Early maintenance chores aren't just about tidying up your garden and making it look pretty, it's an opportunity to identify and fix problems to insure its best performance later on. It helps to understand the reasons behind the chores you're doing so you know what to look for while you're out there slaving away.
What to do first
Start with tools that are in good condition and sharpen them frequently - it makes the job so much easier! I sharpen my hand pruners and loppers with a stone on a weekly basis and before I tackle any big job. Keep a good edge on your shovels - if they're sharp it makes digging a pleasure (well almost). Get rid of rakes and shovels that have wobbly handles or are broken. Working with such tools is a struggle that makes everything hurt more - backs, shoulders, hands...not to mention the crying and cursing that goes along with it.
I don't think you need to get rid of all of the leaves that accumulate in the beds, but don't let big piles smother the smaller shrubs and perennials. If you have evergreens and/or deciduous shrubs, rake the piles behind them - the leaves will break down over the summer, hold in moisture and help build up the soil.
How to tell what’s dead and what’s not
Make a cut into the plant at the tip of the branch with your pruning shears - green wood means the plant is alive, brown means it's dead. Sometimes only part of a plant dies back - cut until you find green wood. Take a look at the base of the plant to check for new growth. If you aren’t sure, wait until the weather warms up and look for signs of life. Don't be impatient, a lot of shrubs such as Buddleia, Callicarpa and Caryopteris look like a bunch of sticks until around the end of May.
Why should you edge?
It sure makes the beds look crisp and clean! Edging with a straight edged shovel delineates the shape of the bed and makes it easier to mow around. It also keeps grass and weeds from infringing into the borders.
What about weeds and possible invasives?
Once the beds are cleaned off, take a close look at what’s coming up. Check for invasive weeds - there are many varieties, but you'll generally see lots of one type of plant (look at the leaves) in several areas of the garden. You can dig them out by the roots, but if you have big masses of them, this option isn't practical. Try smothering with layers of newspaper or cardboard and covering with a heavy layer of mulch to kill them - or at least slow down their growth. Look for other weeds encroaching into the beds and working their way into the centers of your plants. Eradicating by digging them out by the roots and getting invasive plants under control is much easier to before they go to seed and spread further.
What should you do about perennials?
If your perennials are crowding each other out, now is the time to do something about it. Most perennials can be moved in spring, but there are exceptions, so check to make sure whatever you're dividing will tolerate being moved now. Relocate them to bare spots or beef up other plantings. While you're at it, dig out any of the loser plants you didn't get rid of last year.
Practice early staking
Put stakes around potential floppers when they are up about 6 inches. It's much easier to stake plants before they get too big and it looks better later because they grow into the staking you've put in place and you don't see it.
How to you fix shabby looking shrubs and trees so they look better?
Prune off dead and broken branches. Tie up shrubs that have splayed out due to wind and snow damage by tying garden twine loosely around the trunk and bringing the branches in one at a time to gather them back to their original shape.
Remove dead wood, leaves and spent blooms from tops of hydrangeas and other deciduous shrubs to neaten them up.
What about roses?
Start by pruning out the dead wood and crossing branches to open the center. Cut shrub roses back by one half. Reduce climbers to 5 or 6 canes and prune minimally at the top. Roses are heavy feeders and benefit from fertilizing and top dressing with compost.
What should you do about vines?
Clematis: Cut back about a foot above the ground. Forget about pruning clematis once they leaf out - handling them causes their foliage to bruise and wilt. It's impossible to disentangle the dead foliage from the live and you end up cutting off future flowers. It is important to identify what variety of clematis you have to determine whether it blooms on old or new wood. If it blooms on new wood, you can cut it back now, prune those that bloom on old wood after they bloom. If you don't know, wait until you can identify it.
Woody vines: Wisteria, trumpet vine, and climbing hydrangea can be pruned back now if they are overgrown. Wisteria should be pruned very early (March). Otherwise, wait until after it has flowered.
Honeysuckle vines (Lonicera) tend to get lanky and accumulate dead wood in the center. These are hard to prune once they have leaves and flowers on them. Try cutting back by half every few years to get rid of the dead wood and promote better growth.
To feed or not?
Find out what your soil needs by taking a sample and testing it for soil pH and nutrients. Most county agricultural extension agencies provide this service, and you can take your sample to them to have it tested. They'll provide you with a report on the nutrients in your soil and recommendations on feeding. If you have more than one bed, take samples from different areas to get accurate results. Keep improving your soil by top dressing beds with compost, amending problem areas, and digging in compost when you're planting.
What about mulch?
It may look nice, but too much mulch can suffocate perennials and damage trees and shrubs. Limit mulch to about 1-2” in depth. Keep it away from the trunks of trees and shrubs.
Don't wait until the end of May to start digging out your hoses and sprinklers. Fighting with leaky connections, kinky hoses and sprinklers that don't work when you're in the throes of planting takes all the fun out of gardening. Stock up on stuff like stakes, twine, fertilizer and so forth so you'll have it around when you need it. Let the games begin!