Most gardens contain a mix of different plants, including perennials, annuals, shrubs and trees. Understanding the different types means you’ll understand how they grow, helping you to care for them correctly. They also all bring something different to the garden, ensuring that it looks good all year round.
Watch Alan Titchmarsh explain the different plant types in his No Fuss video guide to understanding plant life cycles.
Find out about the different types of plant, and how they grow, in our simple guide.
Annuals complete their entire life cycle – growing from seed, flowering, making more seed, then dying – in one year (their name comes from the Latin ‘annus’, meaning ‘year’). They produce masses of bright, showy flowers in summer. There are two types.
Hardy annuals can withstand the cold, so you can sow them outdoors in spring – March or April are the usual times but they can also be sown in September. They include cornflowers, love-in-a mist and nasturtiums.
Half-hardy annuals cannot survive the cold, so they are generally sown indoors in spring and planted out in May or June. They include cosmos and zinnias.
Biennials take two years to complete their life cycle – they are sown in one year and flower and die in the next (their name comes from the Latin word, ‘biennis’, which means ‘two years’. They often flower in late spring, before annuals and perennials get going. The most common biennial in our gardens is the foxglove.
Perennials live for three years or more – their name comes the Latin, ‘perennis’, which means ‘many years’. They are sometimes referred to ‘herbaceous perennials’. They can flower for several months in summer. There are two types:
Hardy perennials can survive the winter and are left in the ground all year round. Don’t be alarmed when they seem to ‘disappear’ in winter – it’s a survival mechanism to get through the cold weather. Their foliage dies back but the rootstock remains dormant underground. New shoots then appear in spring. Popular perennials include lupins, delphiniums, cranesbills, hostas and peonies.
Half-hardy perennials cannot cope with the cold and so must be brought indoors in winter. It’s best to grow this type of plant in a pot, so that you can move it around easily. Alternatively, you could plant fresh plants every year. Half hardy perennials include many fuchsias and heliotrope.
Shrubs, such as roses and lavender, have a woody branches and no trunk. They can be deciduous (they lose their leaves in winter), evergreen (they keep their leaves year-round) or semi-evergreen (they keep their leaves in mild winters). Shrubs add structure and can last for many years, offering flowers, attractive foliage, colourful autumn leaves or berries. Evergreen types can be used as topiary, clipped into attractive shapes.
Trees have a trunk and are larger than shrubs. They can be deciduous or evergreen. However small your garden, you can squeeze in a tree – it will change beautifully throughout the year and also acts as a high-rise home for wildlife. Discover six trees for every garden.
Climbers grow upwards, and need support in the form of a trellis, arch, fence or wall. Popular climbers include clematis, honeysuckle, wisteria and jasmine. They take up very little room so are especially useful in small gardens. Use them around seating areas – over a pergola, for example – and to cover walls and fences.
Bulbs are underground storage organs and there are several different kinds – true bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes. Spring bulbs are planted in autumn while summer-flowering bulbs are planted in spring. They include a wide range of popular garden plants including daffodils (pictured), tulips, bluebells, crocus, irises and dahlias.
Bedding plants are planted temporarily in flower beds or borders, pots or window boxes, giving a display of flowers for a few months. Bedding plants are often half-hardy annuals or tender perennials, but can also be bulbs or shrubs. Popular bedding plants include pelargoniums (geraniums), begonias, petunias and pansies.