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Plant Families: The Secret Cheat Sheet Every Gardener Should Have

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Do you ever get overwhelmed with everything there is to know about gardening? You might research and read all about one way to do something in the garden, only to find another article that totally contradicts what you just read. I know, for me, gardening can feel like a never-ending learning curve. As soon as I start to feel confident about what I am growing one season, I need to start all over again to learn about the new plants I want to grow this season. Well, it’s time to stop overwhelming ourselves and fast-track our learning with plant families! After a few seasons gardening, I started to recognize patterns among different plants. As I read more and more, I began to realize that these patterns make up plant families that have similar needs. Learning this transformed my gardening habits. I knew this would be information I would want to have memorized. I’ll explain WHY you want to do the same and show you HOW to do it, so you can accelerate your learning, grow more food and spend more time enjoying the garden (and less time researching).

Why Learn Plant Families

Undoubtedly, knowing plant families helps you become a better gardener. Why?

Plants in the same family typically have the same growing needs and threats

For example, if you know how to grow watermelon, you will have more success growing other members of the same family, like cucumbers, pumpkins, squash and cantaloupe. You will know that they all need warm temperatures and full sun. You will also know that upon the first signs of squash bugs, you will want to take action because they will suck the life out of your plants if you let them.

Help you to plan for your future growing seasons by knowing how to rotate your crops

For example, if you have cabbage worms one season, you won’t want to grow another Brassica plant in the same space for several seasons (I’ll get to the Brassica part in a minute, stay with me!). Ideally, you will want to rotate your crops every three years. If you don’t have enough garden space to rotate your crops, don’t worry. Just allow more time in between plantings of fruits and vegetables in the same family.

Know where to look for seeds

Once you get a bit more advanced, you might want to start saving your seeds. For example, you probably already know that tomatoes and peppers store their seeds inside the fruit, but did you know that Brassicas have a thin papery membrane resembling a bean pod that stores their seeds? I had never even thought about it before letting our broccoli go to seed one spring. You can see our broccoli seed pods below. Dried Broccoli Seed Pod, Opened

How to Learn and Remember Plant Families

Store and Organize Your Seeds by Family

As you can tell, knowing which plant family a fruit or vegetable belongs to will help you increase your gardening knowledge exponentially. That’s why I store my seeds in bags based on their families. When I first started organizing my seeds this way, I had to look up each plant. I was aware of the Solanaceae, or Nightshade, family, but I didn’t know much about other fruit or vegetable families or who belonged to which group. As I looked up the family each of my seeds belonged to, I kept track of the information in a Google spreadsheet and color coded it. Next, I wrote with a Sharpie on Ziploc bags, labeling each bag with a different family name. For example, I have a Leguminosae bag, an Umbelliferae bag and a Solanaceae, or Nightshade, bag. After labeling each bag, I sorted the seed packets by family and put them in the fridge to store for when I need them. Here are the plant family names so you can label your bags as well. Seed Packets in Bags Labeled with Plant Family Names for Seed Organization Now, I have two ways of reminding myself of the plant families. Each time I garden plan, I look at the color-coded spreadsheet, and when I take out or put seeds into their packets, I read the Ziploc bag with their plant family name, reinforcing it in my memory. Sign up below to get a FREE copy of my Google spreadsheet with color-coded fruit and vegetable families. All the plants and families listed in this post are included, as well as the Lamiaceae family, commonly called the Mint family.
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Use Word Parts

I’m all about working smarter and not harder. After nine years as an elementary school teacher, I naturally look for ways to help make information sticky, to help me remember it or have it stick with me. Using word parts simply means that you can recognize part of the word and how it relates, or looks similar, to another word. This is one of the easiest ways I have found to remember plant families! Let me preface this by saying that plant family names continually change as botanists divide up the groups more and more. Under each family name, I have listed the commonalities among its members so you can begin to see how this knowledge will benefit you as a gardener!

