Spring forward

Here are a few well-timed tasks that will pay off with a great beginning to your springtime gardening.

Prepare tools

Tune up the lawn mower and sharpen the blades. Wipe the wooden handles of garden tools with linseed oil and sharpen tools' edges. Replace weak or broken handles or purchase new ones. Take an inventory of your tools, and make a list of new tools you'd like to buy and old ones you need to replace.

Cut perennials

Cut perennial foliage to the ground, with a few exceptions: Don't prune salvia, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), creeping verbena (Verbena Canadensis), or artemesia until they start showing growth on last year's stems. Then prune just above the emerging foliage.

Wait until sprigs of green growth appear on ornamental grasses, then cut back to the new growth. Prune butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) just as they begin to show new growth or when the last average frost date for your area has passed. If evergreen foliage of perennials such as Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) is tattered from winter's wear, remove blemished foliage to the ground; fresh, new foliage will quickly return. Trim the evergreen foliage of sedge (Carex spp.), liriope, and evergreen ferns.

Prune shrubs and trees

First, remove dead branches from woody plants. Then remove any cross-over branches that compete for sunlight. Selectively prune to open up the canopy of trees and remove older, less vigorous wood. If in doubt about removing a limb, be conservative—you can't glue branches back on! Over the next few days, observe the shrub or tree. After a week, decide whether it looks fine or whether you need to prune other branches. The goal is to allow the plant to take its natural form with discreet pruning.,

After several years, very little pruning is necessary. These shrubs and trees will be on their way to becoming beautiful specimens. However, if a shrub or tree has been neglected for several years, it may take three or four years to return it to a healthy, aesthetically pleasing form.

One exception for late-winter pruning is spring-blooming shrubs such as spirea, forsythia, and weigela—don't prune anything except dead branches until these plants finish blooming. (It's OK to prune summer-blooming shrubs such as crepe myrtle, vitex, and caryopteris now.)

Apply organic controls

Late winter (once temperatures stay above freezing) is the best time to apply horticultural oil sprays. These oils are a safe and effective way to control insects, allowing prudent gardeners to get a jump on possible infestations. When applied according to instructions, oils reduce populations of insect pests such as bagworms, mites, aphids, and mealybugs. If you had problems with these insects last year, it's likely they will return again.

Analyze the garden

Spend 15 minutes once or twice a week walking around your garden looking for insect pests and diseases. They require less aggressive treatment when spotted early. Carry a plastic grocery bag so you can collect damaged leaves and fruits. To be sure you get an accurate assessment, get down to the plant's level. Most diseases start on lower leaves and work their way up. Insects, which tend to prefer young, tender foliage, often hide on the undersides of leaves. Because insects and diseases are more common when you have rotten vegetables and fruits lying on the ground and hanging on the plants, dispose of these on your weekly walk.

Test soil

If plants in one area did not perform well, take soil samples and send them to your local cooperative extension agent or move the plant to a better location.

Update garden records

Make a resolution to keep a garden journal this year. The journal helps you plan outdoor garden events—you can look back to see what bloomed in the past on that date, or remember plants that provided timely foliage color. Just as important, it's a poignant reminder of past events in the garden, good and bad.

Read more at the Handyman Club of America.