THIS IS the time of year good cooks put down their whisks and pick up the trowel. Some are literally getting down and getting dirty; others merely lift a finger and say, "Plant that." But in either case, when those garden planners are chefs, such seed and plant decisions set the trends for the fanciest tables and shift the national cuisine in new directions.

So, what are the great cooks planting this spring? They are captivated by French and Italian lettuces; peppers, a dozen varieties; sorrel, fennel, asparagus; huge onions for slicing and grilling; golden beets, white eggplants, purple kohlrabi, scented geraniums for sorbets and jellies; and herbs, herbs, herbs for cooking, eating, and newly important, garnishing.

Ma che lettuce with its nut-like flavor will come into its own this year. You don't even have to know how to pronounce it. The French chefs call it corn salad or lamb's lettuce.

Eddie Tsui, owner of the Peking Gourmet Inn in Virginia, has just planted seed for what he believes will be the first crop of a special northern Chinese onion to be grown in this country.

Mark Caraluzzi, co-owner of the American Cafe', is a hands-on gardener experimenting with orange pippin apples and the French technique of limiting the crop on each tree to enhance the fruit's flavor.

Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger, caterers and food writers, have brought the Chez Panisse philosophy of California cuisine to the East, growing nearly everything they use.

Huoang Minh soon will be planting the barrels in front of his Viet Chateau restaurant on Connecticut Avenue with oriental herbs and tiny hot peppers.

At Nora restaurant on Florida Avenue, where most restaurants would have placed umbrella tables, a substantial raised herb garden has been smacked down right on top of the broad sidewalk. A half-hour before they open, cooks and salad makers descend on the sidewalk garden like locusts, snipping away at five kinds of mint and early sorrel leaves. "I keep yelling at them to let the herbs get better established this time of the year," sighed co-owner Steven Damato.

Customers at Buon Giorno restaurant on Norfolk Avenue in Bethesda enter past window boxes filled with basil and a doorway flanked with large sage plants.

Mention jardin to Camille Richaudeau of Chez Camille on Connecticut Avenue and he puffs into a frenzy of Gallic excitement. "My garden, my garden," he enthuses. "I am picking sorrel, corn salade, chives." He says he cuts a pound or two of chives each week in his Chevy Chase back yard.

Dominique D'Ermo of Dominique's on Pennsylvania Avenue is a gentleman farmer with an acreage near Chester, Md., where herbs, vegetables, raspberries, ducks and quail are raised. But Dominique is quicker on the trigger than the trowel. He prefers to hunt game rather than breaking the earth.

"I am the peasant," says Franc,ois Haeringer, who personally supervises the 1,500 square feet of herb gardens at L'Auberge Chez Francois, the elegant rural chalet in Great Falls, where it still takes two weeks to get a reservation.

Becoming a guru to cooks is Tom DeBaggio, owner of Earthworks, an herb nursery tucked away on a 5,000-square-foot backyard at 925 N. Ivy in the heart of Arlington. A former journalist turned herbmaster ("a hobby that got out of hand"), DeBaggio puts out a well-written, most helpful herb catalogue.

The good cooks walk into his immaculate greenhouses and fall in love. He has a vast collection of healthy plants, carefully marked. He's usually sold out by early June and closes up then.

At Earthworks you can get asparagus by the plant, not dried roots. Real French tarragon is popular, and the new lettuces are available.

"Ma che is easy to grow here and will even winter over nicely," says DeBaggio, if it is reseeded in the fall. Besides the ma che, he has the Italian rucola (also called arugula and roquette) prized in salads for its peppery flavor. DeBaggio says it has a mysterious quality, sort of nutty, but even a meaty flavor, almost like smoked bacon.

Since Caraluzzi develops food ideas for his American Cafe' operations, his home in Vienna, Va., has become a two-acre experimental farm where he grows those things he can't easily buy. He deals frequently with Shirley Pittle of Sunshine Herb Farm in Brookville, Md.

His fruit trees are his pets, and he is experimenting not only with orange pippin and granny smith apples, but has planted fig trees this year and prefers his comice pear tree, a variety that usually isn't grown in this area.

He thinks the use of fresh herbs will be at an all-time high this year, along with the new lettuces and simple distinctive dressings. His restaurants will use 20 pounds of tarragon a week ("that's a lot of tarragon"), not only in the food but as garnish. He likes to garnish a dish with one of its ingredients, or even flowers.

Eddie Tsui of the Peking Gourmet Inn scoured the entire country without success trying to find a grower of the special onion he wanted for peking duck, his specialty. His restaurant serves an average of 80 ducks a day.

Now, with a special government permit, he has been able to import five pounds of seed for the Northern Chinese onion and planted them recently on his 32-acre Centreville farm. He believes he has the right soil and water to raise these onions, which grow 12 to 15 inches tall and are one inch in diameter at the bulb. "Everybody in China knows this onion," he says. "It's very tender, very different."

The country inn restaurants with acreage have a leg up on the window box farmers in the city. At Evans Farm Inn in McLean farm manager Kip Cortelyou says he is harvesting asparagus for the first time this year. The summer salad bar is stocked completely with the farm's own vegetables. Last year it introduced sugar snap peas and "we will be doing a whole lot more of that."

