KATHARINE S. WHITE was a great force at The New Yorker where her taste had much to do with the tone achieved by that weekly, and her judgment of writers was nicely illustrated by the circumstance of her sticking around with E.B. White for 40 years.

From 1958 to 1970 she produced a little series of 14 gardening pieces and these were regarded as both charming and odd by many readers. Odd, because in 1958 the magazine had not gone in for long pieces on things like the best pizza parlor of Duluth.

No, in those days there were not many oddball pieces, and when Katharine White burst forth reviewing garden catalogues, as if she had been given some new theater beat, people were surprised and only 97.3 percent were pleased.

Her husband, E.B. White, had the common misgivings mixed with pride in the Little Woman. She was not, after all, a certified authority on gardening. What's more, gardening was not even the major passion of her life, and he wondered (as he says in an introduction that is useful and beautiful) if she were getting in a bit deep.

But Katharine White's years as an editor served her well, saving her from sudden enthusiasms and unbalanced distastes alike. She was, besides, a gardener of many years' anxiety and she knew what she liked.

It is said she was opinionated, but I never saw any evidence for the charge. She despised artificial flowers, as I suppose she despised artificial lobsters and artificial wine. It is true she occassionally sounded off (at one of those fancy-Dan writers who had spoken disparagingly of the common pussy willow) on behalf of sound principles and settled virtue, and she did not suffer monstrosities, vulgarities, or pretentious imbeciles with any great gladness.

She was a friend of the salpiglossis. She had a bowl of them on a summer luncheon table that I was myself privileged to see not so long before she died, and other things were mixed in artlessly, much as the old glass workers at Chartres once mixed a bit of crimson here and sharp green there in composing their Tree of Jesse window for the West Front.

She had always known enough to know that while any fool can follow rules of 1,2,3, that does not make art. If others chose artsy-craftsy systems of working flowers, fetched in from outlandish parts, she wished them well in their pleasure, but for herself she trusted instead the things that are worthy of trust: experience, sympathy, and a taste evolved over many years of trial and thought.

So her bowls of salpiglossis were lovely.

She did not care much for the enlargement, distortion, or general disfigurement of sweet flowers, and the vulgar possibly thought it was opinionated of her to eschew their space-age rococoqueries.

She once deplored the low level of American garden writing, a thing that did not endear her to some, probably, but in her simplicity she saw no reason for such writers to be ignorant, pedantic, foolish, illiterate and generally empty-headed as many of them are, though she did not say it that plain.

But now that 31 years have passed since she first brought to grimy New York her hints of green fields and reliable pussy willows, one may question the worth of her labors. The metropolis is even uglier than it was then, and some of the best garden supply houses have gone out of business, and woe is upon the world once more.

No matter, there is a freshness of willows that persists, as you might say. The chief fragrant flowers seduce as strongly now as at any time in the world's history, and Katharine White's clear instinct - that gardening is eminently worth doing - is even more widely sensed in her country now than at the time she was writing.

Those of us who lug buckets of water and holler at forward bumblebees who have never yet learned to keep their place, have never known whether out excellent natures led us to gardening or whether gardening led us to admirable natures.

And this fully agreeable volume of Katharine White's present us the usual inextricable web in which all feeling and life are brought to the garden and the garden, in its turn, is brought ao all the rest of the consciousness.

There is a yeoman quality about it - odd that the most sophisticated people so commonly show the yeoman virtues of proportion, thoroughness, depth - that does not attempt great heights or wear gold lace, but shoots straight and clean enough to win any field. It may without undue flattery be said of Katharine White that she kept America safe (to the extent of her disarming powers) for pussy willows. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, from the book