ENGLAND MAY have great gardens and garden writers. But the United States has great garden catalogs -- usually better illustrated than most books and containing the latest and often the best varieties of plants. What's more, they provide excellent horticultural advice, are usually updated in spring and fall and are free. What book publisher can make that claim?

Even English garden writer Robin Lane Fox, in his magnificently opinionated Variations on a Garden (David R. Godine, $17.50), admits he has kept nursery catalogs on his bedside table for more than 30 years. "I owe so much to their combination of enticement, honesty and sudden flights of fancy. I have also learnt most about how to grow plants from their advice, tested in the front line of battle."

Lane Fox's book, an updated edition of his popular 1974 British book, has been rewritten especially and extensively for American gardeners -- something few garden book publishers do. His recommended plants are suited to our hotter climate and almost every page has references to which U.S. nurseries carry them. Wayside Gardens and White Flower Farm are among the more frequently mentioned eastern nurseries.

Lane Fox's publisher properly proclaims Variations on a Garden a book of superb advice, which "spells out exactly what you should be planting -- not which plant, but which variety or cultivar is superior in form, color and hardiness."

What Lane Fox recommends are perennials, shrubs and trees that provide year-round interest and often fragrance, such as winter jasmine, honeysuckle, daphne, hellebores (also known as Christmas and Lenten roses), Virginia bluebells, winterhazel and witch hazel and willow trees. "Honestly, I know of no prettier shrub" than witch hazel (hamamelis), he says, noting its name stems not from witches but from the Anglo-Saxon wich, which means supple and refers to the plant's bendy stems. It is the kind of plant scholarship one expects from an Oxford classics professor turned garden journalist.

Washingtonians may not agree with his every opinion. He thinks American gardens are garishly bright and he dislikes most of the annual bedding plants we buy in six-packs from our corner stores (marigolds and zinnias are harsh colored, he says). He may also be guilty of heresy here by disliking pink flowering cherry trees.

Nor will all readers necessarily share his affection for the fragrant but huge regale lilies, but they may enjoy his account of their discovery in a river gorge on the borders of Tibet in 1910 by English plant collector Ernest Wilson -- who was engulfed by a rock avalanche while collecting them from the "tens of thousands" on a mountainside. He was unearthed by his coolies, set his broken leg with his camera tripod and lived to gild this lily tale.

If Lane Fox's book has a fault it is skimpy illustration -- photographs are few and often are not related to the American text. Perhaps Lane Fox didn't feel the need for good illustrations because he has all those colorful garden catalogs close at hand.

But it is his plant recommendations, his engaging prose style and his vision of the garden that we can enjoy -- a garden planted not in rectangular beds and rows, where flowers alternate with military precision, but where flowers are clumped in drifts, creating a garden "close to informal wilderness."

THAT VISION of the urban-suburban garden as an informal woodland of perennials, shrubs and trees, is the subject of a second spring book, A Bouquet of Garden Writing (David R. Godine, $25). It is a deft selection from the writings of the grandmasters of English gardening, edited and updated (with plant name changes, superseded species etc.) by Ursula Buchan.

These are the legendary garden heroes and heroines who sparked the Western revolution in gardening, who almost single-handedly created what most Americans and Europeans think of today as a "garden."

They ended the Victorian era of static public and private gardens, where nature was forced into rigid geometric shapes, where wildflowers were disdained and replaced by regimented masses of annual bedding plants, and where gardeners performed as hair dressers, using topiary to torture shrubs and trees into looking like so many clipped poodles.

This book is even more sparsely illustrated than Lane Fox's, but for any gardener who wishes to understand what to plant where and why -- the theory of modern gardening -- it is invaluable.

William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll shaped the present-day flower garden, says Buchan. Jekyll, who died in 1932, expanded on Robinson's ideas of natural "wild" gardening and love of "cottage gardens" filled with hardy plants and wild flowers in gay profusion. She designed gardens of simplicity and informality, with harmonized color schemes, scented plants and foliage effects -- all integrated with surrounding buildings. She probably influenced more gardeners than any other single person, according to Buchan. "No one except the Creator has done more to beautify the face of England," wrote Agnes Jekyll after her death.

E.A. Bowles and Reginald Farrer created the rock garden, and Vita Sackville-West, who died in 1962, perhaps perfected and "made visible at Sissinghurst all that was best in {all} their writings and her own and thereby realized that ideal of a pastoral but ordered simplicity towards which they had all striven."

The impact of these popular garden writers is clear today in just about every garden book available, including the new Taylor's Guides to plants (Houghton Mifflin, paperbacks, $14.95 each). In addition to last fall's guides to annuals, perennials, roses and bulbs Taylor's has come out now with guides to shrubs, house plants, vegetables and herbs, as well as ground covers, vines and grasses.

These are about the best collection of pocket garden guides available, superbly and profusely illustrated and bound sturdily enough to take into the garden and thumb through with dirty fingers. They have fine short sections on planting, pruning, propagation and garden design -- which cite the writings of Robinson, Jekyll, Sackville-West, etc. -- although the individual volume on shrubs, for example, treats garden design with only shrubs in mind. And while the guides may list most common plant species, they only list selected varieties and are less helpful than many garden catalogs in listing new hybridized varieties of merit.

NOT ALL of the of latest crop of British garden books published here transplant as well as Lane Fox's. John Kelly's All-Seasons Garden (Penguin, paperback, $14.95) follows classic informal garden design but waxes eloquent over numerous plants unfamiliar in the United States or impossible to grow in the Washington region. It nonetheless has much good plant advice for gardeners looking for "fall and winter interest" in the garden.

Another British import, Gardening Through the Year, by Hazel Evans (Harper and Row, $18.95) is one of the month-by-month, how-to books that has been somewhat revised for the U.S. market. It is attractively illustrated and looks useful at first glance, if you like to garden by the book. But it is designed, it says, for both the beginner and seasoned gardener, attempts to be a calendar book simultaneously for all sections of the United States, an almost impossible task, and tries to say something about almost every member of the floral kingdom. It makes for a confusing book, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

Paul Hodge is an editor for the Metropolitan news section of The Washington Post.