By now, you've figured out your planting zone and should have a list of the things you'd like to grow. The next step is to find a patch for planting. The size of the patch will be driven by what you intend to plant. In my experience, the patch you plant will grow larger over time and it's okay to start small. The patch must receive direct sun for at least a portion of the day. And it should be in range of your sprinkler in the event that your find yourself with a shortage of rain. Get yourself a rain gauge so that you know how much water is landing on the patch.
As you think about what you want to plant, you can start the business of soil preparation. If your spot has grass, that's got to go. A tiller is the easiest way to make that happen and I recommend that you rent one for a couple of hours. You don't need to buy a tiller (not yet, anyway) but you should go out and get a potato fork. It looks like this:
And it will help you to turn the soil, which you will continue to do after the first tilling. And if you forgo the tiller, you can use the potato fork to turn the soil. It's work, but who doesn't love some sore muscles? Turn the soil in your patch bit by bit. Like this:
Tilling and turning the soil is best accomplished when the soil is wet. In the fall, after the harvest is completed, I'll have some tips for fertilizing the soil over the winter. Just as your garden is a work in progress, so is the patch of soil that you use. It should be nourished and cared for and that's an on-going process.
I use compost and leaves over the winter so that the soil is rich come the spring. If you don't have a composting plan in place, that's okay. Use the soil you have and enrich it in a couple of ways. First, turn it over and mix in some air and get the worms moving. They will help to get air and nitrogen in place. If you have some used coffee grounds, mix those in (and start saving them, by the way). Any old leaves that you have lying around from the fall should be raked on over to the garden. A late spring snow is a poor-man's fertilizer because it is nitrogen-rich. Old-timers call it the onion snow, because it falls after cold-hearty onions have been planted. And you can fudge a bit for your first spring by adding a 10-10-10 fertilizer from the garden shop. Follow the instructions and use it sparingly and just for your first go-round. Organic methods of enriching the soil are better for the earth and better for you. Plus, they are cheaper.
Now get out that list of things you want to plant. With an eye toward the space you've selected, it's time to think about layout. I plant in linear rows with spaces in-between so that I can step into the garden for weeding and harvesting. I am admittedly uncreative in my layout; you'll have to find a plan that works for your needs. You are planting seeds and small plants, but be generous in your space estimates because they will grow (that's the idea, anyway). My garden plot measures 12 x 20. I draw it out in my composition book, so that I have a distinct plan for placement of seeds and plants. It may look a little stark at the outset, but as the plants fill in they will use that space.
Pictured below is my garden as it looks right now.
It's a bit hard to tell, but the first rows are planted with radishes, carrots, and two rows of beets. Onions (that row of green specks) fill in the last row. More than two-thirds of the garden has yet to be planted. I use the seed packs propped in forks to mark my rows (and help me remember what I have planted). The beets are in two rows and you'll see that the first row is marked with stick. The radishes will be an early crop and I've left space for a tomato plant on either end of the rows. Once all the radishes have been harvested, I will plant some marigold flowers for a little natural bug control. But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, your task is to clear the patch for growing. Never fear: There is a lush green garden shaping up in that soil.
Next up: Planting the early seeds.