Plant Families: The Secret Cheat Sheet Every Gardener Should Have

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.

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.

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.

Reply