KEEPING A close watch on the mint patch is a sure sign of spring fever. Every spring, with shears and hoe at the ready, my mother would stand in the yard and say "I declare, I don't know which will take this old place first, the mint or the wisteria!" She'd lop away at the wisteria vine that ran along the porch eaves, pulling the vine away from the clapboards, shattering the plumy lavender blossoms as she worked. Then she'd attack the mint.

Mint, an old-fashioned and favorite herb, is a notorious boundary-jumper. Plant a few sprigs in a sunny chimney corner, and before you know it, the mint has filled the corner and spread beyond the alloted space and into neighboring flower beds. Mint is a determined traveler, and needs bold pickng and thinning and root pruning to keep it manageable.

Because of its robust, aggressive nature, mint has been with us a long time It grows wild in our woodlands and along creek banks, and American Indians were using mint and other herbs when the country was first settled. Mint is mentioned in both Chaucer and Shakespeare and has always been one of the most popular, versatile herbs.

The plants range in size from the robust, five-foot "Bowler's Mint", to varieties having leaves no bigger than a pin head.

One member of the large mint (Mentha) family mentioned in folklore is Amerian Pennyroyal. Legend has it that the Indians used Pennyroyal for everything from relieving colds and arthritis pain to curing colic and watery eyes. Folklore also gives it great value as a repellent against mosquitoes, gnats and fleas.

But the three members of the many species of mint that are best known and most widely used today are: M. Piperita (peppermint), M. spicata (spearmint) and a close relative, Melissa officinale (balm). Spearmint and peppermint may be used interchangeably, fresh or dried. But balm, or lemon balm, as it is sometimes called, has a very different fragrance and lemony flavor. The essential oils of spearmint and peppermint are used widely on a commercial basis, and it is from their oils that menthol is refined. Menthol is used in everything from confections to cosmetics and medicines.

Fresh mint can be used as a garnish, both for beverages and food. The Southern Mint Julep is famous and to many, an essential part of any thoroughbred race. Are not the Kentucky Derby and Mint Juleps inseparable? Everybody has a favorite Mint Julep recipe, but the one undisputed ingredient is fresh mint. Fresh mint leaves are also a classic partner for roast lamb and beef, and in some areas, beef tongue and wild game. Mint jelly is always a partner with srping lamb and a variety of mint jelly made with apples is a pretty and delicious accompaniment for ham, poultry and game, as well as the classic lamb.

Since mint loses some f its flavor if cooked too long, it is best added toward the end of cooking time. Freshly chopped mint leaves are wonderful sprinkled on just cooked peas, potatoes, carrots, beans or cauliflower. Pea soup takes on a lighter flavor if a bit of dried mint is sprinkled into each bowl just before serving. And of course mint is the very soul of many desserts, and the final, refreshing and elegant touch to green and fruit salads. Fresh mint enlivens not only juleps, but hot and iced teas, punches, and other drinks.

Mint, like many herbs, is very easy to dry. Just tie the fresh, cleaned and thoroughly dried mint into small, loose bunches and hang them upside-down in a cool, dry, and preferably, dark place. When the mint is thoroughly dry and crumbles to the touch, strip the leaves from the stems and store them in airtight containers. Also, the leaves are excellent additions to homemade potpourri.

Another way to dry mint (and other herbs) is on a drying screen. Put an unused window screen across the backs of two chairs in a garage or other such space, and spread the herbs on the screen to dry. This way, the leaves and plants will be ventilated from the top and bottom. Mint can also be frozen, but it should be used only in the manner of dried mint. To freeze mint, wash sprigs, dry thoroughly, then freeze in bags or containers. Fresh or dried mint, however, provides much better quality than frozen mint. ROAST LAMB WITH MINTED APPLESAUCE 1 leg lamb, 7 to 8 pounds, skinned Salt 4 tablespoons brown sugar 4 tablespoons flour 2 tablespoons dry mustard

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rub lamb with salt. Make a paste by combining the sugar, flour and mustard with a little water. Put the leg of lamb in an uncovered roasting pan, cover the leg with the paste, and roast 1 hour. Add 1/2 cup water, reduce heat to 300 degrees and continue roasting for a total of 30 minutes per pound. For pinker lamb, reduce roasting time. Serve with: HOT MINTED APPLESAUCE (8 servings) 6 medium apples 1/4 cup water 1/2 cup sugar 6 tablespoons chopped, fresh mint leaves

Core, peel and quarter apples. Cook in water until soft. Press through sieve, add sugar and cook until sugar dissolves. Add chopped mint. MINT APPLE JELLY 1 jar (10 ounces) apple jelly 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint 1 teaspoon white creme de menthe

