1. Consider Your Options
Do you want to plant a vegetable garden? An herb garden? A flower garden? If you choose vegetables and/or herbs for their contributions to your dinner table, identify which ones your family will eat or is willing to try. If you want flowers for their flair, color, and fragrance, decide whether you want annuals that bloom most of the summer but need to be replanted each spring or perennials that have a shorter bloom time but return year after year. All are valid choices but have different maintenance requirements. One bit of advice: Start small until you know what you’re getting into.
2. Pick the Correct Spot
Almost all vegetables and most flowers need 6-8 hours of full sun each day. So you need to observe your yard throughout the day to figure out which spots receive full sun versus partial or full shade. Don’t despair if your lot is largely shady. You won’t be able to grow tomatoes in shade, but many other plants (e.g., ferns and hostas) love it. This step is important to ensure your plants have their light requirements met so they can thrive. Check plant tags or ask the staff at your local garden center to help you understand out how much sun a plant requires.
Three additional tips: Pick a relatively flat spot for your garden because it’s more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to deal with a sloping garden. Check for windbreaks (e.g., your house or your neighbor’s house) that will keep plants from being harmed by strong winds. And put the garden where you can’t ignore its pleas for attention—outside the back door, near the mailbox, or by the window you gaze through while you dry your hair. Bonus if that place is close enough to a water spigot that you won’t have to drag a hose to the hinterland
3.Clear the Ground
Get rid of the sod covering the area you plan to plant. If you want quick results (e.g., it’s already spring and you want veggies this summer), cut it out. Slice under the sod with a spade, cut the sod into sections to make it easier to remove, then put it on your compost pile to decompose.
It’s easier to smother the grass with newspaper, but it takes longer. (In other words, you should start the fall before spring planting.) Cover your future garden with five sheets of newspaper; double that amount if your lawn is Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost (or combination of potting soil and topsoil) on the newspaper and wait. It’ll take about four months for the compost and paper to decompose. But by spring, you’ll have a bed ready to plant—no grass or weeds and plenty of rich soil.
4. Improve the Soil
The more fertile and friable the soil, the better your vegetables will grow. The same holds true for other plants. Invariably, residential soil needs a boost, especially in new construction where the topsoil may have been stripped away. Your soil may be excessively wet, poor and infertile, or too acidic or alkaline. The solution is often simple: Add organic matter. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, decayed leaves, dry grass clippings, or old manure to the soil when you dig or till a new bed (see Step 5). If you decide not to dig or are working with an established bed, leave the organic matter on the surface where it will eventually rot into humus. Earthworms will do most of the work of mixing humus in with the subsoil.
To learn more about your soil, have a soil test done through your county cooperative extension office. They’ll lead you through the procedure: how much soil to send from which parts of the garden and the best time to obtain samples. Expect a two-week wait for the findings, which will tell you what your soil lacks and how to amend it.