Answer: Welcome to gardening! I predict that you'll enjoy this so much, you'll want transform your entire yard...
A soil test is your best investment toward success (aside from elbow grease). The test results tell you if there are adequate nutrients in the soil for the plants you wish to grow, and makes recommendations for how to improve your soil, if necessary. Your county agricultural extension office (ph# 360-0319) can help you with testing. They may also have helpful bulletins for beginning gardeners.
If your yard is currently in turf, you'll need to pull up the sod and turn it over, or remove it and compost it. Most sodded areas can be stripped via this method: water the area well one evening, and by the next day, the moisture will have drained from the soil, leaving it loose and pliable (depending on your soil type). Cut the boundary line of your bed with a sharp spade and run the spade underneath the sod to cut the roots. Once the sod is loosened, you can roll it up like a carpet. Cutting it in strips will make this easier.
Remove the sod and use a garden fork to loosen the soil underneath, then shake as much soil out of the sod as you can, and compost the leftover grassy clods. Some gardeners just turn the turf over, mulch the area, and plant right in the sod. You can experiment to see which works in your yard, if you want.
Alternately, you can hire someone with a tiller to prepare the planting space, and then rake out the clumps of sod. Next, you're ready to add the nutrients/amendments; then you can plant your ornamentals.
An entirely different option is to purchase a raised bed kit and build it right on your lawn, filling it with purchased potting soil. If you don't have a spade or fork to do the soil prep, this option may make more sense. You don't need to do a soil test, since the potting soil usually has nutrients already in it. Check the bag for details.
It sounds like the eastern and northern areas of your yard will probably get shade for at least part of the day, so plants that thrive in partial shade are recommended. Easy annuals to try are coleus, impatiens, ageratum, alyssum, four-o-clocks, and nicotiana. Some bulbs to consider for the future are caladium and tuberous begonias.
If you have more questions, please send them our way. Enjoy!
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