Umbelliferae (Now Apiaceae)

Umbelliferae plant members have umbrella-shaped clusters or umbels. Below is a picture of our dill plant after it went to seed and flowered. All of the plants in this family have similar flower clusters to the dill pictured below. You can see that it has small stems of flowers coming from one central point, much like an umbrella. Umbell is the word within a word here to help yourself remember. Plants that belong to this family are carrots, parsnips, celery, parsley, fennel, cilantro, cumin and dill.
  • Time of Year/Temperature: These are cool weather crops that can have two seasons, spring and fall, in most climates. Carrots can withstand a light frost and are often sweeter because of it. It gets so hot in Texas that I decided this year that I’d only grow carrots in the fall because I much prefer their taste when they grow in fall and winter. Members of this family can bolt, or go to seed, with hot temperatures. They have beautiful flowers, so I recommend letting them bloom.
  • Planting: Most prefer to be direct sown (put in the soil as seeds in the location which they will remain for their life cycle), especially the root crops carrots and parsnips.
  • Pests: Aphids are the main pest for these plants. Practice crop rotation as a preventive action plan and use a hard spray of water to remove the aphids. I use this Bug Blaster for that purpose, and it has worked great so far! While I don’t consider all caterpillars to be pests necessarily (some are!), I will mention that parsley, dill and fennel are host plants to Swallowtail butterflies. They will devour all of your flowers! I let them at it one season because I loved observing them, so you can decide what you think when the time comes.
  • Harvest: Most of these plants have leaves that can be eaten when they are young. Just be sure to leave enough leaves for photosynthesis! Carrot and parsnip tops can be seen at the soil level. Check the size to see if they are ready to harvest.
  • Seeds: Harvest seeds to save from the primary umbel (the first to bloom and the largest) after they have dried on the plant. Also, remember that cilantro seeds are coriander, so you can harvest these to use in your cooking!
Umbrella Shaped Dill Flowers

Cucurbitaceae

The Cucurbitaceae family, or Cucurbits, have cucumbers in their family. Again the word itself can help you remember because the beginnings of the words are so similar. Once you know this family has cucumbers, you just need to remember that cucumbers are in the same family as gourds, melons, pumpkins and squash. These all have flowers that are either white or yellow and most have separate male and female flowers that exist on the same plant.
  • Time of Year/Temperature: These are warm season crops that require full sun. Interestingly, winter squash grows in the summer in most climates, but it gets its name because the squash can be stored through winter, not because that’s when it grows.
  • Planting: All of these can be successfully transplanted, but you should take into consideration that they can get root bound. Monitor them so you can transplant them before this happens. Most cucurbits are large plants, many of which are vining and can benefit from a trellis or other support system.
  • Pests/Disease: This family has many pests, including vine borers, squash bugs and cucumber beetles. It is best to observe these plants daily and stay ahead of any potential infestations. If an infestation does occur, the most effective method I have found is to remove the bugs myself and place them in a sealed Ziplock bag before disposing of them in the trash. They can also get powdery mildew. Be sure to give the plants plenty of air circulation and check the leaves often as a preventive measure. You will see the white mildew on the top sides of leaves. Prune the leaves with mildew during the hottest part of the day, so the plant can heal itself faster. Then, spray the plant with a mixture of about 40% milk to 60% water. Here is an excellent article giving you more information on this disease.
  • Harvest: For the best flavor, harvest cucumber, zucchini and summer squash young. If you plan to go out of town and don’t have someone coming over to harvest your squash and zucchini, expect them to be enormous when you return! Winter squash and melons need to fully ripen on the vine. Harvesting these can be a bit tricky. Be sure the skin is hard enough that it doesn’t leave a mark when you push your fingernail into it. What helps me the most is to monitor the tendril closest to the fruit. When the tendril is about three quarters brown and rotted, the fruit is ready!
Summer Squash Plant

Brassicaceae (formerly Cruciferae)

