Growing vegetables can be fun, relaxing and, in these days of soaring food prices, a profitable hobby. Almost anyone can grow some kind of a vegetable. It may be only a tomato plant of two in a container on a sunny balcony or patio, or it may be an acre of corn, beans, squash and all those other vegetables that are so deliciously tempting when they come fresh from the garden.

Because, for many of us, space is at a premium, the results of a survey recently conducted by the National Garden Bureau may help you decide what to plant when. Thirty-six home garden experts across the country were asked to rate vegetables by garden value. Some vegetables mature so rapidly that they take up garden space for only a short time and can be succeeded by another crop in the same space, thus increasing the dollar-per-square-foot return for the growing season. In making their survey the experts considered total yield per square foot, average value per pound harvested and seed-to-harvest time.

The results of the survey showed that the most "space efficient" vegetable is also the most popular -- the tomato. In descending order the next 10 vegetables in terms of space efficiency are bunching onions, leaf lettuce, turnips (for greens and roots), summer squash, edible podded peas, onions for dry storage, pole beans, beets, bush beans (green or wax snap), carrots and cucumbers when grown on a trellis or other support. At the bottom of the list of 36 vegetables were pumpkins, all types of melons, sweet corn, eggplant, okra and all peas except edible podded peas.

But, while the space efficiency can be helpful in determining how best to plan your garden, what you like best shold ultimately determine which vegetables you will plant. Why raise onions and turnips if your family doesn't like them? On the other hand, there is no vegetable that deteriorates more rapidly than sweet corn - corn fresh from the garden is a groumet's delight! And there is no frozen or canned pea that has the flavor of sugar peas straight from the garden. The choice is yours: Your garden is your castle. You are in control.

Plan your garden carefully. Make a scale drawing of your site and lay out the garden. Include the vegetables you will grown, their location, the amount of each to be planted and their planting dates. Provide for succession plantings and intercropping. Make use of vertical plantings. Pole beans yield more than bush types do; cucumbers grown on a trellis take only a quarter of the space of cucumbers that sprawl on the ground.

For the early fast-maturing crops, plan sequential plantings. Make several short plantings of the same vegetable at 10-day to 2-week intervals. This assures a continuous supply during the growing season rather than an overabundance followed by a dearth -- the usual pattern if all the crop is put in at one time. Production from cold weather crops that mature quickly -- radishes, lettuce and spinach, for example -- can be kept fairly constant by sequential planting until around mid-June, when the weather becomes too hot for good growth.

The same space then can be used to make succession plantings of beans or root crops. With succession planting no ground is idle as long as weather permits growth and production. Short-maturing crops are followed by long-maturing crops, or by short, root crops by leafy crops or fruiting crops by root crops. The objective is to utilize the space without planting the same or related crop in the same space in the same or succeeding year. The rotation of crops within the garden is an indispensable gardening practice that helps assure better nutrition for the plants and reduces the possibility of disease and insect damage.

Intercropping is another means by which yield can be increased. This is the early-season planting of fast-maturing crops between the slower-growing warm-weather crops or, at times, the planting of low crops with tall crops which have approximately the same maturity dates. For example, lettuce, radish and spinach can all be planted between the rows where tomatoes will be set out later or where corn is to be planted. These early-maturing crops will have ceased to produce by the time the tomatoes and corn are big enough to cast unwanted shade or to compete for moisture and nutrients in the soil. Winter squash can be planted between rows of corn, thus enabling the growing of two crops in an area that normally would support only one.

Plan your succession plantings so that you have a fall garden. Most of the cool-weather crops, which should be planted in late August or early September, do well in the fall. In fact, Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage do much better in the fall than in the spring. Edible podded peas, broccoli, turnips, lettuce, radish, kale and spinach all make good fall crops and will stand light frosts. Kale and 'Winter Bloomsdale' spinach can be over-wintered and provide greens in early March before the spring crops are even planted.

As important as the selection of the kinds of vegetables to grow is the selection of the proper varieties. Fortunately for us, in the past decade or so plant breeders have focused much of their attention on the needs of the home gardener. As a result, we can now choose from the greatest selection of superior vegetables ever offered.

Not long ago new varieties were rare. Occasionally, "selected" or "new and improved" strains of existing varieties were introduced. But now plant breeders throughout the world can literally "build" new varieties of vegetables that were not thought possible a few years ago. With almost miraculous techniques, plant breeders have been able to bring us vegetables with improved flavor, built-in resistance to disease and increased yields, an varieties that mature earlier so as to permit a longer harvest or two crops a season. There are now varieties with greater tolerance to cold and a good selection of miniature vegetables suitable for growing in containers. Plant breeders have even changed the growth habits of some vegetables to give us more compact plants that take up much less room in the garden and yet yield as large or larger crops of superior quality.