Melt the jelly in the top of a double boiler over boiling water.Stir in the mint, cover and cook for 12 minutes, stir in creme de menthe to taste and chill the sauce before serving. MINT SAUCE 1/4 chopped mint leaves (fresh or dried) 1tablespoon powdered sugar 1/2 cup vinegar

Dissolve sugar in vinegar and pour over mint. Let stand for 30 minutes. If too strong, may be diluted with water. GRAPEFRUIT MINT DRINK 6 grapefruits 1 cup chopped mint

Squeeze juice from grapefruit, put juice in blender with mint. Mix. Serve cold. YOGURT MINT DRINK 3 1/2 cups yogurt 5 cups water 1 cup mint leaves 1/4 teaspoon salt

Put yogurt, water, salt and mint leaves in blender. Mix thoroughly. Put in bottles or jars, shake thoroughly before serving. Serve over ice cubes. for variety, try it with soda water. MINT TEA (12 servings) 1 cup water 1 cup sugar 2 teaspoons black tea 1/2 chopped mint leaves 1 cup lemon juice 2 quarts boiling water

Boil 1 cup water and sugar together 5 minutes, add tea leaves and mint leaves. Allow to steep 10 minutes. Strain, add lemon juice and boiling water. Heat and serve. NEW ORLEANS MINT TEA 1 or 2 sprigs each of spearmint, peppermint and lemon balm, according to taste Sugar or honey

Bring 2 1/2 cups water to boil. Pour 1/2 cup boiling water into teapot (2-cup size) to warm it, then discard. Place fresh, washed mint sprigs into teapot and pour remaining boiling water over them. Cover immediately. If you fail to cover immediately, much of the flavor and fragrance will volatilize, and be lost. Allow to steep 5 minutes or more, according to taste. Strain tea into cups and sweeten with sugar or honey. BUCKLEY'S SEVEN GREENS 1/2 cup each, chopped: mint, parsley, watercress, chives, dill and green pepper 1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander 1 cup oil 3 1/4 tablespoons lemon juice 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Put all chopped greens in a bowl, add oil, mix gently but well. Store in refrigerator.

(Good with hot or cold fish, cold chicken, hot or cold potatoes, asparagus onions, cauliflower, string beans and carrots. Leave out lemon juice and it is excellent on noodles. Also good on lettuce and tomato and avocado salads. KENTUCKY MINT JULEP (Makes 1 julep) 12 sprigs fresh mint Powdered sugar Water Whiskey

Put 12 sprigs of mint in a bowl, cover with powdered sugar and just enought water to dissolve sugar. Crush the mint well. Place half the crushed mint and liquid in a silver goblet. Fill the goblet with finely crushed ice. Add remainder of mint and fill remainder of goblet with crushed ice. Pour in whiskey until goblet is brimming. Put in refrigerator for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 or 3 hours. Decorate with sprigs of mint, dusted with sugar. GREENBRIER MINT JULEP (1 serving)

Crush 5 mint leaves with a dash of sugar syrup in the bottom of a tall glass and allow to steep 15 minutes. Add 3 or 4 ounces of good bourbon whiskey, and pack the glass tightly with shaved ice. Stir gently in a circular motion until glass is well frosted, decorate with a sprig of mint. Wrap bottom of glass in a napkin to absorb condensation and serve. RUTH SINCLAIR'S MINT SURPRISE COOKIES (Makes about 4 1/2 dozen) 3 cups flour 1 teaspoon soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup shortening 1 cup granulated sugar 1/2 cup brown sugar 2 eggs 2 tablespoons water 1/2 teaspoon vanilla Thin chocolate-mint wafers (candy), walnut halves

Sift together flour, soda and salt. Cream shortening, sugar, and brown sugar. Blend in the 2 unbeaten eggs, 2 tablespoons water and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Then add dry ingredients. Chill in refrigerator for 2 hours. Enclose a thin chocolate mint wafer in about 1 1/2 tablespoons cookie dough. Top with walnut half. Bake in preheated 375 degree oven 10 to 12 minutes. GRASSHOPPER PIE (6 servings) 20 chocolate cookies 3 tablespoons butter, melted 1/2 cup milk 20 marshallows 1 cup heavy cream, whipped 3 tablespoons Creme de Cocoa 3 tablespoons green creme de menthe Sprigs of mint

Crush the chocolate cookies between waxed paper. Mix with melted butter. Line an 8-inch pie pan with cookie crumbs and chill 1 hour or more. Heat milk over hot water, add marshallows and stir until dissolved. Cool well. Mix the cream and slowly add liquids. Fold in marshallows mixture and fill pie crust. Chill several hours. Decorate slices with mint sprigs. EASY MINT DESSERTS

Serve honeydew, cantaloupes or other melons, fresh pineapple, peaches, etc. with fresh, chopped mint. Serve cooked, cooled dry fruits such as apricots and peaches with fresh, chopped mint.