A third example of using the word to help you remember the family groups is the Brassicaceae, or Brassica, family. The br- at the beginning of the word is just like the br- at the beginning of broccoli and Brussel sprouts. Once you know those two, the rest are easy to remember. Most people think of Brussel sprouts as mini cabbages, so you can remember that cabbage is in this family, too. Knowing this should help you remember bok choy is in this family as well. Broccoli and cauliflower are super similar, so there’s another you can remember easily. This family also includes collard greens, kohlrabi, rutabagas, mustard greens, nasturtium, radish, turnips, arugula and kale.
  • Time of Year/Temperature: These are cool weather crops that need full sun. In most climates, these can be grown in spring and fall, and many have improved flavor after a frost.
  • Planting: Most of these will be more successful if started inside around 8 weeks prior to putting them in the garden. Exceptions that prefer to be direct sown include kale, mustard, radish and rutabaga. Though they are generally not grown at the same time anyway, keep away from Nightshades.
  • Pests: Unfortunately, this grouping has many pests. It would be clever to use a row cover such as tulle (you can buy this at a local fabric shop or online here ) upon first planting, and then thicker row cover as the temperature drops (you can buy this at a local garden store or online here – just make sure you get the thickness that’s right for your climate). Check your plants regularly. If you are having a hard time identifying a pest, bag it and take it sealed to your local garden store to get help identifying it. You can also join a local Facebook group and post a picture to ask if people in your area can help you identify it.
  • Harvest: You can eat some of these when the leaves are young: kale, collards, mustard, Brussel sprouts. Broccoli will have one main broccoli head and then several side shoots will sprout after the main head is developed. You can eat the leaves and flowers of the broccoli plant as well. The flowers of most Brassica are edible. My favorites include kale, broccoli and arugula flowers.
Brussel Sprouts in the Garden

Prior Knowledge

Build off of what you already know and go from there to make this new learning easier for yourself!

Leguminosae (Now Fabaceae)

You might already recognize which plants belong to this family if you are aware of the term legume. Examples include peas, beans, peanuts, clover and alfalfa. Fun Fact: All members of this family add nitrogen back into the soil. If you grow any of these, you can uproot one at a mature stage and look for nodules on the roots. That is the nitrogen. Yes, you can actually see it! This surprised me when I first learned it. Leguminosae plants not only offer a delicious harvest, but you can also cut them at the soil level after maturity, leave the roots in the ground, and in two weeks plant Brassicas who will use that nitrogen in the soil to help them thrive.
  • Time of Year/Temperature: This family has some plants that favor cool weather like peas and some that favor hot weather like beans, peanuts and cowpeas. In most climates, clover and alfalfa can be planted in spring and fall.
  • Planting: These plants prefer to be direct seeded though I’ve seen them succeed as transplants as well. All of the seeds benefit from being soaked overnight before being planted. If you aren’t able to plant them the day after soaking, just be sure to change out the water and plant them the following day. Pole varieties will need a trellis or other support system, such as staking. They dont’ get along wtih the Lily family.
  • Pests/Diseases: In my experience, powdery mildew seems to affect peas every time I grow them. Try to stay ahead of this by providing a trellis for air circulation. If they do get powdery mildew, spray them with a mixture of 40% milk and 60% water. Beans definitely have pests as well. Is it just me or does it seem like the warm weather plants have more pests? Check these regularly and watch out for bugs that will munch a perfect hole right through your beans. Use the Bug Blaster for aphids and spider mites that are hard or tedious to pick off by hand. Other bugs, like cucumber beetles, Mexican bean beetles and cutworms, can be hand picked off your plants and sealed in a Ziploc bag to be disposed of in the trash. Remember, both cucumber beetles and Mexican bean beetles can fool you! They look similar to a yellow ladybug, so inspect closely.
  • Harvest: Both snow and snap peas have edible pods and are deliciously sweet right off the vine. Harvest these and green beans when they look full and at your desired size. Cowpeas can be harvested young, shelled and cooked fresh, or you can wait for the beans to dry on the plant. Peanuts, like potatoes, are ready for harvest once their leaves turn yellow and start to die back.
Tee Pea Trellis with Raised Garden Beds in the Background

