Bedding Plants: Annuals, Perennials, and Bulbs

Hot pink zinnia, an annual
Zinnias are annuals

When people think about sprucing up their landscapes, they often think of beautiful bedding plants with their brightly colored flowers and interesting textures. Bedding plants can add color or other interest to the garden and can be planted either in the ground or in containers. The mild climate in Florida allows a host of different plants to be grown, meaning that gardeners have plenty of available choices. With the right selections, it’s possible to have something exciting happening in the garden virtually every month of the year.

The term “bedding plant” can refer to several different kinds of herbaceous plants including annuals, biennials, perennials, and bulbs.

An annual is a plant that completes its life cycle (growing, flowering, setting seed, and dying) in one growing season. In Florida, they are usually classified as either warm season or cool season. Annuals need relatively high amounts of nutrients and water. Gardeners can keep annuals looking good and lasting longer by pruning back plants if they get leggy and by deadheading—pinching off any fading flowers. Learn more in the EDIS publication, “Gardening with Annuals in Florida.”

biennial is a plant that completes its life cycle in two years, meaning it puts out only leaves in the first year and then reproduces in the second year. In Florida, some biennials may complete their life cycle in one year because Florida’s growing seasons are longer than those of northern climates—thus, a biennial may effectively be an annual in Florida. Not many biennials are commonly used in Florida landscapes.

perennial is a plant that lives for an extended time—longer than one season—and that flowers and produces seed throughout its life. However, perennials won’t necessarily live forever. Some need to be replanted or rejuvenated every few years, and others are often treated like annuals and changed out with the seasons. Perennials are mainly herbaceous, though some may produce semi-woody tissue and grow to the size of small shrubs. Perennials usually require less water and fertilizer than annuals once established, but will typically require some pruning. Most (but not all) prefer at least four hours of sun per day.

Beach sunflower is a perennial
Beach sunflower is a perennial

At times, gardeners may find it difficult to determine whether a plant is classified as an annual or perennial. In short, it depends. For starters, plants like coleus are commonly thought of as annuals up north yet may grow as perennials in the warmer parts of Florida. Other plants may be “root-hardy,” meaning that they die back in winter but return in the spring. And plants that are root-hardy perennials in North Florida may grow year-round in South Florida. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry. Your county Extension agent can provide information about the life expectancies of popular bedding plants grown in your area.

The term “bulb” typically refers to a specialized group of perennial plants that are often planted for their beautiful flowers, which appear year after year if the plants are given proper care. Technically speaking, a lot of the plants that people commonly refer to as bulbs aren’t actually bulbs—they’re corms, rhizomes, tubers, and tuberous roots. Each of these plant types has a thickened underground storage organ and is botanically known as a geophyte. The above-ground portions of many geophytes will die back naturally with the seasons or during adverse climatic conditions like drought or cold weather. This period is often referred to as the dormant period. There are some geophytes in Florida that never or rarely die back. For example, gingers in South Florida will typically keep their leaves year-round.

From a botanical perspective, it can be helpful to know the differences between bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tuberous roots. Read more in Is This a Bulb?

For more detailed information, you may want to talk to your county Extension agent or Master Gardener to learn what plants work reliably in your specific area.