ASK MARTHA: High Impact Annuals

The secret to a colorful summer!

Question: Hi Martha, what is the difference between annuals and perennials? 

Martha: Every budding gardener can create a patch - or pots - of colorful flowers, with the right sun and soil. Annuals offer many advantages – from providing a bountiful cutting garden – to filling in a spotty perennial bed. Whether you choose to grow them from seed or purchase established plants from your local nursery, a good place to start is by understanding the term annual – as well as perennial, and biennial.

ANNUALS such as marigolds, sprout from seed, bloom, bear seed, and die within a single growing season. If allowed to set seed (indicating to the plant's energy reserves that the blooming season is over), they will stop flowering and soon expire. Because of this, deadheading - pinching off blossoms as they fade - is an essential part of their care. More on that below.

PERENNIALS survive from year to year. Some, such as daffodils, retreat underground during harsh conditions such as drought or cold weather. In warm regions, some perennials like sedum and phlox, grow and remain green year-round. There are also evergreen perennials, such as hellebores, that flourish in cold climates.

TENDER PERENNIALS such as impatiens, are considered perennial in their native warm climate habitats, but cannot tolerate winter cold. They are grown as annuals in colder parts of North America.

BIENNIALS such as foxglove and forget-me-nots, live two years, but show only their foliage the first year and make you wait until the next year to reward you with a display of flowers. After flowering, they die. To have a steady supply of blossoms, plant new seeds each year; this way you'll get foliage and flowers at the same time.

Left: A field of P. commutatum shows the poppy blooms in various life stages from fuzzy new buds to full-blown, red-hot beauties. Right: P.orientale, P.rhoeas, and P.commutatum team up with blue bachelor’s buttons. 


  • Plant for plant, annuals generally are showy, colorful plants that grow quickly and bear more flowers than perennials and remain in bloom for a much longer period. Perennials devote much of their strength to storing the energy they need to overwinter. Annuals, on the other hand, literally bloom themselves to death, and this makes them superior for window boxes and other containers as well as the cutting garden. 
  • In some respects, annuals' impermanence is an advantage. Because these plants are pulled from the bed each fall, pests and diseases are unlikely to become entrenched as they commonly do in perennial plantings. 
  • Fast growth also makes annuals an ideal plug for the gaps that appear seasonally in perennial plantings. When your tulips retreat underground, slip in some annuals to fill out the display until next year. 
  • Annuals' fast growth also encourages adventurous design. A perennial border takes several years to mature, and you don't want to discover at the end of that time that your color scheme does not quite work. Try it out with annuals, though, and you'll know in weeks if it was an inspiration or a flop, and if you hate the results, simply replant.

Zinnias are native to Mexico and warm regions of the Southwestern United States and Central and South America. Fast-growing, easy annuals in cold-winter climates, with flowers from midsummer into fall, they are dependable for cutting or for garden color.


  • Visit the gardens of neighbors and friends to see which annuals appeal to you and will thrive in your growing conditions.
  • Select a planting area that receives full sun – Flowers require 6-8 hours of sun per day.
  • Choose varieties that have a long blooming season. We’ve listed several options below.
  • Talk with your local garden center. Annuals are widely available.
  • Amend your soil in beds with a nutrient rich product such as Miracle-Gro® Organic Raised Bed & Garden Soil.
  • Refresh the soil in your containers before planting using a mix especially created for that purpose. Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics All Purpose Container Mix is a great option.
  • Feed about a month or two after planting with a granular time release or liquid instant feed fertilizer. Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics All Purpose Plant Nutrition is available in an easy-to-use water soluble form. 
  • Water plants at their base to keep leaves and flowers dry.
  • Cut flowers in the early morning or evening when sun is low and temperatures cool. Place them in a bucket of water immediately after cutting to preserve blooms.
  • Be sure to deadhead spent flowers frequently. 

Pinching annuals: To dead­head most annuals, catch the stem between the edge of your thumbnail and the tip of your forefinger, and gently apply pressure until you've nipped off the spent flower. The goal is a clean separation - torn or ragged edges can encourage disease. (Note: Pansies are actually biennials, but most often grown as annuals in much of the United States)


To extend the life of blooms (and the plants themselves), remove spent flowers (aka "dead heads"). Some flowers can simply be pinched, and you'll know this by trying - they should fall off without any effort. Others need to be cut with secateurs. Follow the shape of the flower and its connection to the stem as your guide, cutting where stalk meets leaves. For shrubs with tiny flowers, you can use grass shears to snip off a bunch at a time, leaving buds behind.

Long Blooming Annuals for the Beginner:


Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.