NO OTHER vegetable tastes quite so much like spring as the garden pea. Sweet, tender, green as new grass, peas are an easy cool-weather crop that require regular picking and quick cooking to capture their flavor. And, this legume is as good for the garden as for the palate.

Peas are hardy enough to be planted as soon as the ground can be worked, though not much later than April 1 in this southern climate, or again as a fall crop started in August. A good soaking the night before will give the seeds a head start at germination. If you can afford the space, try planting several varieties with differing maturities -- you'll be eating peas for close to a month. Alaska, ready in 55 days from planting, is probably the earliest reliable variety, though not so sweet as the wrinkled-seeded peas. Mighty Midget, Sparkle, Little Marvel, Blue Bantam (60 to 65 days) are all sweet and require less space than other varieties. Wando (68 days) are the most productive hot-weather peas, if you're slow in getting your garden started. For sugar peas, try dwarf Snowbird and if you have the space, Sugar Snap peas are the sweetest of all.

To save space, plant peas in double rows 4 inches apart. They like a pH of 6.5, so if you may need to lime your soil before planting. Compost will lighten and enrich your pea patch, but take care not to over fertilize or you'll grow heavy vines and few flowers or pods. Dig double trenches two to three inches deep and plant seeds one to two inches apart, covering with an inch or more of loose soil. Pea vines do not ground around poles the way other legumes will, but they do have small tendrils that grasp any support you give them. Twigs stuck into the ground between two rows are fine for shorter varieties, but you'll need real fencing for the six foot plus Sugar Snap vines. As the weather begins to warm the soil, you may want to mulch peas. Several layers of old newspapers held down with grass clippings make an inexpensive but very effective mulch throughout the garden. Mulch keeps moisture in the soil while roots stay cool; more importantly, it means less work (weeding) for the gardener.

It this is your first vegetable garden, you may want to invest in a legume innoculant, which increases plant yield and helps roots release valuable nitrogen into your soil. When you're through picking peas or beans, cut off plants at the soil line (rather than pulling them out) to leave nitrogen rich soil roots decomposing naturally in your garden. Healthy legume vines can be added to your compost pile.

All legumes are subject to fungus disease, so never work with these crops when vines are wet. Crop rotation of peas and beans will spread nitrogen throughout your soil and helps avoid fungus.

Peas are ready to be picked when the pods are fat and full. They ripen from the ground up, so hunt for pods at the bottom of the vine first. Like sweet corn, the sugar in peas quickly turns more to starch, so you'll want to pick just before cooking. New peas need only the briefest of steamings and are elegant served simply with butter or a little cream. They add sweetness and crunch to salads, and kids love them straight from the pod. If you ave a bumper crop, try blanching them for a minute or two, then cool in ice water and drain to freeze. Overripe peas can be frozen or simmered in stock for soup. (A few washed pods will increase the flavor, or you may add a pinch of sugar to recapture their first sweetness.)

However you choose to serve garden peas, they are a valuable food nutritionally. One cup of shelled peas has about the same value in calories and vitamin C as a baked potato, with a good deal more iron and other nutrients. Combined with whole grains and seeds, they become an inexpensive meat substitute. MARGOT HIGDON'S STEAK AND SNOW PEAS 1 clove garlic, minced 1 teaspoon ginger root, chopped 2 tablespoon scallion, chopped 1 tablespoon oyster sauce 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 teaspoons cornstarch 1/2 pound sirloin steak 1/2 dozen dried Chinese mushrooms 1/4 pound snow peas or sugar snap peas 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoon peanut oil

Mix together first seven ingredients and marinate sirloin, cut in 1-inch cubes, in this mixture for at least 30 minutes. Soak mushrooms in warm water to cover for 20 minutes or until soft.Drain, remove tough stems and quarter mushrooms. String sugar snaps and wash snow peas. Parboil by tossing in 1 quart of boiling water, bring back to boil, drain and run under cold water.

In a wok or frying pan, heat peanut oil and add mushrooms. Stir fry for 30 seconds. Add steak and marinade. Stir fry for 1 to 2 minutes. Add peas and stir fry briefly, salt, stir well and serve.