THERE'S NOT much argument that the Italian cypress is the handsomest pencil-thin conifer, but it's no good at all for American gardens except in the dry warm parts of the West.

Against a south wall, if the earth is on the dry side and maybe sandy, it can sometimes be persuaded to settle in up here, but it is never reliable, and even after it has seemingly flourished for a few years a heavy snowfall or quite wet winter may finish it off.

Now I have always grown this cypress since like many gardeners I am somewhat pig-headed, and I cannot recall at the moment the number of these cypresses that have died under my expert care.

But then I plant them in hope, not in faith, and I never plant them where they would break my heart if they died.

The question is, what is the nearest substitute for those shafts of black-green, narrow as a telephone pole?

If the black-green deep richness seems to you the main thing, then nothing else is as good as Hicks' yew, Taxus media hicksii, which is fatter in outline than the cypress but still quite narrow compared to most evergreens. And discreet pruning in its youth will help to keep it narrow.

It will take zero weather and torrid heat, and while it will not endure soggy soil (hardly anything will), it is well-behaved in the mid-Atlantic (and almost any other) garden.

But if the narrowness of the Italian cypress seems to you its main beauty, then the best substitute for us is the juniper called "Skyrocket," sold at most nurseries here. It is as narrow as that cypress, a soft gray-green.

Neither dark in color nor narrow in outline, there is another juniper I like better than all the rest: the wild native Virginia juniper of redcedar, Juniperus virginiana.

It is called the pencil juniper because they make pencils from it, not because it is narrow as a pencil. You see it in pastures or along fences (birds are excellent distributors) all over the countryside.

Its outline varies, but in youth it has the outline of a candle flame. In age it fills out and becomes pyramidal.

It is a scourge of apple and crabapple trees, being a critical link in the chain of a disfiguring fungus disease of apples.

To me it has always seemed the best Christmas tree, mainly because it was the standard Christmas tree of my own boyhood.

Often birds drop the seeds into town gardens and you will see a little conifer 10 inches high popping up among the flowers. In just three years this will turn into a sturdy, well-shaped tree of 6 feet or so. I do not like the cut Christmas trees I see for sale. They drop their needles before you get them home. Besides, I substantially dislike spruces, firs and pines. There is nothing wrong with them except I dislike them.

It is feasible to let the bird-sown redcedars grow along for two or three years in the garden and then cut them for Christmas. In this way you get a tree that smells right and that is fresh. Needless to say, some people dislike the redcedar as much as I dislike spruces.

They should, therefore, not grow them.

This fall (like the past summer and the past spring) has not behaved at all properly. My red maple has colored casually and half-heartedly, and while you could prove the leaves are yellow and red and orange, still it has not been the great beauty it usually is.

The ordinary snowball bush (Viburnum opulus) has turned a far richer and more uniform red than usual. Wright's viburnum, which always turns deep crimson, solid this year has been fawn and apricot-orange. It has not been as good a fall for leaf coloration as usual, possibly because this column announced in September it would be better than usual. The Lord spends much time confounding me, knowing I am a gardener. Driving gardeners mad has been a high priority with heaven since Adam.

We are now in the shortest days of the year. The shortage of light has a depressing effect on all plants and most gardeners.

Christmas celebrates, among other things, the daily increase in light, and while the cold strengthens all through January, at least the days are longer. Gardeners can suffer in daylight, not dark.

Already, no doubt, the average gardener has dismissed the apparent world, and as he wanders about in the little patch back of his house he does not see the shabby remains of this and that but rather the daffodils and tulips that will come with spring.

It really is not necessary for the flowering plum and the fat clumps of "Spellbinder" and "Ceylon" and the other daffodils to bloom since the gardener has seen them all winter, every time he peers out. He has seen them in his mind's eye. And I might add, has seen them without the gales and monsoons that usually accompany them in reality. It is important for spring to come in the garden, chiefly to stoke the gardener's imagination and dreams all winter.

The best spring -- without storms or ice -- is in the winter gardener's head.

There are days, however, when the garden is as astoundingly and improbably right as it usually is predictably and uniformly wrong.

Sometimes there is even a whole two weeks -- but I must not encourage you in opium dreams.

Every March, without fail, there are a few days in which the sky is sky blue, and the small bulbs (artfully planted here and there beyond the gardener's budget) make tufts of white and canary and orange and gentian blue, with startlements of vermilion.

Then, toward the end of April, there are usually two full days in which the azaleas are unflawed and incomparable in brilliance, with feathery green on other bushes and rich blue of giant forget-me-nots and some ivory-sulfur tulips and maybe even some early clematis and sharp canary kerrias.

Those two days are when one is summoned to Boston or some similar God-forsaken place, but in the cold rain (upon one's return) it is easy to imagine how lovely everything was.

Then there are at least four days in May, when the irises, peonies, roses reflect in the goldfish pool and the hound dozes on the warm bricks and one joyfully grumbles we need rain.

Which, needless to say, comes all too generously.

But then in July there are fine days, between hurricanes.

The daylilies and trumpet lilies and daisies give the gardener the fleeting impression he knew what he was doing when he planted them.

There are, in fact, at least nine days of the year, distributed through the seasons, in which the gardener is almost normal, almost pleased. We must remember that and hold on for snowdrops.