Solanaceae

Solanaceae, or nightshades, are part of a family that has toxic parts. I remember this family thanks to prior knowledge about how some people find this group slightly toxic and should not eat them. It helps that tobacco is in this family because I think of how smoking isn’t healthy. Other plants in this family include tomatillos, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and potatoes (but not sweet potatoes). Eggplant and potato flowers look very similar. Tomatillo, tomato and pepper flowers look very similar. These are visual patterns you will start to notice the more you garden, and they can help you remember the different families as well.
  • Time of Year/Temperature: This family needs full sun and generally likes heat. Potatoes are the exception to this rule as they do best before it gets too hot. They are kinda like the misfits in this group as you will continue to read.
  • Planting: All members, except potatoes, do very well being transplanted. Most can be started inside around 8-10 weeks before the first frost. Think vertically with this family. Tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers can all reach very tall heights and might need a trellis or other support system. Potatoes are planted deep in the soil by using small potato pieces that have at least two eyes (sections that are starting to sprout) and continuously mounding the soil up as they grow.
  • Pests: This group has many, many pests, so monitor them closely throughout their different growth stages. As mentioned before, if you are having trouble identifying a pest, it’s best to ask local sources for help. Here is an in-depth article that includes the potential pests of this family.
  • Harvest: Tomatoes and peppers will continue to ripen off the vine but are the most flavorful if left on the vine until they are fully ripe. Tomatillos are ripe once they start breaking through their husk. Potatoes are ripe once the foliage starts to die back and turn yellow. Eggplant is ready when the skin is shiny and not wrinkled.
Nightshades: tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers on kitchen counter

Connections

The rest of the plant groups are harder for me to remember and my tricks might not stick with you since some have to do with my own experiences. If you have tricks for remembering the following plant families, share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear!

Liliaceae, or Alliums

The main character in The Secret Life of Bees , Lily, has a pair of her mom’s white gloves as a treasured possession. This plant family, also called the Lily family, contains all onions, which have white varieties. Since there aren’t that many white vegetables, this is how I remember. A bit of a stretch perhaps, so again let me know if you have another way! Think white leeks, white garlic, white onions and white gloves! The only exception to using this as a method of remembering is that chives belong to this group as well, which are green. Grow all of these and let them flower, and you will see the resemblance they share!
  • Time of the Year/Temperature: I’ve seen it advised to plant alliums in the spring for climates with harsh winters. However, I feel confident there are strong systems out there that allow them to thrive in such environments. In climates with mild winters, alliums can be planted in the fall to establish a strong root system before winter. Full sun and good drainage are needed for all of these plants, and they all prefer to be on the dry side.
  • Planting: Plant all members in well-draining, fertile soil. Leek seeds, or seedlings, like to be planted in a trench so soil can be mounded up as they grow. Mulch all members with heavy cover before the first frost. Don’t plant these next to the Legume family.
  • Pests/Diseases: These are fairly pest free and can be great companions because of their strong scents, which can deter pests. It always seems like it’s no accident that companion plants are also eaten together. Alliums are friends of Nightshades and Brassicas – think salsa and southern greens!
  • Harvest: Green onions and leeks can be harvested young, or you can wait until after winter frosts. Garlic scapes (the flower bud which will come up as a tall green stock and flower on hardneck varieties) can be harvested and used just like garlic. Some say that harvesting the scapes will help the bulbs increase in size, but there is some controversy over whether this is true or not. Be mindful of the amount of water and rain these get, especially during their last month. They may rot in the ground if it gets too wet. When it’s time to harvest garlic and onions, the leaves will start to die, turning yellow and falling over. Several people have a magic number of leaves that they wait to die before harvesting. I wait until about half of them are yellow and pull up a few bulbs to check before continuing to harvest. Once harvested, they can be eaten fresh or left about 2-3 weeks to cure and dry in a well-ventilated area. The skin is dry and crispy when they are ready.
  • Seeds: For garlic, save a few of your strongest bulbs so you can plant a few cloves next season.
A Bowl of Cured Garlic from the Garden

