If indeed one needs an excuse for having made that small piece of yard next to the house into an herb garden, then let the joys of the harvest rather than the herbs themselves be at least a part of the reason.

One of the great pleasures in gardening is to traipse out the back door in early morning, fresh from the shower and cloaked in a robe and slippers, to feel the crisp, wet leaves of the herb garden and contemplate how to use the day's harvest of seemingly massive quantities of overgrown mint. I tend to use mint sporadically, and often wait until it is about to overtake the tomatoes before doing a radical harvest. I treat my basil in the same way.

Early morning, before the dew has evaporated from the leaves, is the best time to harvest herbs. Ideally, they should be picked before the sun has risen high enough to evaporate this protective coating, the moisture in the leaves themselves and begun to break down some of their natural oils, all of which contribute to making the foliage bright, crisp and fragrant.

If your garden were sheltered by the mighty Kanjanjunga peak, you probably wouldn't know much about growing fresh herbs, but you would know from harvesting Darjeeling tea that the most valuable, delicately scented and flavored leaves are the young, tender top three or four leaves of each plant. The same is true with herbs, though most home gardeners never notice it.

Thus the cluster of mint leaves that is pressed into the shaved ice of a mint julep just before serving, and in which one virtually buries one's nose as one sips the lightly sweetened bourbon, should come from the very top of the mint plant. On the other hand, the large, darker, more fully developed leaves from, say, the bottom of a basil plant should be reserved for making pesto, a preparation in which the fullest possible basil flavor is demanded, and in which the leaves are pure'ed, making their slightly toughened texture irrelevant.

Unless you are a serious herbalist growing exotic herbs that must go to seed to ensure a supply of seeds for next season, it is generally best to harvest herbs before they bloom. Once the bloom forms, most of the plant's energy goes into the flowers rather than into maintaining the leaves.

The flowers of most herbs (with perhaps the obvious exception of chives) are not good for eating. The flowers are often bitter and unpleasant tasting. The bright purple bloom from chive plants, however, can be used to add a delicious, subtle moment of summer to omelets or salads made with dark leafy greens such as spinach or rocket.

Plants such as chives, parsley and chervil, which grow from the center clump out, should be harvested from the outside, and the entire stems should be cut. Most other herbs, such as tarragon, mint, basil, oregano and sage, can well handle a seemingly heavy harvest, during which you give it a substantial haircut, lopping off rather large quantities of leaves from the top of the plants.

Herbs from your own garden, regardless of the hour of their harvest, will always have a fresher quality and finer taste than store-bought bundles. Unfortunately, even with a small herb patch, we often end up with mountains of an herb from plants that simply have to be trimmed. There are a number of ways to store fresh herbs to preserve them for the herb-barren months of winter.

As a rule, fresh herbs are best, frozen herbs are next best, and dried are the last resort for the excess of the home garden (with the exception of thyme, rosemary and oregano, which dry better than they freeze).

The ways you choose to store fresh herbs depends on how you plan to use those herbs in the coming months.

If the herbs are to be used in saute's, stews or sauces, they are best preserved by chopping them finely and mixing them into creamed, unsalted butter. The herb butter should be frozen in ice cube trays. The cubes can be popped out of the trays once solidly frozen and transferred to airtight freezer bags, labeled and dated, and used in the next three to four months. A cup of softened butter will take 1 to 1 1/2 cups of fresh herbs -- no salt or pepper, add that later as needed.

If you live in a dry climate, the herbs can be bundled together and hung in a dark, well-ventilated place for a week or two to dry. Once the leaves are fully dried, you can carefully remove them from the stems, crushing the leaves as little as possible, and store them in airtight, clearly labeled and dated glass jars until needed. Drying herbs concentrates their flavor, so use only a third to half as much of a dried herb as you would of a fresh herb. Chervil, chives and parsley do not dry well.

The flavor components of fresh herbs are very volatile, and while drying the herbs concentrates the flavor, it also destroys the nuances of those herbs.

Oil-curing herbs and then freezing them is one of the most versatile ways of preserving the harvest. All you do is to chop the herbs in a food processor with just enough fine-quality oil to moisten the herbs into a paste. This paste is then frozen in ice cube trays and stored in the same way as the herbed butters described above. Again, no salt and pepper. With this paste you'll need less herbal mixture to get a full flavor. There is no cholesterol issue to deal with, and storing basil in this way allows you to make winter pesto.

Freezing herbs in butter or oil prevents oxidation, the process that causes herbs frozen on the stem to develop an unpleasant blackish discoloration. Freezing herbs plain is generally not recommended.

Oil-cured herbs that have been frozen, unlike those stored in butter, can be used for salads and in many other types of recipes where the butter would not be desirable.

In my experiences, tarragon and chervil seem to freeze least well of all herbs, and chervil is essentially flavorless when dried. WATERCRESS AND TOMATO SALAD WITH HIDDEN HERBS AND WALNUTS (6 servings)

8 large bunches fresh field cress or watercress

1 1/2 cups shredded fresh basil

3/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

3/4 cup walnut or virgin olive oil

3 to 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 plump garlic clove, finely chopped

The finest grated zest of a lime

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 ripe homegrown tomatoes, preferably yellow tomatoes, peeled and cut into wedge (but not seeded)

3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces

Rinse the watercress and shake dry. Pick the leaves off the stems and discard stems. In a large bowl, combine the cress with the herbs and toss until herbs are well distributed.

In a separate bowl, combine the oil, vinegar, garlic and lime zest. Mix well, then taste and season with salt and pepper.

Just before serving, toss the cress with the dressing and transfer to the center of a large platter. Arrange the tomato wedges around the edge of the platter and sprinkle the walnuts over the greens. HERBED RADISH AND AVOCADO SALAD (6 small servings, or use as chutney for 12 persons)

Use this salad to perk up summer meals of cold sliced chicken, or as a substitute for potato salad or cole slaw.

2 large bunches radish, thinly sliced

1 large ripe avocado, cut into small cubes

1 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh chives

1/2 cup virgin olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a mixing bowl, combine the radishes, avocado and herbs and toss gently together. Add the oil and lemon juice, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and toss again. TWO PARSLEY SALAD (6 to 8 servings)

Use this salad to accompany broiled or grilled chops, a roasted leg of lamb, or as a refresher after roast beef or chicken.

2 bunches flat leaf parsley

2 bunches curly leaf parsley

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice or raspberry vinegar

4 garlic cloves, very finely chopped Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Remove the stems from the parsley and toss the leaves into a large salad bowl.

Combine the oil, lemon juice or vinegar and garlic and mix together. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Just before serving, mix the dressing with the parsley. ROASTED PEPPERS WITH ANCHOVIES AND FRESH OREGANO (6 servings)

3 large sweet red bell peppers

3 large sweet yellow bell peppers

1 1/2 to 2 ounces can of fine quality anchovies in olive oil

1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano

1/4 cup virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Roast peppers under a broiler until charred, then cool, peel and seed. Arrange the peppers on small salad plates so that each plate is half covered in red and half covered in yellow.

Place 2 or 3 anchovies on the top of the peppers and sprinkle with oregano. Drizzle oil over each plate and send to the table. Pass a pepper mill with the salads.