A GOOD GENERAL gardening book should tell what you must know to make and maintain a garden. A good specialist gardening book should tell more than you need to know about its subject. A good book about gardens, as opposed to gardening, or any horticultural topic, should make you happy to learn what you don't have to know. And great books of all three types should bring into high reliefs the gardener's greed for the gardens or plants they present. General Gardening

How To Garden, subtitled "Exactly what you need to know and only what you need to know to grow all kinds of flowers, shrubs, vegetables, and trees successfully," is a very good general gardening book that explains what you must know within the limitations it sets for itself. The subtitle put me off (knowing more than I need to know is not smallpox), but not its content, which is clear, serious, unpatronizing and simple but by no means simplistic. The information is sound, and the recommended plants (with sensible cultural instructions) will continue to give pleasure even when the beginner has graduated to greater ambitions.

The novice who has digested How To Garden could happily and profitably go on to the The Complete Book of Gardening. This handsomely illustrated group effort with various chapters written by different British experts, is dense with information - on designing many kinds of gardens, building fences and other structures that pull gardens together, constructing pools, making lawns, planning borders, cultivating plants. The book would have been even more useful if zones of hardiness had been incorporated into the descriptions of the rich range of plants. Including a U.S. Department of Agriculture zonal map of the country on the endpapers is not adequate in a book which describes as hardy perennials New Zealand Flax, the cardoon and Euphorbia wulfenii - you might pull these through a bad Washington winter, but only with a lot of protection and even more luck.

The Complete Guide to Successful Gardening, a compilation of 10 books originally published in England, is uneven. It goes from mediocre to worse. It advocates spraying poisons on everything for everthing and suggests asbestos containers for the roof garden. Its datedness is reinforced by unbeautiful pictures of unsubtle gardens distinguished by masses of red salvia. The overlap of many contributions makes for considerable backing and forthing.

U.S. Gardening Guide, compiled from USDA pamphlets, brochures and publications, is, at first glance, a splendid idea. And so thought the editor, who writes in his preface, "no writer, publisher or gardener has the financial and manpower resources of the U.S. Department of Agriculture." But then, no writer, publisher or gardener would be as appallingly boring and uninspired as most of the USDA stuff. I'm sorry to say the bits and pieces that make up this book are neither more cohesive nor scintillating than the material they were drawn from. Specialist Books

The Adventurous Gardener is a lovely book by someone who knows how to write and likes to tell all about such wonders as pulling artichokes through our beastly winters and growing Oriental vegetables, a traditional medicine garden, or a snacking garden. Also included is a nicely indexed list of suppliers of Chinese guzzy gourd, chayote, hops seed and roots and the like.

Rodale has published three excellent and practical books on subjects that are first nature to this publisher: The Rodale Guide to Composting, the final word on the very important business of making and using compost; Pruning Simplified, a clearly written and clearly illustrated guide to pruning tree, shrubs, bushes, hedges, vines, flowers, garden plants, house-plants and bonsai, guaranteed to remove the terror from pruning, and Rodale's Color Handbook of Garden Insects, available in July) a combination field guide and pest control manual with color pictures so realistic you will find yourself gingerly turning the the pages.(Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, a general gardening book, is better on vegetable, composting and insect control than it is on flowers and scholarship. An encyclopedia should cross-reference entries for both common and Latin names - this one fails to do so consistently.)

The three new Time-Life books follow the same format as the others in their gardening enclopedia series. They are slick and workmanlike; they include careful cultural instructions; the pictures are absotutely gorgeous; the essays exude accurate information. And yet there is a thinness, a sterillity to these books. Perhaps it is because they are so "objective" and fail to show the involvement of the people who made the low-maintenance gardens (Easy Gardens) or festooned a wall with a wonderful vine (Vines) or grew charming oozie woozies in bone china teacups (Miniatures and Bonsai).

On the other hand, Plants and Flowers for Your Garden is weighted down with the author's personal observations, an abundance of adjectives and oh so many exclamation points. Too bad the space wasn't devoted to some orderly information. The photographs are simply lovely.

