black eyed susan, echinacea, russian sage perennial gardenblack eyed susan, echinacea, russian sage perennial garden

Sleep, Creep, Leap: How Perennial Plants Grow

Understanding the life cycle of the plants in your garden is an important step to gardening success - because not all plants are the same!

First, most plants are annual or perennial (and less commonly, biennial). What's the difference between these two key groups?

  • Annuals are plants that have a one year life cycle, meaning they grow from seed, flower, and die all in one year. They may reseed in the right conditions, but their roots won't live through the winter or a dormancy period. 
  • Biennials are plants that have a two year life cycle, meaning they grow to establish foliage and roots in the first season, and bloom in the second season as long as they're in the right zone and growing conditions. 
  • Perennials are the group of plants that we'll review in this article. Perennial plants take several seasons to mature before they reach their full size. They will return year after year from the same established root system, as long as they are planted in the right zone and growing conditions. Some may be evergreen, while others may have their flowers and foliage die back completely over the winter or their dormant season.

Read on to learn about the phases a perennial plant goes through to reach maturity.

Sleep, Creep, Leap

"Sleep, Creep, Leap" is a phrase that's used among gardeners to simplify the typical phases a perennial plant will go through to reach its full mature size. Let's dig in to what that really means!

  • Year 1: "Sleep" refers to the first season in the garden where a perennial plant will focus energy on its root system. Typically you'll see foliage, but no blooms, since the plant is pulling lots of energy into a healthy, robust root system that will survive the winter dormancy period. Healthy roots anchor the plant, help it draw in water and nutrients, and build a healthy foundation for a long life in your garden.
  • Year 2: "Creep" refers to the second year in the garden. Returning from winter dormancy, the plant will wake up in the garden and continue to grow. In the second season, you can expect to see blooms, though the plant hasn't quite reached its full size or full flowering potential. The root system will continue to grow larger and deeper, for a more resilient plant.
  • Year 3: "Leap" refers to the third year in the garden when the plant will take off and reach its full size. Flowers and foliage will be at their best and you can really see the full potential of your plant. Yes, you need a little patience, but as gardeners, we know that there is always something to look forward to! 

Some plants live for decades, such as peonies, which can live for up to 100 years in the right conditions! Some plants need to be divided every 3-5 years to continue at their best. Learn more about Dividing Plants In Spring or Dividing Plants In Fall. 

For more detailed information about growing some of our most popular perennial plants, see our helpful guides in The Tool Shed!

A new perennial garden. Starting with young plants means they can settle in to your garden, growing vigorously in their new home. Good soil preparation will help your plants thrive!A new perennial garden. Starting with young plants means they can settle in to your garden, growing vigorously in their new home. Good soil preparation will help your plants thrive!
A new perennial garden at an American Meadows employee's home. Starting with young plants means they can settle in to your garden, growing vigorously in their new home. Good soil preparation will help your plants thrive!
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The same garden after the perennials have matured to their full size. This garden will provide low-maintenance beauty for years to come. Karl Foerster Grass, Echinacea, Black Eyed Susan, and Russian Sage in bloom.

The Right Plant In The Right Place

To establish perennials that will return for years of beautiful flowers or foliage in your garden, you'll need to make sure that you select plants that are matched to your zone and growing conditions. Below are the key factors for choosing the right plants:

Zones

Each plant has a range of USDA Hardiness Zones that it can grow in. This will tell you roughly the warmest and coldest temperatures that the plant can tolerate. While not the only factor for choosing a plant, zones are a quick and simple way to know if a plant can grow in your region. Learn more about USDA Hardiness Zones and microclimates: US Hardiness Zones

Light Requirement

In order to thrive, different plants need different light levels. Shade-loving plants may be burned if planted hot, sunny sites. Sun-loving plants will fail to thrive if they're planted in shady areas. Learn more about garden light levels and planting for shade: Understanding Your Garden Shade

Soil Type & Soil Moisture

Different plants have adapted to different types of soil. Some plants will be happy growing in a range of soil types, while others may have specific requirements. For instance, Lavender plants, which are native to the rocky hillsides of the Mediterranean, need relatively dry, well-drained soil and tend to rot in dense clay soil or wet areas. Learn more about soil, how to determine your soil type, and how to build healthy soil: How To Improve Garden Soil

How To Find The Right Plants

As you shop for plants, you can check the shopping filters under "Shopping Options" to select plants that match your Zone, Light Requirements, Soil Type, and Soil Moisture. You can also look for plants to help you find plants with advantages that meet your garden goals - such as plants that are deer resistant, good for cut flowers, bee-friendly, attractive to butterflies or hummingbirds, and more. 


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