Just in the past two years breeders have developed hybrids specifically to be grown in home gardens. Early corn, which used to be lacking in flavor, is now being endowed with a sweetness rivaling that of the mid-season varieties. Eggplant, which never made it to the top 20 in the vegetable popularity poll, is gaining increased popularity as a base for meatless dishes with the development of new, milder-flavored varieties grown on smaller, disease-resistant plants. And the tomato, the most popular of all vegetables, has undergone some spectacular changes in the past few years with greater disease resistance, better shape and more uniform size, improved flavor and, in some cases, more compact vines which takes less space in the garden -- some can even be grown in containers. In fact, the last few years have seen giant strides taken in the trend toward more compact growth habits in many vegetables. Today, patio and rooftop gardeners can find a wide selection of vegetables adapted to containing culture. With the increased popularity of Chinese cooking, some seedsmen are offering a good selection of Chinese vegetables in their catalogues.

Unfortunately, many of the better varieties do not find their way into the seed racks of the local garden centers. Most of the leading seedsmen who have active research and plant-breeding programs sell either wholesale to growers and distributors or market their seeds only through catalogue sales. If one wants the best varieties, he must go to the seed catalogues, where he will find an almost bewildering array from which to choose.

Not all varieties of all vegetables are suitable for growing in the greater Washington area. Our unique climate makes the growing of certain varieties impractical. In recognition of this, I have, in collaboration with some of my colleagues in the Men's Garden Club of Montgomery County, prepared the accompanying list of varieties recommended for the home gardener in this area. These recommendations, which are based on actual trials and include only varieties that have been grown here successfully, are revised annually. It is not intended to be all-inclusive; there are many other varieties that undoubtedly will do very well here, but these have proved themselves in local gardens. Melon of all types, pumpkins and both white and sweet potatoes are not recommended for the average home garden because of the space required for their proper culture. The varieties shown under each type of vegetable are not set out in order of preference -- some are to be preferred over others perhaps, but this becomes a matter of personal choice. After reading the descriptions in the catalogues and trying different varieties for a few years, the gardener himself will determine which he likes.

Not all of the varieties listed are available from a single source, since some are the exclusive introductions of one or another of the following seedsmen, who will gladly send you their catalogues free upon request: Burpee Seed Co. 1650 Burpee Bldg. Warminster, Pa. 18974 Joseph Harris Co. Moreton Farm Rochester, N.Y. 14624 Herbst Bros. Seedsmen Inc. 1000 N. Main Street Brewster, N.Y. 10509 George W. Park Seed Co. Greenwood, S.C. 29647 Stokes Seeds 1130 Stokes Bldg. Buffalo, N.Y. 14240 Otis Twilley Seed Co. P.O. Box 65 Trevose, Pa. 19047

When selecting from among several varieties of a given vegetable, always choose a hybrid, if one is available. In general, the hybrids have greater vigor and are better able to withstand disease than are the standard or open-pollinated varieties. The reward in improved yields of superior quality and flavor is well worth the slight additional cost. If you are going to purchase transplants, select them with the same care that you would your seed. Buy only named varieties suitable for this area and do not accept plants that are spindly, have spots on the leaves, lesions on the stems or knots on the roots. Small, stocky plants with good green color will transplant to your garden with less root shock and will quickly adapt to their new environment.

If you want to be sure of what you're getting, however, buy seed and start your own transplants. But a word of warning on buying seed: Don't get carried away by all the pictures and glowing descriptions in the seed catalogue! Buy only what you can reasonably expect to use. If you do have seed left after planting, they can be saved for use in the fall or used next year. Most seed, except parsnip, will remain viable for at least two years, and some will keep as long as five years if properly stored. The easiest effective way to store seeds is to keep the packets in a jar or other container that can be tightly sealed. Place a couple of tablespoons of powdered milk wrapped in a tissue in the bottom of the container to absorb excess moisture and thus prolong the life of the seed. Keep the container in a refrigerator (not the freezer) or a cool place in the basement or other inside storage area.

Once you have your seed you can proceed to implement your garden plan to keep the maximum area producing throughout the growing season. Before you start, read the directions on each seed packet for times to plant, then follow the directions when you plant your seed.

Prepare your soil well and add plenty of organic matter, plan your garden for maximum productivity, select proper varieties, purchase top quality seeds or plants, then give your garden a little tender loving care, and you will be rewarded. Remember, you are not bound by any set of rules in the growing of vegetables. Gardening should be an adventure in adaptation -- a challenge to see what you can do with the resources you have. Develop your own ideas and techniques: Let your garden be a laboratory in which you are in control, and the growth of each plant will become an experiment rather than a routine chore.

