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!
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:
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
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.
Ready To Dig In? Shop Our Most Popular Perennial Plants
Our Long Blooming Lavender Collection includes five of our bestselling Lavender varieties for a graceful blend of flowers and fragrance. A mix of French hybrid and English cultivars ...Learn MoreLong Blooming Lavender Collection Long Blooming Lavender Collection LavandulaAs low as $46.65 Sale $37.32Per Collection of 5
Phenomenal Lavender has it all: exceptionally tolerant of both high heat and harsh winter, this easy-to-grow lavender even shows resistance to the effects of humidity. Highly fragran...Learn MorePhenomenal® Lavender Lavender Phenomenal® PP#24193 Lavandula x intermedia Phenomenal PP#24193As low as $8.52Per Plant - 3" Pot
‚Karl Foerster‚ Feather Reed Grass creates a dramatic garden accent, with tall, slender, vertical growth and feathery plumes of shifting bronze color that stay in place y...Learn MoreKarl Foerster Feather Reed Grass Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora Karl FoersterAs low as $13.32 Sale $10.66Per Plant - 3.5" Pot
Our Carefree Creeping Phlox Collection offers a beautiful quilt-like groundcover to dress up the early spring garden. Cushiony mats of fine-textured foliage burst into bloom, blanket...Learn MoreCarefree Creeping Phlox Collection Carefree Creeping Phlox Collection Phlox subulataAs low as $30.65 Sale $24.52Per Collection of 4
‚Jacob Cline‚ Monarda is a colorfully vibrant, mildew-resistant variety of the cherished Bee Balm plant. Loved by both gardeners and hummingbirds, crimson red crown-shape...Learn MoreJacob Cline Bee Balm Jacob Cline Bee Balm, Bergamot Monarda didyma Jacob ClineAs low as $9.32 Sale $7.46Per Plant - 3" Pot
‚Munstead‚ Lavender is an English Lavender that has fragrant, cool lavender-blue spikes and gray-green, mounded foliage. You can tuck this lavender into your herb garden...Learn MoreMunstead English Lavender English Lavender Munstead Lavandula angustifolia MunsteadAs low as $6.65 Sale $5.32Per Plant - 3" Pot
‚Goldsturm‚ Black Eyed Susan brings a burst of showy color to the full-sun garden. Golden yellow, daisy-like petals surround nectar-rich, brown center ‚buttons&sbqu...Learn MoreGoldsturm Black Eyed Susan Black Eyed Susan Goldsturm Rudbeckia fulgida GoldsturmAs low as $7.99 Sale $6.39Per Plant - 3" Pot
Give bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds what they need with our Mini Pollinator Pit Stop Plant Collection. Compact varieties of Butterfly Weed, Butterfly Bush, and Salvia are ide...Learn MoreMini Pollinator Pit Stop Plant Collection Mini Pollinator Pit Stop Plant Collection$26.65 Sale $21.32Per Collection of 3