Start by assessing materials at hand. Do you have an ongoing compost pile? Does the local municipality collect leaves and grass clippings for compost? If your soil is poor due to rocky conditions, can you use those same rocks to build the bed walls? By examining your local resources, you can build this 4-foot raised bed with almost no tools or money.
Location is just as important as soil quality. For most gardens, a southern unshaded location is best. Southern exposure ensures optimum sun and heat throughout the winter, which is important for growth of perennials. The raised bed should be positioned as far away from shade trees and power and water lines as possible. Most municipalities offer free utility marking services prior to digging. In the example shown here, a 4-foot-round, 8 to 10-inch tall bed is formed. Bed size is important for both plant capacity and ease of access. By making access from the perimeter convenient, you decrease the likelihood of soil compaction.
After location and size are determined, secure the materials for this bed from local home improvement and garden centers. Use a pickup truck to haul loose bulk materials, which are less expensive than bagged materials. The raised bed shown here is built using no tools and dry stacked stones only. This method is also optimal for sloped sites, as terracing is easy.
Start by marking out the perimeter of the bed and removing any larger stones. Using a shovel, cut the grass and topsoil around the perimeter, then carefully cut the grass layer off. When done correctly, the grass layer should separate very easily. Compost this layer and use next year as an amendment.
Cut a small trench, 1 to 2 inches deep and the average width of the larger stones. Arrange the larger stones, nesting as you go, in one ring around the perimeter. Small gaps will be filled in later.
Once one ring is complete, start a second layer. Position and stacking will be more important at this point to keep the stones from falling over. Use smaller stones as wedges under larger stones for a stable tight wall. Stone fence walls were built for centuries using this same method.
Once the wall is 8 to10 inches tall, lay out a 10-foot tarp next to it and evenly mix topsoil, compost and peat moss on the tarp. Be sure to work it over, breaking up any clumps such as the compacted peat moss. Once evenly mixed, shovel the material directly into the raised bed and fill until even with the top of the wall. Next, consult a local nursery for the proper spacing and root depth for purchased plants. Take care not to overcrowd and when in doubt plant fewer plants to allow for future growth. Also investigate companion plants, such as herbs, which may be placed around and below taller berries.
Now is also the time to apply any soil amendments such as an acidifier, in the case of blueberries and other acid-loving plants. Once the plants are in and backfilled, thoroughly water the bed. This will help any natural settling of the soil to occur. Finally, top-dress with 1 inch of mulch.