Cleaning out those old flower beds before the onset of spring, can be a cumbersome task, but if you take the trouble to give those borders a good "spring" clean before the first sign of growth you will reap the benefits later on with a show of happier and healthier plants both during Spring and throughout those hazy summer months when gardening should be merely a task of maintenance not major overhaul.
The first consideration is to wrap up warm and to lay plenty of old newspaper by the back door, as the weather can be damp at this time of the year and you may be generate a lot of mud. The ground can be very cold too, so I would also recommend taking an old cushion or sponge mat to kneel on, to avoid getting a chill.
The best way to clear those old flower beds is to do it in one fell swoop, so avoid going back into the house and be sidetracked into doing other tasks. Make sure that you have all your implements to hand to save you keep dragging mud into the home and take a hot thermos of coffee with you and a small snack.
Depending on the size of your garden you should only take a couple of days to complete your flower bed maintenance, but why not ask for help from the family? Older children can be a massive help in turning heavy soil or searching for bulbs or the grubs from wintering insects.
The first thing to do is to get rid of any old mulch and twigs and dead leaves. A good idea would be to use a shovel and a rake. Rake over and drag all the old rubbish from last year and take my spade, and shovel the debris into a wheel barrow. This is where the family can come in useful. Whilst you carry on raking and filling, they can sort out any organic waste fit for the compost heap/bin and the rest of it can be bagged up and disposed of in the ordinary waste.
Dead plants can be viewed with caution. Soft plants that look dead usually are. If they pull up easily then it is time for them to be thrown away. However, be careful with the more "woody" variety. If some branches of the plant still have a springy feel to them then the plant is probably still alive. When in doubt leave the plant until the spring. If it has survived, you will be able to see buds of growth start sprouting when the weather gets a bit warmer.
You may find that some perennials such as primrose and Lychis may have become a little tightly packed from the previous summer and may need dividing and replanting. Many varieties of bulb flowering plants such as daffodil and hyacinth may also need a lot of thinning out and replanting in an optimum position.
No matter how tempted you may be to trim back your untidy trees and shrubs, avoid heaving pruning at this time of the year as it strips away protection for young spring shoots and it can also cause cold injury to the plant. Aim to prune towards the latter part of the spring to avoid late frosts.
Giving the top soil a thorough turning over is very important too. You will be amazed how many varieties of overwintering grubs and insects that you will find tucked away at the base of your plants. They are timed to wake up and feed from the tender new growths with the onset of spring. Turning the soil will dredge up those swollen seeds destined to become nasty weeds later on, so let the birds have a feast to cut down on potential unwanted flora.
If you do want to sow spring seeds, then you could use a "plant mat" which is made from a biodegradable material that can be cut to size and already has the seeds embedded in the mesh. This merely needs lying out and covering with damp earth to deter the animals.
Take a couple of largish stones and tilt an old terracotta plant pot in the shadiest parts of the garden. This will encourage frogs and toads into the garden. They are particularly fond of slugs, and all manner of tasty insects
After getting rid of all the waste, tidying your plants and digging over your top soil, the next consideration is the type of compost you are going to use. You can use the compost from your bin and tip a good thick layer around your existing plants. Save the tealeaves from the teapot and throw those around the base of your plants too.
If you have no compost to hand, then have a wander over to your local garden centre who can recommend a fertilizer for your spring plants, which are going to need feeding once they start to bloom. You will need a feed that is high in nitrogen such as cottonseed meal.
Alternatively, you may wish to use an all round fertilizer that contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. This will entirely depend on the quality of your soil and the types of plants you intend to grow. Fruit bearing plants for example tend to benefit from fertilizers containing high levels of phosphorus.
Tidying up the borders and making the garden look spick and span is a very gratifying experience. Some people may be tempted to mulch as soon as they have finished all the other jobs. However, it may be well worth bearing in mind that although mulching can cut down on those annoying weeds, it can also hinder new growth too. It is probably best to wait to see what seeds come up first. Always do your planting before mulching, whilst at the same time keeping a careful eye open for weeds as long as weeds are not allowed to flower and you pull them as soon as you notice them, then they shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Cleaning out your flower borders can be a back breaking task, and you may hate the "creepy crawlies" that you have to deal with en route to having tidy flower beds. However, when everything is done and you are well prepared for the spring, you can look forward with anticipation to the glorious show that will reflect all your hard work, in the coming months.