Herbs are of the earth's greatest gifts. They grow everywhere and perfume the air. With sweet scents and pretty flowers, they can turn any spot into a garden of delights. And they can transform the simplest dishes into subtle, delightful meals.

A study of herbs could take a lifetime and volumes of books, because their variety in flavor, fragrance and use in infinite: Some have been used for healing, some for perfuming and beautifying the skin. Mostly, they've been used to flavor food.

You don't need books to get acquainted with herbs, though, because they themselves can tell you all you want to know: Just use your nose and tastebuds. Oregano speaks to you of pizza - it makes everybody think of pizza. So sniff a while, past that first conditioned whiff, and it will tell you it's tasty with chicken, zippy with zuchini, and apicy with fish baked in tomato sauce. You can have a repertoire of just a few dishes, yet with different herbs, everything you eat will be different and delicious.

Today let's look at eight standbys that have earned a spot in every kitchen garden. All need a sunny spot, but they don't need rich soil or much space. You can even plant them outside in pots and take them in with you next winter.

BASH, is spicy, lush annual that loves hot weather. It's a classic Italian herb, perfect for tomato sauce and interesting in many other things. Start it inside, or outside when it's warm. It needs full sun, and a foot of space for each plant. Keep it pinched and it will grow bushy.

DILL, is an annual, but you only need to plant it once. It grows quickly and reseeds thickly. Because it's tall and rangy, it can scatter seeds over a field. It's delicious with cucumber salads or spring soups - and indispensable for dill pickles.

MARJORAM. aromatic and mild and compatible with many foods, spreads fast to form a perennial carpet. it can be grown from seed, but it grows faster if you buy plants or get a few cuttings from a friend. Oregano is a wild majoram, now cultivated. It's smaller and stronger in flavor, and is easily grown from seed or cuttings.

PARSLEY is a biennial that flowers and reseeds the year after it's planted. The seeds are slow to sprout, so help them along by soaking them overnight. Plant curly or straight, but plant lots and use it often: It's good with fish, and chicken simmered in white wine and resomary is heavenly. This bushy perennial can be started from seeds or cuttings, but it always needs winter protection because it's tender. Sweethearts used to give it to each other when parting. As long as its fragrance lingered, they wouldn't forget.

SAGE is a hardy perennial that blooms in early spring. It's classic in dressings and soups, and is said to have at strong tonic effect. The ancient Greeks believed that drinking sage tea would make a person wise.

YARRAGON is subtle, popular in French sauces and salads, and distinctive in everything from fish to fruit salad. French tarragon can only be grown from cuttings, but its flavor is superior to the bitter Russian tarragon that can be grown from seed.

THYME, with its tiny leaves, is the familiar taste in Manhattan clam chowder. It's perennial that grows fast from seed. There's a creeping thyme for rock gardens and a lemon-flavored thyme, and many other varieties. Rosemary was used in funeral bouquets in the past, but thyme was purposely left out of them. People said, I hope smiling, "The dead have no use for thyme."