It still is not too late to remove garden debris from beds and cut back perennials if you are running late with your garden cleanup. However, the perennials will have begun growing, so be very careful to avoid damaging new shoots. Keep clear of the new growth by cutting old perennial stalks higher than you otherwise would.
Garden beds look better and are easier to mow along if their edges are smooth, flowing curves. To smooth out irregular bed edges, lay out the new line with a garden hose. Use marking paint to mark the line or cut along it with a sharp spade.
After marking, remove the hose and dig up all turf within the line. Remove all clumps of grass from the bed. Break up any clods of earth and spread the soil around.
Apply fertilizer to garden beds if needed. To determine the best fertilizer for your garden, have your soil tested. Use soil from a few locations and mix together for a good composite sample. If your garden is large, break up your property into sections and send in multiple samples to be tested separately.
Most gardens in Chicagoland have soils with adequate levels of phosphorus, so choose a fertilizer with little or no phosphorus.
All fertilizers should not be applied at the same rate. The higher the percentage of nitrogen in the fertilizer you purchase, the less you will need to apply to your garden. Follow instructions on the bag or ask a salesperson for advice.
Neaten up your perennial beds by top-dressing with a light layer of mulch. But when you mulch around trees, avoid the "volcano effect" that is created by piling soil and mulch up around the trunk. Spread mulch in an even layer and keep it a few inches from the bark of trees and shrubs.
After a long Chicago winter, it is easy to let spring fever take over when ordering plants from catalogs and buying plants from garden centers. To ensure a successful garden, take the time to select plants that are suited for your garden's growing conditions and fulfill your design criteria. Putting the right plant in the right location will result in a better looking garden that requires less maintenance.
• Tim Johnson is director of horticulture at Chicago Botanic Garden, chicagobotanic.org.