One suggestion I would offer to any beginner, is for you to think holistically about your land, and figure out which part of it you want to devote to growing, and which part to leave enact. Also, if you want to keep it really small-scale and experimental this year, which I recommend at first, don't forget about container gardening. You can grow a good bit of food in containers!
It would help to sketch out a 2D layout of your land, and try to gain some perspective on what you want to do with it. Having a drawing really helps. (make a bunch of photo copies!) Or draw it digitally in 3D, which helps when designing for slope, contour and any vertical aspects (I used Google Sketch Up. It's a great tool for this)
Sunlight is a big factor. Not so much a make-or-break factor, but it will dictate what kinds of veggies you can grow. Some love full sun, other not so much. Shitake mushrooms, for example, are really easy to grow and they don't need much sun at all. Same for most of the leafy greens.
Tomatoes, Peppers, Watermelons, Peas, and Corn on the other hand - they love sun.
Typically, when growing most anything, we favor a southern exposure. That's the direction that gets the most sun. The northern exposure gets the least. (and is thus coolest, think "North Face" of the mountain)
This really helps with the design phase, which is an all-important paper-and-pencil phase that most people skip, to their eventual dismay. Of course, you can always just observe the sun over the course of a day to get an idea where it falls, but the nice thing about the software is that you can see the sun's pattern for, say July, when you'll be in the full swing of the growing season. Thinking and planning ahead really helps with the overall design, and helps ensure success.
But again - start small this year. Maybe some tomatoes, a few herbs, and some root crops. And shitake because they are just too delicious and too damn easy not to!
In either case, whether you're building a full-on, small-scale permacultural sustainable family farm, or just growing some basil in a pot, the sun direction is a big factor.
I would tackle that first, figure out your exposures - and if you find that you have an area that gets 6 hours of sun a day - even if it's just a 4x4 area - that will really open up your options as to what you can grow.
I think what you'll likely find is that you have several spots that get good sun throughout the day, and others that get a lot of shade.
This is actually ideal! Diversity is key to a healthy system, right?
There's a great and simple method that works well for converting common ground into magnificent growing beds. It's wildly simple and called double digging. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_digging If you have some compost to mix in with this method, you're golden!
Perhaps even better than this, is sheet mulching. I suspect you'll find plenty of info about sheet mulching in the Permies forum. Am I right, Paul?
As far as compost goes, many beginners tend to over-complicate or over think the issue. Just pick a spot and start composting tomorrow.
You'll be amazed at how much stuff you'll find around the house that makes wonderful rich compost; leaves, lawn clippings, scrap potting soil, and any and all weeds, veggie scraps. Just toss it in and turn it around every few days - and prepare to learn as you go. One of Bill Mollison's and Geoff Lawton's (and others) greatest lessons is that you can't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't let the fear of failure hold you back from learning. No matter the level, whether beginner or master, we are all students of the land, students of the earth and the natural process. Embrace mistakes as feedback, and follow your heart.
Like nature, give yourself enough time to ease into it.
Another thought on compost is try to make the bin where it's out of sight. Compost is wonderful stuff, but unsightly - especially if you have less-than-enlightened neighbors. See my point about drawing out the design thoughtfully.
Google "diy compost bin" for some ideas.
Don't think of compost as being soil. Instead, think of it as being organic fertilizer. You don't need much of it, especially if you start small this year. You only need to spread about an inch or so every few weeks onto the top of your growing beds.
As a final point, you might want to see if you can set up a rain water catchment system. These just make good sustainability sense, but they are an additional commitment. Maybe work this into next year's design!
So - I think that's a good starting point, prep-wise. Figure out your sun, do your design, and then dig in! ... and be sure to check back here often!
Cheers and good luck!
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