Primer on the Big Three flowering plants

By Lynette L. Walther | Apr 19, 2019
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Peonies have been perennial favorites of gardeners for decades. The delicate-looking perennials are some of the hardiest plants, and deliver fragrant blooms year after year.

Every once in a while, it seems a good idea to take a step back and review a few of the basics. Each spring sees new folks catching the seasonal gardening “bug,” and it is primarily those folks we address today. But it won’t hurt for everyone else to review these flowering plants as well.

This time of year, garden centers are bursting with blooms to tempt us to try in our gardens. Seed selections beckon with promise of flowers galore — and thank goodness for the variety. But sometimes expectations exceed the results, and knowing what we are getting into when we purchase a six-pack or pot of flowering plants always makes the journey better.

When it comes to flowering plants (and that can include vegetables as well, because they flower, too), there are basically three types. Knowing what’s what not only takes a lot of guesswork out of growing flowering plants, but also lets us know what to expect from what I call the Big Three.

Annuals: This vast group of flowering plants includes many of the vegetables and herbs we grow in our gardens, as well as the ones we cultivate for bouquets, to add color to our landscapes and to attract pollinators. Annuals live for one growing season: they grow, then flower, then the flowers produce seeds (be that in a cosmos bloom or a tomato or basil) and then they die.

We can keep flowering annuals blooming longer by deadheading, or pinching off or cutting off the blooms before they can go to seed. Same thing applies to vegetables. To prolong the harvest, keep picking those green beans to prevent the plant from going to seed. Collecting seeds from annuals that have been allowed to go to seed is a good way to ensure a crop next year.

Biennials: Since it translates as "two years," the term "biennials" gives us a hint at what to expect from this group. Biennials are plants that flower, and they include a few of the the vegetables we grow. Biennials produce only foliage their first growing season. They then go dormant for the winter, bloom the following growing season, during which time they  produce seed and then die. Plants in this group include foxgloves, some salvias, parsley and carrots.

Perennials: As their name suggests — it means "existing for a long or apparently infinite time; enduring or continually recurring" — perennials live more than one year. Some perennials are considered short-lived and live for a just couple years or more. Others live many years, expanding, dividing and producing ever more of their kind. Perennials are what make up most of the beautiful gardens we love and admire, and their wonderful and amazing emergence each spring is what a lot of gardeners live for. Examples of perennials are bearded iris, peonies, daylilies, hostas, lavender, rosemary and ornamental grasses.

Combining all of the above is a time-honored practice that can result in a colorful display that provides interest and color throughout the growing season. Bloom times differ for all of the above plants and a mix of them can maintain a steady flow of flowers. Adding evergreen or flowering shrubs as structural backdrops and links for the Big Three can add additional textural contrast.

When it comes to getting the biggest bang out of most annuals, I like to relegate them to a substantial planter or pot to bring them up a bit higher than the rest of the garden. This also makes it easier to deadhead the spent blooms to promote repeat blooming. A colorful glazed ceramic pot or rustic wood planter will contribute additional texture, contrast and color to your display.

Situating plants in any vegetable or ornamental garden takes a bit of sleuthing work to discover and understand their needs. Whether a particular plant requires full sun, part shade, dry, well-drained or wet soil — knowing what conditions are optimum for plants and then providing those conditions is how successful gardeners achieve their goals. It just boils down to putting the right plant in the right place.

Whatever you choose, whatever your favorites are, now that you know which category they occupy, you can grow them with confidence to meet your expectations.

The first year of a foxglove’s life is dedicated to producing only foliage. These biennial foxglove plants at a local plant sale are second-year plants ready to bloom. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
The perky little annual petunias are one example of a type of flowering plant that lives for one growing season. Here we see a “volunteer” that sprouted and grew from a seed dropped there the summer before. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
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