As we enter autumn planting season in Australia, and as Northern Hemisphere gardeners approach spring, growing vegetables seems to have come back into fashion. It's partly due to the global financial crisis, I suppose, but also due to the quiet, long-term influence of the green movement. Long may it continue!
Most of us start gardening with plants in punnets from a nursery, or with the large, easy seeds that can be sown directly where they are to grow, like sweet corn and beans. Growing plants from seed in punnets is the next step. Below are the things you'll need:
Seed raising mix. This isn't potting mix; it's much finer in texture. Buy a smaller rather than a larger bag. The mix should feel damp, but not wet. If you need to rehydrate the mix, put a few scoops of it into a bucket, add water (say two cups) and stir. If you can, let the mix sit overnight to absorb. It is easier to handle if it's damp rather than sopping wet.
Empty punnets. You do have some in your garden shed, don't you? Left over from the seedlings you bought last time? I have the kind that are divided into individual cells as well as the older kind where all the seeds bunk in together. I use the cell kind for larger plants, where I have specific numbers in mind. The older style are good for lettuces, leeks, spring onions and other vegetables that don't take up much space or where you don't really care how many you have. I also use plain punnets for out-of-date seeds, which I sprinkle thickly, as germination rates are much lower.
Seeds. For most gardeners, this is the fun part, where we tend to get carried away. My preference is for heirloom seeds, which are better suited to home gardeners. Heirlooms tend to crop over longer periods, while modern varieties tend to be produced for farming, where an all-at-one-go harvest is preferred as it lowers production costs. Besides, the heirlooms have interesting names and stories and are sold by interesting people.
A place to keep sown punnets. I stand punnets in shallow trays, usually saucers from big pots. In winter, I use a mini-greenhouse to start off my warm-weather crops, but my climate is mild enough that it is unnecessary most of the year. The punnets usually stay on my back porch, which has a north-easterly aspect. The gentler morning sun won't cook them. Your climate and hemisphere may vary. The basic requirements are: morning sun, close to your house (you need to talk to them every morning and keep an eye on their water needs), not in anyone's way, and not too cold, hot, light or dark. 20-25 C is the temperature you want: most vegetable seeds will germinate and grow optimally there.
A workspace. I use the potting bench in my garden. I have a tray where I fill the punnets, which makes clean-up much easier. There's also room for my other gear...
Something to store your seeds in. The metal biscuit tin is traditional. I have an old rectangular ice-cream container: it is wide enough to allow my seed packets to stand upright.
Identification tags and a pen or pencil, and storage for them. You can buy blank tags, or just cut up a plastic container. Permanent marker is always legible, but a good gardener's pencil lives in my shed in a jar with all the unused tags; you can reuse tags for new things. Always tag your punnets, preferably with cultivar name as well as plant name -- you quickly find out which plants will and won't work in your garden, and re-buying a dud variety is terribly frustrating!
I think I've mentioned everything, but if I haven't, please comment!
The subsequent posts in this series are Method and Mistakes and After Germination.