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It's predictable on the first sunny spring days -- homeowners emerging from their houses like bees from the hive. The cleanup begins. Not everybody approaches it the same way, and a lot depends upon lifestyle and location.

Still, there are some guidelines that might help us prioritize the chores, get our castles looking better and save a few plants in the process.

The general mess

Friends and family may laugh that I'm advising about all this, because by the end of winter I have more "general mess" around my yard than anyone I know. That includes stacks of plant pots, pails, tools, tarps, half-emptied mulch bags, door mats, bird feeder debris, a gutter down, dog waste, saved garbage and leaf bags for the compost, the clogged drainage ditch, collections for the trash, and -- oh yes -- the remains of Christmas decor!

That's just the remnants of human activity and doesn't even count what nature has left us -- branches down, dead grasses and perennials standing, and weeds declaring themselves. Then comes the evidence of early gardening -- the plants go out, the plants come in, the plants wait to be planted! (Apartment living, anyone?)

First, you clean

It may take a Significant Other to make gardeners pick up and put away -- do the cleanup -- before we start to garden. Once I am around the perennial bed I don't even see the branches down or what the wind blew in, and I know I'm not alone.

As motivation, it may help to know that we can do a lot of harm in the garden by stepping on moist soil (compacting it). Also, many plants haven't even emerged and we can damage them with just a footfall. It's not even clear whether some shrubs or trees are alive or not. So get anything trashy out of sight first. Very soon the bulbs and buds take center stage, and there should be no eyesores messing up the scene.

Branches and twigs

If you have the place for it, make a brush pile at the back of the yard to benefit wildlife, including the babies who need hiding places. Put logs or rocks -- something large -- at the base so that there are tunnels large enough for a small animal. Then pile branches on top. If you have only small yard waste -- leaves and twigs -- start a compost pile. I go cautiously about raking the old mulch out from the perennials and shrubs, because the tender shoots will still experience some radical temperature changes. I know you're going to do it, so just go carefully and do no harm to the plants you can't yet see.

Raking the lawn

One of the most useful spring exercises (and physical work-outs) is raking the lawn. Especially if you see brownish patches where the lawn may have winter damage, just raking the soil surface is helpful. It's also necessary if you are going to spread grass seed on those bare spots, since seed must make direct contact with soil to germinate.

I could polish these words or pay some bills but instead I guess I had better face cleaning up the yard!
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.