Assess your exposure.
If you are planting vegetables, keep in mind that most need at least eight hours of full sun every day. Flowers and other decorative plants have different sunlight needs, depending on their type. Study what sort of light your yard gets during the day, particularly noting the sunny and shady areas.
Designate your planting areas.
You need a plan before you plant. A four-by-four-foot plot of land is a good start for vegetables. For flowers, decide where you’d like to dig the beds.
Consider a fence.
Fences are especially important if you are planting vegetables (although some flowering plants may be enticing to critters, too). Build it before you plant the garden, so rabbits or raccoons never get a glimpse (or a taste) of that lettuce.
Know your dirt.
Most soil—even sand—can be enriched with compost and be fine for planting. But you need to determine how much organic material and mulch you’ll have to add to make it fertile. A local gardening center can help.
Decide between tilling and creating a raised bed.
If you don’t want to till and nourish the soil you’ve got—or if you have a bad back and would rather not be bending down so low to garden—you can build a raised planting bed with non-pressure-treated wood.
Contact your local cooperative extension service.
You’ll need help determining what plants will grow in your part of the country (hint: Lemon trees don’t grow in Maine), when frosts are likely to hit, and the ideal time to plant and harvest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a network of cooperative extension services dedicated to providing that information.
Write down your preferences.
For a vegetable garden, think about what you like to eat and what you generally buy (or can’t buy) at a local farmers’ market. With flowers, make a list of the colors you love and what you’d like to see in a vase on your kitchen table.
Make a seasonal plan.
Once you determine what will grow, what you like, and what time of year certain plants will flourish, you need to create a schedule. If your flowering plants all bloom in July and then die off, have some evergreen plants to keep the area looking lush. If your tomato plants take months to get big, plant smaller vegetables nearby that can make quick use of the space. Again, a local gardening center can help you plan.
Buy some basic tools.
Have these essentials on hand before you begin: spade; garden fork; soaking hose; hoe; hand weeder; and a basket for moving around mulch or soil.