LAST CHRISTMAS a ball of boxwood twigs arrived with red velvet ribbons and like any gardener I fidgeted until Jan. 7 about them, thinking they were getting pretty well dried out.

On the other hand, there is not much point having holly and box and so on for decorations if you insist on putting them all in water and keeping them in a cool place.

So the box sat around looking festive and, as I say, I muttered and fidgeted and the instant Twelfth Night dawned, out the twigs went. Not to the trash, of course. I planted them all in a little trench. And now most of them are rooted.

The question arises (in the minds of the sane) whether I needed box bushes and, if so, why I didn't buy some young bushes years ago instead of starting a batch from cuttings outdoors in January as I approach nigh unto the golden years (as idiots say) or death from old age.

Rooting the box twigs is not, to be plain, an especially sensible project. How many years will it be -- 50? -- before they make fine sizeable bushes?

In the same way I see occasional holly trees four inches high from seed, and suppose they have sprouted from the holly berries I dutifully collect off Christmas holly and sprinkly here and there.

Now sometimes people who are not gardeners wonder how gardening manages to take so much time, and why (if time is indeed spent on the garden) the garden looks so ratty. I shall say why:

The gardener should be busy, of course, pulling weeds and trimming out gawky growths from the sweet olives. Instead, he is spending time peering about under azaleas to see if any hollies have sprouted from seed, or lining up good homes for dogwoods planted by cardinals and mockingbirds (great eaters of dogwood berries).

Part of the gardener's spring is spent dutifully pulling off wilting flowers from the pansies. Another part is spent looking for pansy seeds. Still another part is spent gathering the seed, cleaning it, drying it and labeling it.

This permits the gardener's desk to accumulate, over the years, a lot of interesting envelopes with neat things written on the front:

"Clematis, henryii and Betty B, some coccinea 1974" and "Sib. iris Gen. Lee 1972 Arl." and "Pansy Az Bl. Germ? Swiss? 1978."

"Columbine, yel-red wild. CPurves 1977" probably means something. There is also some good reason, now lost, why wine glasses in the upper reaches of a cupboard have oddments of seeds in them. Once the gardener knew what they were.

Stud boxes, holding collar studs and stays and a tangled assortment of cufflinks (most of them unwearable and several of them with only one of the pair) are magnets that draw three lotus seeds (a particularly nice form), several Chinese radishes, one strange-looking thing -- wait, that may be the crinum seed -- and the selfed pod resulting from a particularly lovely white Japanese iris with mulberry stands and a few blue veins down the fall from the yellow hafts. Why I thought those were planted two years ago. Let's see, these are either the cunninghamia or the deodara. Etc.

The normal citizen must not suppose, however, the gardener does not get things planted. Every year mysterious things sprout in odd corners.

A number of roses come up (The parents were some combination of Dortmund, Kathleen, Thisbe, Chinensis, mutabilis, Madame Gregoire Staechelin, Nymphenburg and a few others -- at the time, it was perfectly clear what the cross was supposed to produce and what the parents were, but now only God knows) as do irises and day lilies and bonesets (it was a mystery how thousands of bonesets are flowering all over the place but now I remember sprinkling boneset seed one November from a stray wildling back by the alley).

Just this past week the hound set up a cry -- abdominal surgery without anesthetic, you would assume -- that turned out to be a paw caught in a little wire enclosure with sprigs of green in it.

Of course. The wire is to protect 14 seedlings of Citrina and Bitsy. Or is it Citrina and Green Glitter. Or Green Glitter and Bitsy? Or Vespertina and Bitsy? Maybe Steve would know. Wait, it must be Bitsy and Something. He is nuts about Bitsy. But then etc., etc.

Meanwhile, needless to say, the hound has been sprung from durance vile, and there don't seem to be quite as many seedlings there, inside the wire, as there were. Well, things happen.

I cannot think why the Italian arum which sprouts in September has not sprouted yet. I cannot think why the dog-hobble (a wild andromeda) is all dead except two green branches while the one five feet away is the picture of health.

It would be nice to know why the hybird witch hazel has three times as many flower buds as usual. And why are the barren-worts growing vastly better than usual? On the other hand, what's wrong with the Foster hollies, apart from not having any space to grown in. Surely they should have put on at least eight inches and look at them, just sitting there.

What's this. Of course, it's that European spindle that's supposed to fruit heavier than others. What made it finally decide to grow? Thought it died two years ago. It did, almost, but I remember now there were two sprouts. And why is that juniper sulking?

These concerns take a lot of time, as you know.

Imagine finding the pink tropical morning glory alive. It was so dead last April it was replaced.

Are these moonflower seeds going to ripen? Why is Agnes trying to bloom and why does she not have blackspot (there are two prevailing theories about Agnes, that she invariable has blackspot and that she never does; with me she rarely does) and look at old Belle (another rose) in fruit. Didn't know she did.

These concerns take time, as I say. Some people call it puttering about.

I believe the correct word is life.