2. Dig once. Then let the worms do the digging for you forever after. When you first make a garden, you are generally trying to accomplish two things—remove a piece of lawn and dramatically increase the fertility of your ground. Both argue for an initial plowing. Ripping up sod by hand is a brutal job, so I'd recommend borrowing a gasoline-powered tool like a tractor or Rototiller this one single time.
Then pull any visible clumps of grass out of your garden and dig lots of organic matter into it, such as composted kitchen scraps, composted farmyard manure or bagged manure from the hardware store, lawn mower clippings, spoiled hay, straw, or ground-up fall leaves. Scientists parse the subtle advantages of one over the other. In my experience, they all work and are magical in combination.
Here is the important concept: Garden soil is ideally intensely alive, full of more species than you can bend your mind around, including various worms, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and insects. They will eat the organic matter you have deposited (or each other), and in the process make nutrients available to your vegetables in a form the plants can use. They will also aerate your soil, keep it free of disease, and improve both its drainage and ability to retain water. In other words, they are subtler gardeners than you will ever be, so once the garden is made, let them manage everything below the surface.
In the future, apply your organic matter as a sheet of mulch on top of your soil several inches deep, with the coarser stuff on top. Do it every year, and this blanket will not only feed your underground allies, it will make your life easy by keeping down the weeds and keeping the soil moist. Push this mulch aside to plant a row in spring, pull it back when your seedlings are sturdy plants.
3. Be bold and panoramic in your planting. My first small vegetable garden contained only the holy triumvirate of tomatoes, basil, and arugula. I had nice salads and pesto from that garden for months. But now I plant a slew of crops, and in any given year, you can always find me taking a flier on things I've never tried before, like black garbanzo beans or tatsoi, an Asian salad green. Not only am I constantly discovering new tastes, I'm spreading the risk with this diversified portfolio, because even experienced gardeners suffer through years when their potatoes rot in the wet ground or the groundhogs eat every broccoli relative for lunch. Plant different things—and plant them in different spots every year to befuddle pests and diseases—and something is sure to thrive, no matter what nature throws at you.
4. Water, weed, and pluck the fruits of your labor. In a well-mulched garden, neither watering nor weeding will be an arduous proposition. Both will give you a chance to bask in your handiwork, to admire the powdery blue blush of the red cabbages, the graceful arching posture of the chard leaves, the intensely colored little sprays of flowers on the scarlet runner beans. Is there any kind of garden more beautiful than a vegetable garden? Not if your idea of happiness is similar to mine: a good meal on a lovely evening in late summer with family and friends.
Get cooking with Michele Owens' recipe for Risotto with Spring Greens and Prosciutto