Start modestly and plan carefully. Poor planning inevitably results in haphazard care that yields disappointing results. Basic to getting the garden off to a good start are a well-prepared soil and the selection of proper varieties of vegetables. That done, the garden should flourish with an hour or so of tender loving care during the growing season. Where to Make a Garden:

1. Select an area with at least eight hours of sunlight a day and with good soil, if possible.

2. Avoid large trees and shrubs whose roots may compete with the vegetables for moisture and nutrients.

3. Locate near a source of water for irrigation.

4. Prepare raised beds if the area is not well drained. If the ground slopes, try terracing.

5. Have the soil tested to determine its PH (degree of acidity or alkalinity) and any deficiencies in the basic soil nutrients. This is done free of charge by the Cooperative Extension Service of your state or the District of Columbia. Obtain an instruction sheet and soil boxes from your local extension agent. How to Plan a Garden:

1. Draw to scale a plan of the selected site and lay out the garden. Include those vegetables which the family enjoys. Plan their location, the amount of each to be grown, the planting time and succession crops (those crops to be planted later in the same space following the harvest of short-season crops).

2. Run rows north-south, if feasible. Otherwise place taller crops, such a pole beans and corn, on the north or west side of the garden so they do not shade lower growing crops.

3. Plan to rotate your crops. Never plant the same or similar crops in the same place in successive years.

4. Plan short plantings of quick maturing crops. For example, plant three five-foot plantings of radishes at 10-day intervals rather than one of 15 feet.

5. Place perennial crops such as asparagus, rhubarb or strawberries on one side of the garden where they will not interfere with annual tillage. How to Prepare the Soil:

1. Add lime, preferably dolomitic limestone, if the results of your soil test indicate that it is needed. Most vegetables do best in a slightly acid soil -- a pH of 6.2 to 6.8 -- and some will tolerate an even more acidic condition.

2. Spade or rototill the soil to a depth of at least eight inches as soon as it can be worked in the spring. It is ready to work when a ball of earth taken from five to six inches below the surface will crumble in your hand when squeezed. Working when too wet destroys the soil structure and may ruin it for several years.

3. spade or rototill again to incorporate generous amounts of organic matter -- well rotted manure, compost, peat moss, sawdust or other humus. If the soil is heavy clay, also add very coarse sand; a layer two inches thick over the entire area and worked in with the organic matter will help to improve the structure of a clay soil.

4. Broadcast the fertilizer recommended in your soil analysis, or a complete fertilizer such as 5-10-10, at the rate of 5 lbs. per 100 sq. ft. before raking out the garden. However, if planting is to be delayed for a couple of weeks, wait and work in your fertilizer just prior to seeding or setting out transplants. What to Do With Seeds and Plants:

1. Buy seeds from a reputable seedsmen. Use hybrid varieties when available because they have been bred for increased vigor and disease resistance and will pay off in higher yields and improved flavor.

2. Select varieties adapted to this area.

3. Follow directions for planting which appear on each seed packet. Seeds sown too thickly produce spindly plants and result in excessive root damage from thinning.

4. Start seeds of cole crops, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and perhaps lettuce early indoors for later transplanting to the garden. Or you may buy your plants from a commercial grower or garden center that sells named varieties proved satisfactory for this area.

5. Never use plants with spots on the leaves, brown lesions on the stems, knots on the roots or that are weak and spindly.

6. Water plants well several hours before they are to be transplanted to the garden. Move in late afternoon or on a cloudy day. Set slightly lower than they were growing in the flat or bed. After watering in with a starter solution (soluble fertilizer) high in phosphorus, fill the hole with dry soil. Make sure that the tops of peat pots are covered.

7. Be prepared to provide transplants with protection from hot sun for several days. How to Care for the Garden:

1. Cultivate the soil to permit the passage of air and water and to keep down weeds. Pull weeds growing in rows between plants. Never let a weed go to seed.

2. Apply a mulch, if you prefer, to help control weeds, conserve soil moisture and maintain an even soil temperature. Organic muclhes, which permit the penetration of air and moisture, are preferred. Use straw, salt hay, sawdust, half-rotted compost, grass clippings (if the lawn has not been treated with an herbicide) or similar materials. Never use peat moss as a mulch.

3. Provide adequate water. Gardens should have about an inch a week. A deep soaking once a week during dry periods is preferable to a daily sprinkling.

4. Watch for insects and diseases. Use insecticides only when damage threatens the loss of the crop. Use only in the early morning or late afternoon when bees and other pollinators are less active. Confine application to the target area. Before purchasing any pesticide, read the label carefully to determine whether it is registered for your intended use. Use only in accordance with instructions on the label.

5. Harvest crops at the peak of maturity. Letting fruits remain on plants after they have matured inhibits the setting of new fruit.

6. When a crop is finished, remove all expended plant material. Do not put diseased material in a compost.