Step 1: The Dirty Work
Well, before doing any dirty work we must first decide WHERE to do it. Location is everything when it comes to a garden. 95% of vegetable plants enjoy a full sun location. Full sun means at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day. I am planting my new garden along the side of my house, it greets the morning sun and gets direct sunlight till around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. This will be a good garden for plants that need lots of water like cucumbers due to the fact that they will be shaded in the hottest part of the day. If you aren't sure where a good spot might be you can get a hose and lay it out as an outline of where you want your garden in your yard. Check on it from time to time and see if that spot is still getting plenty of sun. You can also use a compass to figure out which way the sun will be coming from in the morning (east) and setting in the evening (west).
After choosing the perfect spot mark the outline by tying string to stakes (or you can just eye-ball it like me). Keep in mind that you want to be able to reach everything in your garden without actually having to step foot in it (this way you don't compact the dirt down with your feet). You can make it as long as you want, but try not to make it any wider than 4 feet or so. See these pics for a good example: Picture 1, Picture 2
The garden fork, grub hoe, shovel, and hand-shovel
Now comes the hard part. You can do one of two things: you can rent a roto-tiller, or you can grab a shovel and get some serious exercise. Starting at one end of the garden dig down about 6 inches and turn the soil over. If you are digging in grass put back the grassy side face-down. The garden fork and grub hoe are two tools that can help you do this. A grub hoe is basically a normal garden hoe that thinks it's a pick-axe (good for getting deep and pulling up roots). As you dig toss out the big rocks and whatever else you find (I found a beer can from the 70's and a glass bottle while digging my first garden). If you hit limestone do not despair, as this is going to be a raised bed. Pull up or chop roots if you have to. While digging my second garden today I had to dig out two bushes and a weird tree.The former owner of my house had also put a rock garden there, so I had the pleasure of hand-removing little purple pumice stones all morning. This by far is the most difficult task, and will probably take you all day, so start early, drink lots of water and take breaks.
I suggest reading a little about raised bed gardening here, that way you can have this picture in your head while you dig.
Here are some pictures of my step 1 progress:
After. The meters in my backyard will make a nifty trellis for my climbing veggies!
Be sure to take before and after pics of your own hard work!