Between the cold and the rain, this spring has been every gardener's nightmare.

It may have started out pleasing some who looked with joy on hardy greens that thrived through the early days. But now even they are being punished by a spring that has brought every garden hereabouts to a grinding halt.

Seedlings are getting tall and leggy in cold frames and windows all over town, waiting to be released into the soil. Determined gardeners who managed to squeeze some planting in between hurricanes are being rewarded by stunted growth, rotted seeds and even the occasional decimation of whole crops that just washed away.

Despair, if you will. You earned the right. But don't let it get you down for too long. If you're a gardener, then you're a person of great hope.

You can still see a fresh sweet green pea or full head of lettuce this year. For most crops, there's still time -- lots of it -- to plant and therefore harvest. Peas are problematic at this point, but, what the heck, if you can get into your garden this weekend, go ahead and plant some. At this point, what have you got to lose? I've done it this late with success, although you have to hope that June doesn't arrive like a ball of fire.

Lettuce can go in right through summer. If you plant it in June, however, get a slow- bolting variety. Brassicas -- broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower -- may be a little late in terms of harvests, but you can still get a good crop if you plant them in the next couple of weeks. Onions are still okay to plant, as are potatoes, believe it or not. Don't listen to the doomsayers who insist that if you don't plant your potatoes on St. Patrick's Day, they'll be cursed with pestilence, and wither and die.

And keep in mind something very important to our area: When the weather finally gets its act together -- and even if it doesn't totally -- we do have two gardening seasons. What didn't work for you this spring, plant for a fall crop. And this time, don't just plan it -- really do it.

There's another trick to remember when dealing with lousy spring weather. You can't do much about it immediately, but you can after your fall crops are done: Till and mulch in the fall instead of in the spring.

Allison Brown, who runs Garden Resources of Washington (GROW), a non- profit organization that helps community members free up vacant lots to use as gardens, put it well: "I figured out what the secret to spring planting is. You know that you read in all these books about how good it is to till your ground in the fall? How it improves the soil, and aerates the ground and so forth? Well, that may be true, but they're all missing the real reason to do that. It's not so much to improve the soil -- it's so you don't have to do it in the spring! I mean, I've been able to go right out into my garden and just plunk the little seedlings in. No working the soil, no waiting until I can get a machine in. It's wonderful! That's the secret to getting your garden in."

Well, you might rationalize, even if the garden had been tilled and mulched, it was still too wet to plant anything. The point is well taken, but any way you look at it, gardens that are ready and waiting for the seedlings will bloom earlier than gardens that are not. PERENNIAL PATIENCE -- For all you hopeful first-time perennial planters, a short note of caution. If you've never planted a perennial bed before, then you may not yet have acquired one major attribute of the seasoned perennial gardener: patience. It takes a long time to get a perennial bed or border to come together and really look good -- as long as three or four years. It's possible to hasten the process by buying one- and two-year-old plants from a nursery, which is expensive. But even with those, many varieties won't really put on a show until they're thoroughly comfortable in their new environment, which is what the root system is all about. So enjoy the occasional bloom you will get in the first year or so, and understand that it will, eventually, look like the picture in the catalogue; just be patient. And two more short tips. If you've never gardened before, don't start with perennials; get some experience on annuals. And second, save yourself a lot of grief by not trying to plant seeds directly into the ground. Start them in containers or peat pots -- indoors, under a cold-frame or outside once the weather gets a little warmer. You'll be better able to control their environment that way, and they thrive when transplanted. Bulbs and roots, of course, go directly into the ground. SPRING FLOWER FESTIVAL -- "The Living Arts of Japan," presented by Ikebana International, will feature 25 displays illustrating Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging. April 28 to May 4, 10 to 4, National Arboretum, 24th and R streets NE. Free. CARE OF OVERGROWN PLANTS, INDOORS AND OUT -- A free short course at the U.S. Botanic Gardens, noon to 2 Saturday, will focus on pruning, transplanting and general care of overgrown plants. First and Maryland SW..