Jack Kramer's new book, The Old Fashioned Cutting Garden, is slick, thin and quite up to his other four dozen or so books in the degree of fatuousness, unctuousness and condescension. I sometimes wonder at the number of would-be gardens this master belaborer has turned off. Those that Kramer doesn't get, Jacqueline Heriteau will. Her little Hurry Up and Grow book is intimate, breathy and gooey with such hyperbolic asininties as: "You can have a flower garden overnight on your patio or out in the back yard . . . How? Just plant the seeds of annuals, and stand back to give them room to grow!" And such outrageous inaccuracies as: "Hamamelis mollis, Chinese witch hazel, is tall, almost a small tree [a slow-grower, it will reach 10 feet if you live long enough]; it blooms in summer [it bloom in winter], and tolerates shade [and loves the sun]."

House & Garden's 26 Easy Little Gardens are sleazy over-exterior decorations in a nasty little book. The fascination is the broad range of uninviting gardens which clearly man (not God) created. Whether it is the gardens themselves that are stiff, clumsy, over-done and half-baked or the way they are photograhed is a question. I challenge anyone to find even one spontaneous blade of grass in the entire small-minded collection. On Gardens

The Garden as Fine Art is a stunning book which views gardens as a mirror of the civilizations which created them. The development of garden from ancient Egypt through the present is traced in terms of three categories of human action - when ideas spring from "things not present to the senses"; when the pursuit of worldly pleasure is foremost, and when "reason . . . takes command to produce a blend of imaginative, other-worldly yearnings, with a restrained delight in the pleasures of the senses, both guided and controlled by reason." The approach is fascinating, the text is dense and the pictures are a glory.

According to Green Immigrants, "most of our cultivated flowers, vegetables, and fruits, of our grains, grases, and clovers, and nearly 70 percent of our weeds have come to the United States from other nations," a good many brought by the frist colonists. This anecdotal and informative book tells about some of these plants with charm and wit.

How to Garden, by Jerome A. Eaton and Carroll C. Calkins (Knopf, 180 pp. $12.50; paperback, $6.95)

The Complete Book of Gardening, Michael Wright, ed. (Lippincott, 416 pp. $20)

The Complete Guide to Successful Gardening, Marjorie Dietz, consultant editor (Mayflower, 511 pp. $14.95

U.S. Gardening Guide, compiled by Jeffrey Feinman (Simon & Shuster/Frireside, 352 pp. $14.95; paperback, $6.95)

The Garden as a Fine Art: From Antiquity to Modern Times, by F.R. Cowell (Houghton Mifflin, 232pp. $20)

Green Immigrants: The Plants That Transformed America, by Claire Shaver Haughton (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 450pp.$12.95)

The Adventurous Gardiner, by Nancy Bubel (Godine, 252pp.$13.95; paperback, $6.95)

The Rodale Guide to Composting, by Jerry Minnich, Marjorie Hunt and the editors of Organic Gardening magazine (Rodale, 405pp.$12.95)

Pruning Simplified, by Lewis Hill (Rodale, 208pp.$10.95)

Rodale's Color Handbook of Garden Insects, by Anna Carr (Rodale, 256pp.$14.95)

Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, by the editors of Organic Gardening magazine (Rodale, 1236 pp., $16.95)

Miniatures and Bonsai, by Philip Perl and the editors of Time-Life Books (Time-Life, 16o pp. $8.95)

Plants and Flowers for Your Garden, by Stanley Russell (Morrow, 152 pp. $12.95)

The Old Fashioned Cutting Garden, by Jack Kramer (Macmillan, 160 pp. $8.95)

Hurry Up and Grow Plants and Gardens, by Jacqueline Heriteau (Popular Library, 192 pp. paperback, $1.92)

House & Garden's 26 Easy Little Gardens (Penguin, 143 pp. $8.95) CAPTION: Illustration, no caption