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Look for plants that address your biggest problems. Hot summers? Deer? Drought? Lots of rain? Buy for your climatic situation.
Don't flip out too hard if your soil sucks. I live in North Texas, where clay soil is the norm. This year I dug 400 lbs of manure and compost into two 9x13 beds, just to lighten the soil up, and things are doing *great*. You can always change your soil, but you can't change your prevailing weather patterns.
Perennials. I cannot recommend perennials enough--except for things in the mint family, which (while they will grow anywhere) will take over your yard, your house, your life, and eventually the world. There are bloom guides for every perennial flower that tell when it'll bloom, how long the blooms will last, and whether you have to do finicky stuff like deadheading.
Also, look at plants grown specifically for foliage. It's amazing how many gorgeously-leafed plants there are out there, and how many of them will work in tricky spots.
If all else fails, Knock-Out roses are popular for a reason. They will bloom like crazy in the Texas heat, they don't get mildew, they aren't bothered by our sub-freezing temperatures, bugs don't seem to like 'em, and you don't have to deadhead them or treat them well. I planted one seven years ago, cut it back to the ground and hacked at the stump for a while last year before giving up, and it's now four feet high and covered with blooms.