Learn About Annuals, Perennials, Trees, and Shrubs

To get started, you will need to know some basic terms.  Don’t Panic!  You won’t need flashcards and there will be no quiz!  These are just a few very basic things everyone who plants will need to know.  Of course, there’s much more to know about plants than what we’ll cover here, but this will be just what you need to start the design process.


We’ll be starting from the very beginning, so if you know some of this already, skip ahead as needed.  If you are an experienced gardener of landscaper, feel free to jump right over this part and go directly to the next topic on the menu.


Every garden or landscape is made up of a combination of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs.  Most of us have heard these terms, but can’t always keep them straight.  Here are the simple definitions (If you already know these, jump ahead to the next section):

ANNUALS – Soft-stemmed plants that only live one season. Annuals are usually very colorful and flower all season.  They are typically used to add color to containers and gardens.  Some plants that are considered annuals in colder climates may actually live for several seasons in warmer climates.

So, why would anyone want to invest in a plant that only lives one season?  Annuals are cheap and flower like crazy!  Perennials and flowering trees and shrubs only flower for a relatively short time during the year while annuals will bloom from spring through fall right up until the cold kills them.  Petunias and impatiens are good examples of annuals.

PERENNIALS – Soft-stemmed plants that live year on year, but mostly die back to the ground every winter and regrow the following year.  Perennials are the most common type of garden flower.

Perennials are a good investment because you plant them once and they live for several years.  The downside to perennials is that they only flower for a relatively short time.  Irises, hostas and daylilies are good examples of perennials.

Perennials are usually known for their bloom time (unlike annuals that bloom the entire season).  In order to create a colorful garden with perennials you’ll need to plant perennials with varying bloom times so that something will always be in bloom.

TREES and SHRUBS – Woody plants living year on year.  Typically, a shrub is lower growing and has many stems coming out of the ground.  A tree typically is taller than a shrub and has a large central trunk.

We all know trees and shrubs.  Evergreen trees and shrubs keep their leaves (or needles) all year long and deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the fall.  Oaks and maples are good examples of deciduous trees.  Pine trees are good examples of evergreens.


All plants have a Latin name and one or more common names.  For example, a Black-Eyed Susan (common name) is actually rudbeckia fulgida (Latin name).  Don’t worry, you don’t need to memorize Latin names of plants! But, to be a good plant shopper, you should understand a little about them.

Latin names are typically two Latin words written in italics.  This Latin name is the species of the plant.  There is usually a third word after the Latin name in quotes.  This is the “cultivar” of the plant.  A cultivar is just a variation on the species.  Think of it like a dog.  A German Shepherd and a Chihuahua are both the same species (dog, or canis familiaris), but they look very different.  Cultivars are like that, different looks for the same species of plant.  Different cultivars of the same plant species may look as different as a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua.  Here is another example:

Echinacea purpurea is the Latin name for the common purple coneflower.

Echinacea pupurea “Magnus” is the typical tall purple flower.

Echinacea pupurea “White Swan” is the same species but with a white flower.


Aside from understanding your plant when you buy it, it is important to understand what will happen to your plant over the months or years it may spend in your garden.  Most plants will change dramatically from the way they look in the nursery.  Nurseries are experts at making a good first impression.  Before the plant reaches the store, it has been trimmed, fertilized and possibly made to flower more than it should.  The result may be a plant that looks very different from what you’ll end up with once it’s planted.  Check the mature size of the plant listed on the tag for starters.  Also beware of shrubs trimmed into tidy shapes.  They will likely require frequent trimming to retain those shapes.

Over time, you’ll get an eye for the way plants mature. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask at your local nursery if you’re not sure.  We’ll talk more later in this guide about shopping for plants and we’ll give you the tools you’ll need to make the right decisions.


Here’s a quick summary of what we learned in this section:

  • Annuals are soft stemmed plants that only live one season.
  • Annuals flower longer and more profusely than most perennials.
  • Perennials are soft stemmed plants that live for several seasons.
  • Perennials flower for a relatively short time each season.
  • Trees and shrubs are woody stemmed plants that live for several years.
  • Evergreen trees and shrubs keep their leaves or needles all year long.
  • Deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves or needles in the fall.
  • Plants have common names and Latin names.
  • The Latin name is usually two words in italics that tell the species of the plant
  • The Latin name is usually followed by the cultivar of the plant in quotations.
  • The cultivar is a variation on the original species such as different flower color or other attribute.
  • The way a plant looks at the nursery may not represent the way it will look over time in your garden

Next:  Learn how to pick the right plants for your location in HARDINESS ZONES