Asteraceae (formerly Compositae)

Since this is one of the largest plant families, I think of astronauts, connecting the beginnings of the words, ast-, and how astronauts go into space, the largest part of our universe. This family includes all lettuce, of which there are a very large number of varieties. This family also includes sunflowers, daisies, endive, artichokes, calendula, zinnia, marigold and salsify, to name a few others.
  • Time of the Year/Temperature: Remember, this is one of the largest groups! It has perennials like artichokes that grow year-round, plants that favor warm weather like sunflowers, and cool weather crops like lettuce and endive. All prefer to be grown in a sunny location, though I’ve had lettuce do well in the shade.
  • Planting: Most can be either direct sown or started as seedlings. I prefer to direct sow the greens, zinnias and calendula and have had the most success with doing so.
  • Pests/Diseases: Aphids tend to affect these plants the most. See the Chenopodiaceae Family or the Umbelliferae Family for advice on this. Sunflowers might need protection from birds unless you plan on sharing.
  • Harvest: Greens in this family are cut and come again, meaning they can be harvested young and will continuously grow back throughout the season. The more you harvest the flowers on calendula, the more it will bloom. The flowers are ready when they are sticky.
Lettuce Growing in Garden

Chenopodiaceae

This group includes beets, spinach and Swiss chard. For whatever reason, this grouping seems a bit odd to me, so I typically think of these as the left-overs. It seems like they just threw together what was left, although I know there is lots of scientific research that actually determines this grouping. If you agree that it’s a bit odd, you might remember this grouping as B.S. or B.S.S. rather, but you get the idea, right? It also helps that the beet and Swiss chard seeds look so similar to one another.
  • Time of Year/Temperature: These favor cool weather and can be planted in both spring and fall in most climates. They tend to bolt quickly in the heat and have improved flavor with cooler temperatures.
  • Planting: These are best to be direct sown since beets are a root crop and spinach has delicate roots.
  • Pests: These are mostly pest free, but aphids can attack their leaves. I have also heard of leaf miners being as issue. Be sure to rotate your crops and use a hard spray of water to remove aphids. Like I mentioned previously, I use this Bug Blaster to spray any off that I see in the garden and it works quite well.
  • Harvest: All of these plants are considered cut and come again. Yes, the beet leaves are edible. You can harvest their leaves when they are young and then continuously harvest them as they grow back throughout the season. Just be sure to leave enough for photosynthesis!
Beet Greens in Garden The scientific names are not the important part, to me at least. As you can see from above, botanists are always dividing plants into more and more groups and names change. However, regardless of the name, once you know which plants are together in the same group you will know the important part. I only listed some of the vast information out there. Once you know plant families, however, you are more than halfway there! Now, you have a good idea of the growing conditions they need, such as temperature and sunlight. You know what time of year they thrive, how to plant and harvest them and which pests to watch out for during their growing season. You can also research more about the amount of water they need, which plants are good companions for their family, what nutrients they need from the soil and how to save their seeds if you wish to take your gardening game to the next level. Basil, Okra, Sweet Potatoes, Watermelon and Amaranth in the Garden Sometimes it can seem like the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. This can definitely be true with gardening, but don’t let it discourage you. Instead, embrace that gardening is about being a lifelong learner. You will have successes and you will have times of learning. Enjoy the process; it’s part of the fun! Now, go learn your plant families to accelerate your learning and grow more food!
Article source: http://www.nourishingpursuits.com/garden/plant-families/