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Growing Green: Selecting Plants for Your Garden

If you are new to gardening, you might be confused by all the different decisions you have to make when selecting plants.  Why does the same plant have so many different names?  What’s the difference between annuals and perennials? How do you know if your garden gets full sun, part sun or shade?  Let’s explore these questions together.

Plants have common names, such as purple cone flower; and Latin names, such as Echinacea purpurea. Although the common name might be more descriptive and easier to remember, it can also change from region to region and person to person.  The Latin name is accurate and unique to each plant. Learning the Latin names of plants makes it easier to find that exact plant at each garden center you visit.

Annual plants complete their life cycle in one growing season.  They go from seed to plant to flower to seed all in the span of several months.  Annuals are relatively quick to bloom, and will continue blooming all summer long. They come in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes, and do well in many different garden spaces.  Marigolds come in shades of yellow, orange and red, are easy to grow, and do well in full sun.  Impatiens come in pinks, purples, reds and whites; can be very tall or relatively short; and do well in a mostly shady garden. Both are annuals that can readily be found in Minnesota gardens. The down side of annuals is that they only live for one season, so you have to replace them every year.

Perennial plants have a lifespan of more than two years.  They are typically slower to get started and they are also more expensive.  However, if selected with our cold hardiness zone 3-4a in mind, they can bloom for years to come. Perennials can be leafy plants like Hosta, or tall flowering plants like purple cone flower.  They can do well in shade: astilbe, bleeding heart, huechera; or sun: purple cone flower, delphinium, day lilies. The challenge with using perennials is that they have a relatively short bloom time.  Keep this in mind when choosing perennials, so that you have a full season of color.

When choosing your plants, keep in mind the amount of sunlight your garden gets, and how that changes over the season as nearby trees begin to leaf out. A garden that may be full sun in early spring might be shaded by a leafy tree in mid-summer.  In general, full sun means that your garden gets 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. Check the sun requirements on plants you choose.  Full sun plants that get less than 6-8 hours of sunlight won’t grow well.  Shade plants grown in full sun can scorch and die.

Gardens mixed with annuals and perennials, in sun and shade, can add color and texture to your yard and home all summer long.

Robin Trott is a Horticulture Educator with University of Minnesota Extension.