For home gardeners, it's tomato-picking time, and the other day a friend who hoped to mooch some excess produce came up, slapped me on the back and asked, in a pitifully phony cud-chewer's tone, "How's the patch comin' along?" He was referring to the vegetable spread I'd co-farmed for the three summers prior to this one with my buddy Rick, in his Arlington back yard.

"That relationship has been . . . terminated," I hissed. When he asked why, I told him exactly what I'm about to tell you: Namely, that I was a guy prepared to do what had to be done to protect our nutrient-giving little acre from those who would destroy it. That included root-snuffling pooches (the Rx for them? a jet stream of hose water aimed at snoot or butt), curious tots (here, my "rabid adult" routine worked smartly) and, of course, six-legged varmints and their larval brethren -- aphids, root maggots, blister beetles and, above all, the demonic and ruthless squash-vine borer, a plug-ugly white worm with big, red eats-seeking lips. These guys do not -- repeat, do not -- play games or drop by just to say "Hiya!," but slither in under cover of darkness to voraciously and wantonly bore through your zucchini plants, turning stems, runners and fruit into slimy blobs of lifeless jelly. You don't "reason" with these pukes -- you spray 'em back to the Stone Age with a solution of 1 percent methoxychlor power-nozzled through a Multipurpose Airblast Atomizer that has a 360-degree rotating head, 700 lbs. of pressure, a racing stripe and a death's-head ladybug decal on the hood! Only I couldn't do that, because my gardening partner was an ex-hippie pantywaist insect collaborationist who thinks you can ward 'em off by planting "marigold borders" and spraying mineral soap --

Oops, I'm getting emotional again. Who wouldn't? Those borers hit us three years running. Or maybe it's like Rick said during the sessions with our professional Buddy Counselor, Dr. Ted: I'm a hot-headed neurotic, and on the day I showed up with that sprayer strapped on my back, he was justified in immobilizing me with a Figure Four Power Head Scissors. And it's true . . . I do let minor things upset me inordinately. Yesterday morning, still half asleep, I accidentally aimed my toothpaste tube the wrong way, gorilla- squeezed it and watched in mute horror as a full six inches of tasty mint freshness plopped down into the dusty, hairy, one-inch-wide no man's land between the sink cabinet and the wall. What's the big deal, you say? Think about it. If you don't clean up that renegade toothpaste -- pronto -- soon it'll be covered with as many roaches as there are peanuts on a Pay Day candy bar, and the only way to do it is to extract the paste bit by disgusting bit with a pair of barbecue tongs . . . Naturally, with this on my mind, I was unable to concentrate on work that entire day. Multiply that by a billion and you've got some idea of the anxiety I felt knowing that legions of killer insects --

Hey, you -- you're laughing at me, aren't you? That's just what Dr. Ted did when I read my stream-of-consciousness pro-insecticide mood poem written from the viewpoint of a blitzkrieged vine of pickling cucumbers. Eventually he labeled me a "jerk" and a "know-it-all gardening fascist" and awarded Rick custody of the Burpee seed catalogue, the dribble hose and my personalized sombrero. At first I was pretty mad, but after cooling out I sat down and thought long and hard about where I'd been coming from, gardening-wise, and it didn't take long to realize that he was . . . right. You see, all these years I'd convinced myself that I "knew a lot" about gardening matters because we had a back-yard patch at home in Kansas and because I usually worked at horticulture-related summer jobs. But the sad fact is -- and this is what really blew me away -- in every one of those cases I was under the direct tutelage of mentors who were either jokers, know-nothings or outright chemical-use maniacs.

My brother Malcolm, boss- man of our family back-yard spread, got all his know-how from a home-gardener's guide published by Ortho Chemical. This booklet, complete with scarefying four-color insect blowups, pushed its hidden agenda with a vividness that often caused him to run around in circles making Chicken Little exclamations about cabbage worms. My summer boss -- a home-and-garden-center owner named Mike -- specialized in the installation of "rock gardens." These were made by removing all plant activity from someone's yard with tractor and shovel, scorching the earth with overdoses of 2, 4-D herbicide, laying down plastic to prevent anything new from sprouting, planting a few shrubs and cactuses to act as magnets for windblown cigarette butts and McDonald's cups, dumping on half a ton of "decorative" pink rock and accenting the whole dusty mess with concrete yard creatures -- squirrels, leprechauns under toadstools, Madonnas.

Finally, there was my friend Jay. Although he was a bona-fide horticultural Dalai Lama, he refused to discuss any gardening topic that did not relate to his primary interest: making up funny names for plant hybrids and garden products. "Jay," I'd say, "is there a tomato fertilizer that'll actually speed up the process of fruit formation?"

"I don't know, but if so, I hope to God they call it 'Slo Gro No Mo.' "

Add to all that my latest influence -- WTOP gardening guru Jack Eden, a very kindly and gentle-sounding man who nevertheless approaches the insect issue with the combined virtues of Cassandra and Rambo -- and you've got a recipe for a very excitable boy. Having realized this, and not being the type to stand on pride, I visited Rick the other day to let him know in my own way (that is, by any means short of actually saying it) that I was sorry. Of course, we had to look at this year's garden: tidy, healthy rows of tomato plants, herbs, cucumbers and --

"FLOWERS?"

"They're priddy."

"Well . . ." I crouched down to sneer at a dahlia. "Hey! There's an earwig hiding here! Those things crawl in your ear and dig swiss-cheese holes in your brain!"

"That's a myth. They're harmless."

By now I was in full whine. "Lemme smush him. Pleeease!" Obviously disgusted, his lips trembling with saintly outrage, he went inside and slammed the screen door. I felt baaaad. But when he came back out with a block of wood and a ball-peen hammer, not only did I feel gooood (to the point of actually clapping my hands and yelling "Yaaaay!"), but I had the much deeper satisfaction of knowing that ours was a friendship restored.

The earwig -- base creature! -- did not seem moved. ::