Big juicy tomatoes, ripe red peppers, herbs for soup and flowers for the table -- that's what came to mind when we decided to rent a garden plot.

Studying the nursery catalogues in January, I gleaned one fact that was my undoing: that you can buy a packet of seeds for a fraction of the cost of any labor-saving alternatives. A Seed'n'Start kit, "guaranteed to grow 12 plants" and leave the gardener's hands free of soil, costs $1.35, but less than half that buys 50 pepper seeds, 125 broccoli seeds or 500 lettuce seeds.

As a beginning gardener, I did not know that 12 broccoli plants is a much more sensible quantity than 125, and that substantial investments in paraphernalia and time are required of the gardener who shuns the shortcuts.

Books were the first type of paraphernalia I needed, big thick ones on growing plants from seed. They all told me I could use readily available kitchen throwaways for starting my plants: egg cartons for germinating seeds; plastic cups from margarine, yogurt, sour cream and cottage cheese for "potting up."

"Don't they sell little peat pots for this purpose?" asked my husband, as our stack of dairy cups grew.

"Of course, Mike, but all of the books say it's fun, as well as economical, to use recycled kitchen containers."

The "fun" continued even after our windowsills were decorated with cups full of dirt and spindly seedlings. Then we began saving the materials we would need to make life less hazardous for the plants in their first few weeks outdoors: paper- towel cylinders and aluminum foil for plant "collars," to foil the cutworms; gallon milk containers to make private greenhouses to protect each transplant from wind, storms and late frost.

"It takes up a lot of room, but at least it's not an expensive hobby," said Mike as he added another jug to the pile in our shed.

He had forgotten that the soil that went into the containers on the windowsills was really gold dust. By the time I had bought the ingredients for my seed-nurturing mixture, I knew that the phrase "dirt- cheap" had gone the way of "sound as a dollar."

Buying the giant economy size is the only way to save at the nursery, as at the grocery. I used only a portion of my 50 pounds of potting soil, four cubic feet of peat moss and 70 pounds of sand (the smallest bag), and wisely ignored one book's recipe for a fancy starting medium that involved superphosphate, cottonseed meal, sulfate of potash and ground limestone. I did need dehydrated cow manure, which I dissolved in water to make "tea" for the seedlings, but since the alternative suggested by my books was whirling vegetable refuse in the blender, I felt I had gotten off lightly.

Gardens in this area, I learned, need what are called soil amendments, organic matter added to lighten and enrich them. After using our new pick, spading fork, shovel and hoe to work dried leather tankage, pulverized granite, colloidal phosphate, kelp meal, composted manure and dried blood into the soil, Mike commented, "When the Constitution has as many amendments as this soil has, they'll just scrap it. Why don't we do the same with our garden plot?"

Soil amending was over just before May, when many gardeners begin by buying market packs and popping the plants into the ground. Four plants for a dollar. A good buy, I thought. Cheap at any price.

Having devoted a large portion of my space and most of my leisure time for the last four months to raising little green things, I can now relax -- when I'm not weeding, feeding and debugging. Those plants I cradled in egg cartons have graduated to the garden.

I've almost forgotten about the hours I spent mixing starter medium and scooping it into countless dairy cups, misting the soil to keep it moist, spoon-feeding fertilizer. I haven't forgotten the excitement of seeing the first little elbows of stems pushing through the soil, the first true leaves developing on each seedling, the first blossoms promising eventual harvest.

Will I raise next year's plants from seed? Well, yes. I still have 35 pounds of potting soil, three cubic feet of peat moss and 50 pounds of sand, and I've forgotten how to throw away a dairy container.