Food writer Carol Cutler has watched a steady encroachment of edibles among the ornamentals (herbs and fraises des bois--tiny wild alpine strawberries) in her Georgetown garden. Her husband, B.J., journalist and wine expert, is the gardener and kept cherry tomatoes growing all winter in pots indoors. "Not perfect," she says, "but better than those found in the market."

"We like more herbs, less oil," says Minh of Viet Chateau, talking about the large role that herbs play in the delicate Vietnamese cuisine. Unlike the Chinese, they use herbs not only for seasoning but lavishly, to be eaten raw with many of their dishes.

Minh gets his plants from Florida oriental growers. He will grow many varieties of mint; what he calls Vietnamese basil, which is quite different from Italian and Greek basils; lemon grass, which he freezes for winter use; lime leaves, a sharp touch for plain boiled chicken, and many more.

"The combination of the strong and weak, the plain and the rich, the yin and yang. . . that's what distinguishes our cuisine," says Minh, who loves to educate his customers with his barrels of herbs. DILLE/BELSINGER GRILLED VEGETABLES (6 servings)

They prefer mesquite charcoal or other natural hardwood charcoal rather than the briquette-type that is chemically treated. Cutting the vegetables in fan shapes allows them to cook more evenly. 2 large red or Walla Walla or other sweet onions, sliced 3/8 inch thick 3 small zucchini 2 medium-small eggplants 1/2 cut virgin olive oil, or basil oil 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt and pepper ground to taste Fresh basil leaves, chopped

Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire. Slice onions crosswise about 3/8 inch thick. Halve zucchini lengthwise and make two cuts about half the length at one end to create a fan. Slice the eggplants lengthwise about 3/8 inch thick and make 2 or 3 cuts at the wider end about half the length. Mix oils with the garlic. Salt and pepper vegetable slices, brush with oil and place on grill in an area where the heat is low. Grill for five minutes on each side or until nicely browned. Serve with freshly chopped basil. GOAT CHEESE WITH FRESH SAGE AND GARLIC (6 to 8 servings as an appetizer) 10 ounces montrachet goat cheese, or other fresh mild goat cheese 16 to 20 large fresh sage leaves 2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly 12 to 15 black peppercorns, cracked 3/4 cup virgin olive oil

Slice the cheese into 3/8-inch rounds or slices. Scatter half the sage leaves on a serving dish just large enough to hold the cheese. Scatter half the garlic over sage leaves. Sprinkle half the cracked pepper over herbs. Place cheese on herbs and cover with remaining sage, garlic and pepper. Pour olive oil over all. Marinate the cheese for 24 hours at cool room temperature, or covered in the refrigerator. If kept in the refrigerator, remove 3 to 4 hours before serving. Serve with a salad of ma che, arugula (rucola) or other garden lettuces, and with croutons made from baguettes or thinly sliced Tuscan bread. Adapted from "Cooking With Herbs," by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger AMERICAN CAFE' SUMMER VEGETABLE SOUP (6 servings)

Mark Caraluzzi called this a nice change from the usual gazpacho and uses ingredients that many summer gardeners will grow. 1/4 cup olive oil 1 small onion, coarsely chopped 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped 1 large red sweet pepper, coarsely chopped 2 small zucchini, coarsely chopped 2 small yellow squash, coarsely chopped 1 cup canned plum tomatoes with juice 1 teaspoon fennel seed 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/8 teaspoon thyme 3/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/2 pound ( 1/2 basket) cherry tomatoes 4 large fresh basil leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 1 1/2 cups tomato juice

In a pan large enough for all ingredients, heat olive oil until very hot. Add all ingredients except cherry tomatoes, basil, vinegar and tomato juice. Stir and cook over medium heat for 6 minutes. Add cherry tomatoes and basil, cook 10 minutes more. Add vinegar and tomato juice. Cool a few minutes and pure'e soup in batches in a blender. Chill well and serve cold garnished with a thin lemon slice. AMERICAN CAFE''S TOMATO, BASIL, MOZZARELLA SALAD (3 or 4 servings) 1/2 pound ( 1/2 basket) cherry tomatoes, or 3 vine ripened tomatoes 4 ounces mozzarella or smoked mozzarella, cubed or small square slices 6 or 7 fresh basil leaves, cut in strips 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 cup olive oil

Stem, wash and halve cherry tomatoes. Add mozzarella, basil, salt, pepper and oil. Mix well and chill. SALADE LE LION D'OR (6 servings) 2 pounds lamb's lettuce (ma che) 4 heads belgian endive 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 to 4 grinds fresh black pepper 2 teaspoons olive oil 2 teaspoons pine nuts

Separate lettuce leaves, wash well, drain and set aside. Combine the vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk until the salt dissolves. Add oil slowly, whisking vigorously until the dressing thickens. Divide the salad greens among six chilled salad plates. Pour the dressing over the greens. Sprinkle with pine nuts.

Adapted from "Dining in Washington, D.C."