The first of any crop to mature in a garden has always been special. The first red tomato, the first cuke, the first zucchini are still cause for celebration. But in some older, more nature-oriented cultures, they were held in such high esteem that it was considered poor taste to eat them. Instead, these first ripe fruit were offered, as token sacrifices, to nature spirits were offered, as token sacrifices, to nature spirits to insure abundance throughout the season.

As far as sacrificing that first red tomato goes, though, neighbors would probably look at you funny - in our culture, it's considered almost a sacrilege to do anyting but eat the first fruits of a garden.

I prefer the thrifty Scottish views on first fruits. When the first potatoes were ready, tradition says, every member of the family had to taste them, and compliment them, to induce the plants to produce many more.

In many parts of this country and Europe, people believe that compliments increased crops - and that frolicking naked as they planted seed would not only increase crops, but bring them in early as well. This ritual no doubt goes back to antiquity - Pompeiian friezes are said to depict couples copulating in the fields - presumably to increase fertility. This, of course, is out of the question for modern garden is in a city or community plot, or even just an open spot, you'll do better to retrict your sexual activity in the garden to hand-pollinating your crops. At least you won't be arrested.

Hand-pollinating is sexy. It's not exactly titillating, but what else can you call it when you're moving the pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers to fertilize them? You can hand-pollinate any crops that bear male and female flowrs on the same plant - squashes, cucumbers, loofahs, melons and pumpkins among them - and insure an early crop. With hand-pollination, the first female flowers, which have a tendency to wither and fall when unpollinated, almost always set fruit.

First you have to learn to see the difference between male and female flowers. The males grow on single stems, the females grow on the ends of tiny, unfertilizes fruits. You brush the pistils of the male flowers with a soft brush, until you can see the yellow pollen clining to it. Then gently brush the centers of the female flowers to transfer the pollen. With luck, the fruit will pick up a shine and mature quickly. With other fruiting crops, such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, you can sometimes aid pollination by gently shaking the beblossomed branches. That's how they do it in a greenhouse.

With hand-pollination and any of the older rituals you care to try, you can be celebrating and savoring the first fruits of the season long before anyone you know. Give them a ceremony. Taste them. Compliment them. What can you lose?