If you really want to do the best possible job of preparing an intensive bed, work from a planting board, which is simply a piece of 2 x 12 lumber as long as the bed is wide. If you stand on the board while working you decrease soil compaction even further, and as compaction of the topsoil is one of the primary inhibitors of root development, you’ll be doing the plants a real favor.
The process I’ve developed for spring preparation of an established garden is as follows: I start at the uphill corner which has dried the most and work sideways across the top of the bed in a strip. Standing in the path, I push the fork into the ground with my foot, like a shovel. The fork should be facing the interior of the bed, that is, it should be digging with the inside of the curve of the tines. I work the fork back and forth just a second, then pull way back on the handle and pop a bit of soil out of the ground. I continue this “edging” across the width of the bed.
Next, I step over this line of disturbed soil and face the opposite direction. Ideally, one should stand on a board while working, to distribute the weight an avoid compacting the soil in the growing bed, but it is not necessary. I stock the fork into the ground parallel to the first strip I worked, but four to six inches into the undisturbed area. I loosen and remove this slice of soil, lift it on the tines of the fork, then flip it just an inch or so into the air and quickly, with a twist of the wrist, lift the fork so the tines hit the slice of soil I’ve removed and shatter it into a pile that lands right back where it started. I continue this process grid-wise across the bed until I’ve done the whole area I’ll be planting. I don’t get ahead of myself because the soil should be prepared only a few days ahead of planting.
If the beds are boxed in, it is then a simple matter to rake the surface to remove any rocks or stubble and break up any clods that are left. You can lay boards from side to side to make any necessary paths, or rake out paths just as you would in an open, unboxed bed. Beds less than four feet across are likely to need any paths at all.
To put an open garden plot into temporary or seasonal beds, use stakes and string to mark edges of the beds, then rake loose soil from the path areas into the beds to make an extra loose, compaction-free place for our vegetables to grow. You might want to get a bedding rake, which differs from a normal rake in that it is a bit stouter, and on the back side of the tines has a straight metal edge that is very handy for scraping soil up into the beds. Start on the uphill side and reach to the far side of the first bed. Rake clear a path there, pulling the loose soil uphill into the bed. Then walk down that lower path and rake the soil from where you previously stood into the bed as well. When you’re ready to plant the next bed, move the stakes and string down there. Preparing the area this way really takes no more time than simply raking it, and the plants in the beds enjoy an extra few inches of richly prepared garden soil.
Either method will work just fine, and neither will be a lot of work at any one time, as you shouldn’t prepare the soil until you are ready to plant. Try to avoid binge gardening, or as we call it here in Vermont, Memorial Day Madness.