Nature's first green is gold, Robert Frost said.

Maybe he meant the nursery business in the spring.

After the fallow winter months, the area's nurseries are gearing up to make the most of those instinctual stirrings that set people thoughtfully crumbling soil between their fingers.

This is the beginning of the busy season for a business that is understandably seasonal.

"In the nursery business you do all your business in March, April, May and June. In July and August, you sit around; then you work like crazy in September and October" and take it relatively easy for the rest of the year, said Bill Meadows of Meadows Farms.

The make-or-break months are ahead and -- with the brief threat of a drought evaporated and all those people who can't afford vacations working in their yards -- the outlook is good, area nursery operators said.

In the Washington area, the nursery and plant shop trade is still the province of small businesses, many of them family-owned operations that have been handed down. Out of five of the area's largest nurseries -- Behnke, J. H. Burton & Sons, A. Gude Sons Co., Johnson's Flower Center and Meadows Farms -- all but Meadows are at least second-generation operations.

"It's really the type of business that takes a family to run," say Ray Johnson of Johnson's Flower Center. Johnson, whose father started the company, works seven-day weeks during the spring at the nursery and plant store on upper Wisconsin Avenue with his wife, who runs the gift shop, and two children.

Nationally the business is beginning to change with the entrance of large agribusiness corporations such as Weyerhauser, amid predictions that chains and franchises will take a larger share in the future. The Washington area has yet to feel the impact of those changes, although there is one Weyerhauser outlet in suburban Maryland. t

In general, according to those who run the area's nurseries, their trade has enjoyed steady growth.

"There's been a very general and very upward push in the nursery business," said Tom Nichols, manager of Burton's nursery -- a third-generation business.

"There's a terrific amount of interest today, compared with 30 years ago," he said."We were a cottage industry then. I guess we still are, but we're in a much bigger house."

It is hard to rank precisely the area's nurseries. Meadows says he is the largest retail nursery in the United States, based on sales figures indicated by dues paid to the American Nurserymen's Association. Meadows said he has sales of approximately $4 million.

Gude's volume is about $1.7 million a year, according to Gilbert Gude. Burton's nursery is the second largest in Maryland. No figures were available for sales by Burton's, Behnke's or Johnson's but, along with Meadows and Gude, they are considered to be among the larger firms in the area.

The peculiar problems of the nursery business include its seasonal nature and some attendant cash flow problems. Nurseries have attacked the problem of seasonalness by adding departments: Christmas stores that sell decorating items, artificial flower departments, tropical plant and cut-flower departments, macrame and basket departments, and others that might bring in business when agrarian impulses lie under a blanket of snow.

Water is a concern, particularly for those whose operations include landscaping, a business curtailed by drought. Many nurseries have their own water supplies to take care of the plants on premises.

A major trend in the business is the need to supply gardeners with plants for smaller spaces.

"A great many people wish to have flowering plants or shrubs or vegetables growing right outside their balcony," said Roland Behnke. "Even if they live eight floors up, they're trying to grow all types of things, dwarf evergreens . . . tomato plants."

Nursery operators are supplying increasing numbers of dwarf trees and varieties of flowers and vegetables that thrive in boxes or pots.

Like everything else, the business has its fads.

"The plant that we sell the most of, that's really coming on strong, is blue rig juniper," said Meadows. The ground cover is winning fans at the expense of old favorites such as ivy and pachysandra, according to Meadows.

Dave Hill, who helps run Johnson's Flower Center, said that when the Carter administration came to Washington the nursery suddenly began receiving requests for a shrub called photenia, a hedge plant common in Georgia that the new arrivals expected to find here.

The Nancy Reagan rose is expected to be available in about two years and may prove a big seller with Republicans.

Here are brief sketches of five of the area's major nurseries:

BEHNKE NURSERIES: The company was started in Beltsville in 1930 and has grown to be a large supplier of annuals, perennials, outside nursery stock, house plants and foliage plants. It does not include a landscaping department.

The company, which has about 30 different types of greenhouses and large premises in Beltsville, grows many of the plants it sells itself, including several million annuals. "We grow our own African violets and try to have as much homegrown plant material as possible," Behnke said.

