Raised beds have a number of advantages over flat beds in gardens. They warm faster in spring so provide more growing time for vegetables, which is great for areas with short gardening seasons. They have more surface area so get more vegetables from less space. They drain more quickly, which is an advantage in wet climates. They are also much easier to reach for weeding, cultivating and harvesting--a real boon to elderly or handicapped individuals who may have flexibility problems.
Mark beds by pounding stakes into the ground and tying string between stakes. Beds should not be wider than the distance you can reach from the path to the center of the bed or you will be unable to care for plants without stepping into the bed; 36 inches is a good maximum width.
Design paths between beds to allow at least a 24-inch width for foot traffic, and up to 36 inches to make room for a wheelbarrow or small garden cart.
Remove vegetation from the top of the marked bed areas and loosen soil all over, to the depth of the tines, with a garden fork.
Dig out paths to a depth of 4 to 6 inches (topsoil only), throwing the excavated soil on top of the marked beds.
Break up any large dirt clods, then use a rake to level and smooth the beds, mounding slightly in the center so beds drain well.
Plant taller vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant or okra in the centers of the beds. University of Illinois Extension recommends that dwarf tomato varieties be planted at 12-inch intervals; use 15- to 24-inch intervals for staked plants, and allow most larger varieties 48 inches or more.
Plant the north edges of beds with lower-growing, partial-shade-tolerant vegetables or flowers, such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, cabbage or pansies. On south sides, you can grow short, sun-loving plants like marigolds, nasturtiums, or low-growing herbs. East and west sides will serve well for most plants, as they will receive sun and shade in approximately equal amounts each day. Planting thickly shades the ground and saves water as well as cutting down on weed growth.
Water plants when it appears dry more than 2 inches below the surface of the soil. Edges and tops will usually be drier than the mid areas of steeper mounds, or the overall areas of flatter-style mounds, so check in different places when determining dryness of soil.