As winter's chill fades away, the occasional balmy day whispers: It's time for planting. March may be the month that can't make up its mind, but gardeners know that once St. Patrick's Day has come and gone -- and crocuses are sprouting -- those peas ought to be in the ground.
And as kitchen gardeners know, it takes an awful lot of plants to fill a dinner bowl with peas. About 25 plants will yield 1-1/4 cups of shelled peas, according to gardening writer Sylvia Thompson.
''By contrast, six feet of tomato plants would have you scrambling for the canning jars,'' she writes.
For the cook who's anxious to work from garden plot to stovetop pot, the harbingers of spring are most welcome: fresh asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries. While these are often in the markets year- round, they are without question more flavorful when homegrown and harvested fresh. And the rewards of cultivating your own herbs and vegetables -- even a humble pot of parsley on the windowsill -- extend beyond taste.
Looking for guidance to get started? A few books may be all you need. Here are some worth investigating:
The Kitchen Garden, by Sylvia Thompson, (Bantam Books, 389 pp., $27.95), tells how to choose seeds for flavor and how to grow them. It offers tips that can't be found in the seed catalogs, such as the pros and cons of specific varieties. The author also points out which seeds hold the most flavor, which are easiest to grow, and which ones need coddling. There are no full-color photos, sketches, or diagrams, but you'll enjoy the flavorful opinions of the author, supported by her personal gardening and cooking experiences.
With flavor as the focus, Thompson shares such tips as the best carrot to plant practically anywhere (Thumbelina); the fast-growing Japanese green that attracts no pests (Mizuna); the best-tasting beans (Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake); and her favorite peas (Super Sugar Mel). Thompson's companion cookbook, ''The Kitchen Garden Cookbook,'' comes out in April.
The New Gardener, by Pippa Greenwood (Dorling Kindersley, l76 pp., $24.95), shows that even the tiniest plot or backyard is large enough for growing a good supply of vegetables.
A host on the British television show ''Gardener's World,'' Greenwood illustrates hundreds of solutions with lovely sketches and photos.
For example: fan-trained plants will take up little space. Vining vegetables -- cucumbers, peas, beans, squash -- will climb over curving arches and pergolas. Herbs such as thyme and chives can make neat and interesting borders or hedges.
If space is tight, a few well-chosen edibles such as a yellow pear tomato bush or the slender Japanese eggplant, will grow attractively among a flower border, Greenwood suggests.
Also helpful is a glossary of terms, a picture page of weeds (from bindweed to kudzu), sketches of microclimates, and advice for coping with wind tunnels, slopes, salt air, frost pockets, and other extremes.
Successful Small Food Gardens, by Louise Fiotte (Storey/ Garden Way, l993, l96 pp.), focuses on the small plot: a kitchen garden, a backyard garden, or potager, as the French call it. Riotte suggests ingenious methods for water and drainage, improving soil quality, and growing fruit and vegetables in small spaces.
Alternative ideas include vertical gardening using trellises, pyramid beds, terraces on uneven ground, pole tepees, and fences.
Two-level gardening is another space-saver where several vegetables occupy the same soil at different levels with onions below ground and tomatoes and lettuce above, for example. Also explained: setting up edible flowering screens, using scarlet runner beans, and other nontraditional gardening techniques, such as minigardening for mobile homes.
The book is illustrated with charts showing how and when to plant, ways to sow and save, tree pruning, and more. A section on edible flowers includes recipes, such as Rose Petal Jam andFlower Honey.