Answer: It sounds like you are hoping to create what might best be called a "cottage garden", perhaps even a garden without any lawn at all. Remember that every garden takes on its own personality over time based on the gardener and on the growing conditions available. The best thing you can do overall is to improve your soil so it can support a healthy population of plants -- this will give you the most flexibility. Next, you should do some planning so that you have an underlying design to your plantings and select plants that can prosper in the planting conditions you have to offer.
I would suggest two books to help you get started. One is "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew ISBN 1-87857-340-2 and the other is "Gardening for Dummies" by Michael MacCaskey ISBN 1-56884-644-4. These will help you begin to learn to prepare your soil and how to grow all the various types of plants and give you some basic design ideas. Next, you may find additional books in the "Dummies" category helpful as you branch into specific areas of gardening. Finally, try to visit as many gardens as you can so that you can see real-life examples -- magazine shots are, after all, a frozen moment in time rather than a work in progress.
Enjoy your project!
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