Knowing zilch about organic gardens, I did what any good English major would do. I bought a book--a heavy tome made with recycled paper and vegetable ink, filled with glossy photos and notes on worm composting and soil composition. On the advice of my book, I pulled up 200 square feet of overgrown lawn with only a shovel--since a rototiller supposedly would have compacted the clay soil. (Note to personal trainers: this is an excellent glutes workout. It's like doing the Buns of Steel video several times back to back.)
Garden lesson one: there's a huge divide between grassroots and grass roots. In The Omnivore's Dilemma--a book associated with all the fervor of grassroots locavorism--Michael Pollan explains how grass withstands cutting and grazing. The roots of the plant grow in a long, horizontal ground-hugging pattern. Like an iceberg, the vast majority of this lies under the surface. Mowing it merely helps weed out anything that might grow taller and block out the sunlight. Which means this clever little plant has adapted itself to us. Evolution is charming, isn't it? That is, until the raw fingers of your cramped hands are trying to pull the last few inches of a three-foot-long grass root that you've painstakingly wrestled from its iron grip on the earth, only to have it break off at the last second. The opposable thumb's got nothing on the grass root. Those streamlined leaves that Walt Whitman loved with every atom of his being made a small part of me wish this weren't an organic garden, so that I could use a chemical weed killer as evil as the grass. When my half plot was finally cleared of all but soil and the overgrown rhubarb and oregano courtesy of last year's gardener, I knew the hard part was over.