Behnke's father tries out new varieties of plants or varieties that Behnke would like to introduce to this area on his private land. The younger Behnke went into the business after a military career.

Like all the others, Behnke Nurseries is a privately held corporation. At the height of the season the company employs approximately 100 workers.

J. H. BURTON & SONS NURSERIES: The 52-year-old family held company was started by J. H. Burton in Hyattsville, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a nurseryman in Cottage City.

The company has sites in both Hyattsville and Olney, where the firm has 138 acres of fields where about half of the plants sold by Burton are grown. Approximately 50 percent of Burton's business is landscaping. One of the company's most visible recent jobs was landscaping around the new wing of the National Gallery of Art.

A. GUDE SONS CO.: Since his brother died two years ago, the Montgomery County nursery has been run by Gilbert Gude, former member of Congress who is now the director of the Congressional Research Service. Gude's grandfather and a great uncle began a flower business in Anacostia in the late 1800s. After World War I, Gude's father began the nursery and landscaping business north of Rockville.

A landmark for years, the Gude acreage has been nibbled away as the county became increasingly urban. When Gude Drive was built, it cut off land to the south of the present site. When the county built a landfill, it condemned another piece. Now the county plans a road that would go between rows of greenhouses."We feel like a Thanksgiving turkey," said Gude.

Besides urban encroachment, concern over estate taxes (which value land at its market rate and don't make allowances for heirs who might want to operate land in a way that would produce lower income than developing it -- such as farming) and the fact that no younger Gude is waiting to take over the business spell changes as well.

Most of the 160 acres now beginning to flower and turn green with trees and shrubs is on the market. The Gudes are not getting out of the plant and flower business (which includes a wholesale flower shop on I Street) but they are paring back. "We're going to continue to operate. We're not going to close up tomorrow," said Gude.

The old Gude home is the center of the Montgomery County property and five acres surrounding it have been given to the American Society of Plant Physiologists.

Besides the nursery and the flower wholesale business, Gude's includes a landscaping business that has landscaped the grounds of the mosque, the Wisconsin Avenue headquarters of the Federal National Mortgage Association and Lord & Taylor department store.

The company has about $1.7 million in sales a year and about 50 full-time and part-time employes.

JOHNSON'S FLOWER CENTER: Located on Wisconsin Avenue near Van Ness, Johnson's is the only nursery in the city, according to its owners. Ray Johnson's father started the nursery in 1953, having moved gradually from the grocery business into the plant business. Now Johnson and his brother own the company.

Johnson buys rather than grows its nursery stock and the flowers and plants it sells. According to Dave Hill, being able to shop around the country for the best buys and the large volume the company does help hold down prices. The company does no landscaping.

Flowers and houseplants rather than nursery stock are the major part of its operations, and it sells vast quantities of both. In a normal week when there are no major holidays, for instance, the firm sells 7,000 to 10,000 carnations, 3,500 to 5,000 roses, 300 to 400 bunches of chrysanthemums, 200 to 300 bunches of daisies and 150 to 400 bunches of irises.

MEADOWS FARMS NURSERIES: The Sterling, Va., firm was started by Bill Meadows, a former high school athletics teacher who relentlessly calls himself "Farmer." From a roadside stand that sold a few plants, in seven years Meadows has built the business into four nurseries and $4 million in sales, he said. Landscaping accounts for about a quarter of the business. Now he hopes to expand to Maryland with a series of small nurseries, he said.

"Our thing is volume and very little service," he said. "We don't shine each leaf on masses of plants."

The company grows a small part of the plants it sells, about 5 percent. Most of it is shipped in from elsewhere. For instance, in the past few weeks some 32 tractor-trailer loads of plants have arrived.

"I'm originally from West Virginia where people had to have a vegetable garden or starve to death," he said. "I was a farmer during those days. I enjoy playing the role of farmer." The word decorates the back of his car, the side of his glasses frames and cups lined up behind his desk spell out farmer.

"As long as I'm still selling things that grow in the soil that allows me -- with a little stretch -- to qualify as a farmer," he said.