It would be great if we could simply go outside and plant our garden after the last frost, water it and weed it, and then eat all summer from its produce. But the chances of pulling off a really good harvest in the garden without prior planning are pretty slim. Most first season gardeners have nothing to harvest all spring and then a glut of vegetables in late summer (been there, done that). And that's where winter reading comes in.
Seed catalogs will inspire dreams of bountiful harvests, but for new gardeners, reading up on techniques and planting schedules can really pay off when summer comes. If you take the time to plan your garden before you go out there with a shovel, you can have a steady supply of veggies instead of 20 heads of lettuce at a time.
One of the best-known books for planning an efficient garden is Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work, which is a continual-harvest system that breaks out of the row-gardening method. The author, Mel Bartholomew, makes a great case for only planting as many seeds as you need, instead of sowing the whole packet and then thinning them. Makes perfect sense to me, and then you've got seeds for more plantings that season. I don't follow his method to a T, but reading the book made me question my methods, which were based on habit, not efficiency.
Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long is another great read, especially for those in northern climates with a short growing season. The author, Eliot Coleman, lives in Maine and harvests fresh food all year using only unheated greenhouses and simple cold frames. For him, season extension with basic protection for the plants is a key element. Nothing fancy is needed, just good sense, some ingenuity, and succession planting. He writes with style, humor, and lots of wisdom about the growing life. By the end, you'll be looking for your hammer, ready to go build cold frames...
Eliot Coleman has another great book, The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, in which he shares his experiences and methods for small-scale farms and market gardens. Sometimes referred to as 'the Bible of organic gardening'.
Lasagna Gardening will be of great interest to those who don't like digging, tilling or weeding. Also called no-till gardening, this method mimics nature's method of building soil: from the top down. Building up layers of organic materials, as in sheet mulching, up to a foot or more high will smother weeds and provide nutrients and texture to your garden without hours of digging and double digging. I know some people who swear by this method, and the earthworms (the 'tillers of the soil') love the cool, moist, nutrient-rich soil underneath.
For an introduction to whole-systems thinking in gardening, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture lays out the basics of 'gardens as ecosystems'. Toby Hemenway discusses sustainable agriculture, edible landscaping, and designing with nature instead of working against it, and gives you enough knowledge to start to apply it to your yard and garden. If you really get into permaculture, the ultimate book is Permaculture: A Designers' Manual by Bill Mollison, which is almost 600 pages of detailed theory, design, and practice.
Head down to the library or your favorite online retailer and pick up some gardening books to start your growing season early!