Tips for the beginner on preparing a home vegetable garden:

Fall activities: This is the time for soil preparation, the most important part of gardening.

Leaves, grass clippings and decaying flowers can be shredded and placed in layers in a compost pile. Animal manure will help it break down more quickly. lOrganic matter such as manure and leaf-mold can be dug into rows now to improve the soil for spring planting.

Soil-testing, performed free for residents by county and District of Columbia agricultural extension agents, will indicate the amount of lime and humus your soil needs. If you test and prepare your soil now, it will be ready for earliest spring plantings of such crops as lettuce, peas and spinach. r

Planning: The new gardener needs, first of all, to plan his garden row-by-row if possible. Start by considering sun, water and earth, the basics.

Be near water. (To water my garden, I must drag the hose across a flower bed, a picket fence, a parked car, a driveway, bicycles and between two thorny rose bushes.)

You need good drainage if your garden is not to flood, as ours did, drowning seeds and making the earth unworkable.

You need full sun for almost anything to ripen and produce well. Stay away from trees, which compete for water.

Learning: Pick an authority and stick to it, as the experts tend to disagree and can confuse the beginner.

"Organic" gardeners -- those who do not use synthetics or chemicals -- swear by the Rodale Press publications, including "The Basic Book of Organic Gardening" by Robert Rodale. Local planting dates are given in gardening columns in The Washington Post and elsewhere. "Crockett's Victory Garden," based on the television series featuring James Crockett, offers marvelous color photographs and a month-by-month guide.

Insects: Even the best-prepared garden can be ruined by bugs. Consider your approach to them, but sometimes the solution is worse than the problem.

Chemicals with names reminiscent of the Vietnam war may save your vegetables but poison you and your garden. Organic methods of control, while more time-consuming, are for gardeners more in keeping with the spirit of natural living they are trying to cultivate.