The first thing to do in the garden every year is give it the "squirt" test: Step down hard on the ground. If water squirts up around your boot, stay out. You can do more harm than good by walking on this ground and compacting it. If you pass the squirt test, it's time to get to work. (If you fail, wait a couple of days and try again.)

The first task is to clean out the beds. I get out any accumulated leaves and broken branches by raking or blowing, then get ready to do the most important cleanup job, which is removing all the old mulch from the beds. If you don't remove old mulch, it can build up over time and smother plants.

Removing the mulch is easier if you start by edging the beds. I use a tool called an edger, which has a half-moon-shaped metal blade and a wood or metal handle. Go along the edge of the bed and cut down 4 or 5 inches, kicking up all the dirt and roots into a pile in the bed. You can also use the edger to expand a bed to accommodate plants that have gotten too big for the existing bed.

Once the bed is edged, I use a steel rake to collect all the edgings and as much of the old mulch as I can from the bed. Rake everything up, then scoop it out with a square shovel and mulch fork, put it in a wheelbarrow, and dump it in your compost pile.

Be sure to clean out the beds around the bases of trees, too. Old mulch can cause rot in the trunk or prompt the tree to grow a secondary root system — which steals from the primary roots but dries out quickly.

Once the beds are cleaned out, it's time for the lawn. I power thatch all my lawns in spring. There are manual thatchers available, or if you have a small lawn a brisk raking will do. But you can rent a power thatcher to make the job easier. Collect all the debris and put it in the compost heap.

Don't put down any pre-emergent crabgrass control until you rake or thatch. If you put it down first, it will be rendered useless by the thatching.

Now you're ready to mulch. Wait until you see what I have to say about that next month!

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