bright green, not faded yellow or scorched bronze or brown.
  • Plant shape: The sturdiest seedlings will be compact, with short stretches of stem between sets of leaves. Slenderness may be an admirable quality on high-fashion models, but a lanky, skinny seedling is weaker and less desirable than a short, stocky one.
  • Pests: If you shake the plant, no insects should come fluttering off. Inspect the stem tips and flower buds for aphids, small pear-shaped sap suckers. Look for hidden pests by turning the plant upside down and looking under the leaves and along the stem.

  • Roots: An annual with ideal roots will have filled out its potting soil without growing cramped. When roots are overcrowded, the plant is root-bound -- the roots have consumed all soil space and grown tangled and ineffective. The best way to judge root quality is to pop a plant out of its container (or ask a sales clerk to do this) and check to see how matted the roots have become.

In the next section, we'll give you some great garden design ideas involving annuals and biennials.

Heirloom Flowers

Heirloom flowers are flowers your ancestors may have enjoyed. Some heirlooms are only slightly different from modern flowers -- taller, larger- or smaller-flowered, or more fragrant. But other heirlooms are quite distinct and unusual. Here are some examples:

  • Love-lies-bleeding: Long, dangling, crimson red seed heads form colorful streamers.
  • Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate: These six-foot-tall plants have pendulous pink flowers.
  • Balsam: This impatiens relative sprinkles flowers amid the foliage along the stems.
  • Sweet peas: Vining pea-shaped plants that bear colorful pink, white, purple, and red flowers with delightful fragrances.


Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Annuals and Biennials Garden Design Ideas

Gardens don't have to be rectangular -- use your imagination to come up with a creative pattern or design. The following garden design ideas involving annuals and biennials will help ignite your creativity.

  • Re-create a favorite pattern from a family crest, piece of fabric, or needlepoint with annuals in your flower garden. You've seen similar patterns at amusement parks and public parks. Why not do the same with a pattern that is meaningful to you?
  • Use pale sand to outline the plant groupings before planting when laying out annual beds. This is like making a pencil sketch of a painting before stroking on the oil paints. Whether you're planning to put blue ageratum in edging rows, make a teardrop of red zinnias, or create a sweeping mass of pink impatiens, you can adjust and fine-tune the overall shapes before filling them in with colorful flowers. After making the sand outlines, stand back and look at the results objectively. If you don't like the first attempt, cover the sand with soil and try again.

row of flowers
Use creativity when planting annuals and biennials.

  • Plant staggered rows of annuals to create a fuller look. A single marching line of annuals such as French marigolds set side by side can look weak in a bigger garden. You can beef up their impact by planting a second row behind the first, with the rear plants centered on the openings between the front-row plants.
  • Staggered rows are also nice for showcasing taller annuals, such as blue salvia or snapdragons, set in the rear of a garden. A double row of spider flowers can become so full and bushy it resembles a flowering hedge.
  • Create the most excitement from your shade garden by choosing flowers with white, pastel, or brightly colored blossoms. Dark burgundy leaves and cool blue or purple flowers won't shine the way brighter blooms do from shady garden depths.

Fragrant Annuals
Why not plant some perfumed flowers under an open window or beside the patio? Here are some good choices:

  • Take a yardstick with you when you go to plant. Measure the distance between each plant in a row and between rows rather than simply eyeballing it.
  • Use a spacing aid to plant annual displays and cutting gardens in even rows. Even the most beautifully grown annuals can be distracting if they are spaced erratically. Fortunately, spacing is one element you can easily control. Here are some options: Make a planting grid by stapling a large piece of wire mesh over a wooden frame. If the mesh openings are 2 inches square and you want to plant ageratums 6 inches apart, you can put one seedling in every third hole. Or, make a spacing rope. Tie knots in the rope to mark specific measurements, for instance, noting every 4 or 6 inches. You can stretch the rope between two stakes to make even measurements along a straight line.

In the next section, we'll give you some great tips for gardening with annuals and biennials.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Gardening Tips for Annuals and Biennials

Plant annuals and biennials in your garden and you'll enjoy an incredible variety of beautiful, colorful flowers. The following gardening tips will help you grow strong, healthy plants.

  • Gently break up the root ball of annuals grown in cell packs or pots before planting them. Often, the roots have overgrown the potting area and become matted. You'll have to pull off the tangles so the roots will be able to grow free into the soil.
  • If roots are wound around the bottom of the root ball, use your finger to gently work the roots free of each other. If they are matted over the entire root ball, you'll need to tear or cut the mats off, leaving the roots below intact.
  • Snip back leggy annuals when you plant to encourage bushy new growth. Don't hesitate -- it's really for the best! Removing the growing tip of a stem stimulates side shoots to sprout, which makes annuals fuller. Since each side shoot can be full of flowers, the whole plant will look better.

root ball
The root balls of annuals should be broken up before planting.

  • Fertilize annuals periodically during the growing season to keep them producing. This is particularly helpful after the first flush of blooming flowers begins to fade (which often marks the beginning of a quiet garden during hot summer months).
  • Remove spent blossoms from geraniums and other annuals to keep them blooming and tidy. The bigger the flower, the worse it can look when faded, brown, and mushy. Large, globular geranium flowers are particularly prominent when they begin to discolor. Snip off the entire flower cluster. Take off the stem, too, if no other flower buds are waiting to bloom. This process, called deadheading, is more than mere housekeeping. By removing the old flowers, you prevent seed production, which consumes a huge amount of energy from the plant. Energy saved can be channeled instead into producing new blooms.
  • For best results, deadhead, then fertilize with a balanced water-soluble or granular fertilizer. A balanced fertilizer contains similar percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Check the fertilizer package label for application instructions.
  • Pinch annuals like coleus, browallia, and petunias to keep them full. These plants can get tall and gangly as the growing season progresses. A little pinch, removing the top inch or two of stem, will soon correct this problem. More is at work here than merely shortening the stem. Removing the terminal bud (at the stem tip) allows side branches to grow and make the plant fuller.
  • Plant naturally self-branching annuals. Your mother may have pinched all her flowers throughout the summer. But many modern types of impatiens, begonias, multiflora petunias, and other annuals have been bred to be self-branching. They stay fuller naturally and may not need any pinching, or at least very little.

In our final section, we'll talk about working with stem cuttings.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Working with Stem Cuttings

stem cutting
Stem cuttings thrive
with little effort and space.

Many gardeners choose to work with stem cuttings when growing annuals and biennials. The following tips will help you through the process of working with cuttings.

  • Take stem cuttings of tender flowers in late summer before temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You can root them indoors and enjoy their greenery and perhaps a few flowers during winter. Then you can take more cuttings of these plants to set out next spring.
  • Cuttings are more compact and versatile than old garden plants dug up and squeezed into a pot. They can thrive with less effort and space.
  • Fresh-cut annual stems may root if you put them in a vase of clean water. But stems can root more reliably in a sterile, peat-based mix.

Annuals Suitable for Late Summer Cuttings

  • Have flowers blooming in sunny windows during fall and winter by starting new seedlings outdoors in pots in mid- to late summer. Bring them indoors several weeks before the first autumn frost. They will begin to bloom as frost arrives, perfect for brightening the autumn transition period. This works well with French marigolds, pansies, petunias, nasturtiums, violas, impatiens, compact cockscomb, and annual asters. Simply discard the plants later when they get ratty-looking.

Want more gardening tips? Try:


  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.