Whether you are new to gardening or have been doing it for years, you likely know that not all plants fall under the same umbrella regarding soil and care needs. While some plants can thrive just about anywhere without much help, others need specific care and attention to ensure a plentiful harvest.
Different plants also affect the soil in different ways and can leave a lasting effect on your garden plots once they have been pulled for harvest. Learning about the different plant families and understanding the basics of growing each can help guide your gardening plan - especially regarding techniques like crop rotation, companion planting, and succession planting.
In this post, we will explore the nine main botanical families, which crops fall under each, and a general overview of the soil and care required for each family to thrive.
The Amaranthaceae Family
Includes: Beets, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Quinoa, Lamb’s Quarters, pigweed (a common weed), and various garden ornamentals.
Members of the Amanathaceae family are found worldwide and grow well in saline soil. They are physically characterized by succulent or fuzzy leaves that grow alternating along the stems. Many plants in this family have a red pigmentation to their stem and foliage called betalain - this pigment is sometimes used in supplements for its anti-inflammatory properties and is also used as a natural food coloring additive.
Typically, plants in the Amaranthaceae family will grow well in full, direct sun and are fairly resilient to both warm and cooler temperatures, producing harvests both during the summer and into the fall.
The Apiaceae Family
Includes: Carrot, Celery, Parsnip, Fennel, and a wide variety of herbs such as Parsley, Coriander, Cumin, Dill, Anise, and more.
This family of plants grows well in northern regions and prefers fertile soil rich in organic matter, with enough structure to retain moisture and nutrients. These plants are typically quite aromatic and are characterized by feathery, alternating leaves. While some members of the Apiaceae family contain poisonous compounds, others are used to produce potent essential oils. The strong aromas produced by the herbs in this family make them excellent companion plant options.
Because they grow well in cooler climates, many Apiaceae plants are great options for early spring planting and can produce harvests well into the fall provided they are well-watered throughout the growing season.
The Asteraceae Family
Includes: Lettuce, Endive, Artichoke, edible flowers such as Marigolds, Dahlias, Zinnias, and Chrysanthemums, as well as more common weeds like Dandelion, Ragweed, and Thistle.
As one of the largest known plant families, Asteraceaes account for nearly 25,000 different plant species and include a wide variety of flowering plants and common weeds, many of which are edible, at least in part. Many of the plants in this family also have medicinal qualities like being high in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory or anti-microbial, including those commonly known as weeds.
This plant family typically thrives in slightly acidic soil and grows best in full sun or light shade (but with so many different species, there are bound to be some exceptions). They are typically characterized by something called inflorescence, which means that their blooms are actually composed of clusters of flowers on a main stem.
The Brassicaceae Family
Includes: Bok Choy, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale, Turnip, Rutabaga, Radish, Arugula, Watercress, and Horseradish.
This plant family is one of the most commonly grown as important agricultural crops and has been highly cultivated and genetically altered by humans. Also referred to as the mustard family of plants, many have a distinct peppery flavor. Grown worldwide, plants in this family have significant economic importance in agriculture and are high-value crops for farmers.
Brassicaceae crops typically grow well in part-shade and need well-draining soil from planting all the way to harvest in order to thrive and produce high yields. Many have a longer than usual seed-to-harvest time and should be planted early in the growing season to ensure they reach maturity, especially in zones with a shorter span of frost-free days.
The Cucurbitaceae Family
Includes: Cucumbers, Squash, Pumpkin, Zucchini, Melons, and Loofah.
Consisting mostly of annual vining plants, plants in the Cucurbitaceae family are known for being sensitive to frost and should only be planted in the ground once sufficiently warmed. This crop family was first domesticated in Asia over 11,000 and has since become a very widely grown family of crops across the world. The fruits of this crop family are characterized by a colorful and pulpy interior containing seeds that can be saved for future planting.
This plant family should be grown in full sun, for most varieties and needs rich, well-drained soil rich in nitrogen, with a pH level around 7. Adding organic matter to the soil and providing a good layer of mulch around the plants will help them to thrive.
The Fabaceae Family
Includes: Lentils, Beans, Peas, Soybeans, Chickpeas, Peanuts, and Clover.
Commonly known as Legumes, this plant family is usually characterized by pods that contain the edible portion of the plant. While many varieties grow best in more temperate regions, some can withstand cooler temperatures (for example, Canadian farmers produce the most lentils worldwide, over double the amount produced by India).
Characterized mostly by either a straight or climbing stem, these plants will generally put out a long taproot into the soil that will then create root nodules for favorable nutrient uptake. They are also known to fix nitrogen in the soil, with many species being used in crop rotation for this purpose or as cover crops in off-season growing. Because they help to condition the soil, they are generally easy to grow in most soil types and even in areas where drought is common.
The Liliaceae Family
Includes: Aloe, Asparagus, Chives, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, and Shallots.
While this plant family is known best for its beautiful blooming ornamental flowers, it also includes a few vegetables and herb species native to the more temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. This plant family is mainly characterized by its underground bulbs which act as nutrient storage for the whole plant and put out a fibrous root system.
Vegetable species in this plant family can grow in sun or partial shade and thrive in rich, slightly acidic soil that is moist but well-drained. While some bulbs should be overwintered indoors, others can be planted in the fall and will start growing as soon as snow melts in spring.
The Poaceae Family
Includes: Oats, Rice, Corn, Barley, Bamboo, Millet, Barley, Sugarcane, Wheat, and a wide variety of grasses.
As the most abundant plant family on Earth, the Poaceae are the most important food source for the world’s human and animal populations. This plant family grows worldwide on all continents and accounts for nearly 25% of all vegetation on the planet. In addition to being a vital food source, this plant family is a key player in water filtration, reducing soil erosion, increasing atmospheric carbon sequestration, and promoting oxygen production.
These plants can tolerate a range of soil pH levels and grow well in various soil types, putting out a significant and fibrous root system capable of taking up the required nutrients. Keeping the soil moist but well-drained will encourage stronger plant growth.
The Solanaceae Family
Includes: Peppers, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Eggplant, Ground Cherries, Petunias, and Tobacco.
Also known as the Nightshade family, Solanaceae plants are mostly characterized as flowering species and are most abundant in tropical regions (though a few key species in this family are grown in abundance worldwide). While the fruit produced by many plants in this family is edible, Solanaceae plants are typically characterized as containing narcotic alkaloids that can be extremely toxic in large doses.
This plant family is best grown in warm, sunny climates when all risk of frost has passed, and the soil has warmed to at least 60°F. A highly fertile, sandy loam soil rich in organic matter, with a pH between 5.5 to 7, will allow this plant family to thrive.
While there are many different vegetation categories on our planet, these nine botanical families are the main ones typically grown as edible and widely consumed crops. It helps to know which family your garden vegetables fall under to provide them with the ideal growing conditions and ensure that they yield a plentiful harvest.
When planning your garden plots, it is advisable to plant similar families together or combine them strategically to help condition the soil for optimal nutrient content. Crop rotation is also typically done with botanical families in mind, and can help to reduce plant disease and unwanted pests when done correctly.