The first of any crop to reach maturity in a garden has always been considered something special. The first red tomato, the first cucumber, the first zucchini or eggplant are still cause for celebration. But, in earlier, more nature-oriented cultures, they were often more than that. Among some people, they were held in such esteem that it was considered in poor taste to eat them. t

In these cultures, the first fruits were celebrated, buy not eaten. Instead, the first of everything was sacrificed to the nature spirits, in hope that they would reciprocate by ensuring abundant harvests throughout the season.

If you decide to sacrifice yours, don't tell anyone, though. In our culture, it's considered almost sacrilege to do anything with the first crops but eat them -- and you might get put away, or at least set heads shaking, if your neighbors found you performing pagan sacrifices.

The Scots, being thrifty, had more practical things to do with their first fruits. When the potatoes were harvested, for example, every member of the family had to taste the first new ones, and compliment them on their great flavor, to induce the plants to produce many more.

In many parts of this country and Europe, people have believed in paying compliments to garden crops -- to be repaid in greater crops. And, in both places, there have been people who believed that frolicking naked as they planted seed would both increase crops and make then mature sooner.

This ritual no doubt goes back to antiquity. Pompeiian friezes, uncovered in the Roman city that was buried by a volcano, are said to depict couples copulating in fields -- presumably, if illogically, to increase fertility.

Of course, this is out of the question for modern gardeners, except in the most remote and secluded of spots. If your garden is in a city or community plot, or just out in the open, it would be wise to restrict your sexual activity in the garden to hand-pollinating your crops. You won't get arrested doing that.

And hand-pollination is sexy. Not titillating -- just sexy. What else can you call it when you're involved with moving the pollen from the male to the female flowers in hopes of fetilizing them? It is the sex life of plants.

They can pollinate themselves, of course. They usually do. But by pollinating the first flowers yourself, you can be certain to get earlier crops -- and you can step back and let the insects do it later, when you're already harvesting all you can eat.

You can hand-polinate any crops that bear male and female flowers on the same plant -- and this includes squashes, cucumbers, loffahs, melons and pumpkins. With hand-pollination, the first female flowers, which often wither and drop, almost always set fruit. t

First, learn to tell the difference between the male and female flowers. On squashes, the males grow on single, thin stems, while the female flowers have tiny fruits at their basis. You can use a small brush or a feather to brush the pistils of the male flowers, and then transfer the pollen to the female flowers. And then you can harvest the male flowers and batter and fry them, to enjoy the delicacy of fried squash blooms without decreasing your yield. With luck, the fruits on the female blossoms will pick up a quick shine and start growing quickly.

With other fruiting crops, like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, you can sometimes aid pollination by gently shaking the blossomed-covered branches. That's how it's done in a greenhouse. Or you can brush them all with a fine brush or feather, just to shake them up a little.

A friend of mine has a lemon tree that grows in her sunporch in winter and in her garden in summer -- and it bears beautiful, sweet-scented blossoms and then actual crops of lemons, which she makes into delicious pies.

She's noticed that it usually puts out a burst of blossoms just before she's ready to move it, and its large pot, outside for summer -- and that this blossoming rarely sets fruit without the benefit of buzzing bees.

This year, she pollinated the flowers with a feather, and by the time she moved the plant outside it was already ornamented with tiny green lemons, and putting out another round of blossoms, too.

Hand-pollination can help you to get earlier crops. And, when the first crops come in, if you don't care to sacrifice them, at least give thanks for them. Give them a ceremony and compliments. Whether it brings greater crops or not, they deserve it.