Digging in a Garden Bed
No shortcuts here, but work done properly now will save tons of time later. Cold climates cause enough work for gardening, so eliminate whatever work you can by doing things right. Whether the planting bed is for annuals, perennials, vegetables or bushes, you want it weed free, well tilled and full of nutrients.
Lay out the area first with a garden hose if you need to remove sod. This will help you visualize the finished shape of the bed, and give you a line to follow cutting out the sod. Remove ALL sod, root systems and rocks. Any roots you leave in the soil will grow.
Now "double dig". Dig deeply along the front edge of the bed, and pile dirt up on the far side of the bed. Do the same along the first trench you just dug, and continue until about half way through the bed. Now go back to the front of the bed, dig deep and turn over the shovelfuls until you have turned over the second layer of the first half of the bed. Shovel the pile back into the bed. This is also a good time to work in organic matter. Your homemade compost is best, but use purchased if you need to. If you have heavy clay or sandy soil, add organic material. This is the best time to add material that decomposes slowly, improving your bed for many years. Gardens that are enriched only with chemical fertilizers will produce well for the first several years, but over time the soil becomes so depleted of organic material that your plants need, your soil will be in worse shape than it is now. Check the Soil Amendments page for complete information on the best organic matters for your soil type. Now repeat the process with the back half of the bed.
When you are done you will have loosened the soil quite deeply which your plants will adore, but the bed will be slightly high because it is loosened so well. It will settle in time. When you smooth out the final layer, you may also want to work in (rake in is adequate) a garden pre-emergent if you are using the bed for plants rather than seeds. You have stirred up a multitude of seeds while digging. Those near the surface will germinate. If the bed is for plantings that you don't expect to move such as flowering bushes, roses or perennials, you can use a weed barrier such as thick layers of newspaper, plastic or landscape fabric under mulch.
Don't forget to edge your bed! To prevent the lawn from creeping into the bed, edge with plastic landscape edging, brick or some other barrier.