All it takes is a trip to the garden center or a perusal of the seed catalogs to plunge novice gardeners way in over their heads. Even seasoned ones can be taken aback. So much choice! So many categories! There are annuals, perennials and biennials. Some grow best in partial shade or others in full sun. Will it bloom all season? Will it return next spring? And then there are the colors and the textures. Which one should I choose and — what does it all mean?

No need to stress. It’s elementary. Once you understand how the “holy trio” of garden plants grows, what those shade/sun recommendations mean and how best to situate them it is all quite simple. Understanding which category a plant fits into enables the gardener to know what to expect from and how to care for any given plant. And even though many gardeners are well-versed in garden terms, it never hurts to review. It is what separates the newbies from the old sages. We’ll start at the top and work our way through.

• Annuals — These plants are programmed to grow and bloom — some quite spectacularly and others not so — set seed or produce a flower or a vegetable for instance and then die. It’s their destiny. Annuals include such plants as marigolds, zinnias, snapdragons, pansies, basil, tomatoes, cucumbers, bush and pole beans and lettuce. Annuals are some of the showiest of plants, the ones that we choose for spots of brilliant color in containers or they are what we grow in our vegetable garden.

The secret to keeping those pansies blooming and the green beans producing is to delay the plant’s destiny to produce seed by deadheading spent pansy blooms and picking those green beans on a regular basis. Of course all good things must come to an end, and so it will eventually be with those annual plants. So there’s no need for guilt when you consign those annuals to the compost pile in the fall.

• Using annuals in the garden — Most annuals (except for a few notable exceptions such as coleus or impatiens) thrive on full sun exposure — at least six hours direct sun. This includes vegetable varieties. Make the most of the flowering annuals by presenting them up front and personal as the featured stars of container plantings. That way you can easily keep them deadheaded for continued bloom, and then you can easily switch them out with the season once they quit flowering. Rather than spreading out plants or alternating them with other bloom colors, mass plants of one bloom color together to get the greatest impact.

And for a touch of whimsey, color, texture and practicality incorporate annual vegetables into the sunny bed or border. Flashy chard, kale or red mustard make a statement on their own. But mix them up with flowering annuals and perennials and you’ve got pure drama. Stir in some herbs or leaf lettuce or even a compact container zucchini — and oh yeah — you’ve got fresh produce too.

• Biennials — Biennials are plants that produce only foliage in their first growing season. In the fall they go dormant, and the following summer will produce flowers, eventually forming seeds and then they die. Biennials include such choices as foxgloves, some hollyhocks, lunaria, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, collards, onions, parsley, parsnips, turnips, endive. With the “bi” being the key explanation here, we know that they usually live for two years. I say “usually” because some of these plants can be tricked into blooming within three seasons, instead of two years. This is how gardeners in the Deep South can produce foxgloves, for example, which would not survive their first season of extreme summer heat there. In the case of the vegetables listed, if seed is desired then a second growing season is required to provide for seed development.

• Using biennials in the garden — Treat biennials like annuals, adding them to brighten up container plantings or garden beds for the flowering varieties. Most biennials prefer full sun. Biennial vegetables are often harvested in their first growing season. If seeds are desired, allow varieties to go to seed in their second growing season, and when the flowering portions (seed pods) are completely dry, collect carefully. Use a small container or cup to collect the very small seeds of plants such as foxgloves.

• Perennials — Perennials include a broad variety of plants. Most usually live for many years, though there are plants categorized as “short-lived” perennials. Perennials include plants that are suited for a variety of growing conditions from full sun exposure to full shade (less than three hours of direct sun per day). Many will spread or divide over time and can be separated to create “new” plants. Perennials include plants such as monk’s hood, hostas, daylilies, peonies, hellebores, echinacea, lupine, mint, oregano, lungwort, iris, baptisia, hardy geranium, heuchera, sedum, rudebeckia and beebalm for example. Some perennials can be started from seed, following seed package directions. Others are best propagated by division and some by rooting cuttings.

• Using perennials in the garden — Along with shrubs and trees, perennials fill in providing seasonal color and texture dependably returning each spring. Most perennials have a specified bloom time — though some new hybrids extend blooming — and then provide foliage for the rest of the growing season. Plan ornamental beds with both perennial foliage and blooms in mind for color and contrast. Variegated foliage and foliage with unique form enables perennials to contribute to landscapes throughout the growing season.

So there you have it, students — provide good growing conditions by following sun exposure and drainage recommendations, give plants soil enriched with compost where recommended, provide the right amount of water and whether it is an annual, a biennial or a perennial your garden will shine with color and interest. This week’s lesson is complete. An A+ with a gorgeous garden is your grade.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s new in the garden day-by-day.