DECAY AND collapse seem to me rather agreeable in the garden, and I doubt this is a depraved taste on my part so much as a fondess for the immemorial cycle of the garden itself.

There was a time, happily past, when I thought the garden should be as brilliant in January as in May, and this may be just the place to warn against too many evergreens in the garden.

You have seen those neat, efficient gardens of yew and ivy, which do not vary much through the year, except for a clump of daffodils and tulips in spring and six elephant ears in July and a tub of chrysanthemums in October.

And admittedly they look fine, those green gardens, all winter, or at least as fine as they are ever going to look. But it's hard to comprehend the gardner who gives up virtually everything, merely in order to have the place look green and furnished in the winter.

Well, no need to beat a dead horse; it's obvious a garden can become depressing and gloomy if there are too many evergreens in it. And if there are deciduous plants, then of course they drop their leaves. So there is no need to become sad about it. They drop their leaves the way we change our socks, only not so often of course. It doesn't mean the plant is dead, merely naked; and that is not always a terrible thing.

A chief vulgarity of my own is a lust for golden conifers. The only reason the garden isn't stuffed with golden forms of pine, arbor vitats, cypresses and so forth is that there is no place -- literally no place -- to jam them in.

But it hurts, when I visit a nursery and see dozens of splendid young plants of Cupressocyparis X leylandii, 'Castelwellan' and 'Donard Gold' just sitting there homeless.

I do have one spot, if I forget the rose 'Cerise Bouquet' that is halfheartedly occupying it, in which I could fit in a golden Leyland cypress. But if I did, it would touch a rich copper-red-purple leaf form of flowering plum. The result would be garish.

It is possible, you will notice, to argue yourself out of plain and obvious truths in the garden if you really want a certain plant. Golden conifers next to purple-leaf trees are garish and almost always hideous. Still, if I think about it long enough, I may be able to allow myself to get the golden cypress after all, on the grounds that the plum may die, you know, so then it would not be garish at all.

Besides, the golden cypress would have for backgroud a group (belonging to a neighbor across the alley) of tall old Lawson's cypress in plain sober green. And you also would see with it the plain sober Virginia red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) which would tone things down somewhat.

And besides all that, there is a shed in the way, so you wouldn't see all the golden cypress, only the top 50 feet of it (once it got going) and then, too, it would be at the extreme end of the garden, not right up front in the most conspicuous place.

Furthermore, I could pretend it was the neighbor's golden cypress, about which I could do nothing.

All the time, of course, I know the golden conifer next to the purple plum would look coarse, insensitive, cheap and so on. But I also know I may do it anyway, perhaps running a magenta climing rose through both of them. What abandoned wickedness. But then who is without sin?

You will not believe (to turn to lofty thoughts) how costly common boxwood has become. Last week I acquired and planted six young box bushes at runious charge.

In defense I can only say life is not worth living without box bushes, and a little windfall (which should have gone to buy milk and corn meal, of course) came my way, so out I raced and got the boxwood. Also in defense, you will admit that no other plant does the same thing box does. Yew are dark, certain hollies are neat, and all the usual substitutes for box have merit. But they are not box, and they do not confer, as box does, the unperturbed dignity of age.

Along a short walk, the box is interupted by epimediums, and on one side you see, back of this front row, a couple of nandinas and some clumps of scarlet and white azaleas.

On the other side there are patches of the blue star-flower (Brodiaea uniflora violacaea) and bronze bugle weed (Ajuga reptans atropurpuraea). I also have moved two clumps of a favorite hosta to that side. This is the big-leaf hosta, or plantain lily, that has leaves of canary-sulfer, swirled with lime green, for a few weeks in the spring. On both sides, a few feet back, are stray tulips scattered at random. The tulips would look better if I had not got them all mixed up during storage -- the colors make no particular sense, but since there are only 20 or 30 of them, rather spaced out, they do not look quite as mistaken as I first feared they would.

Sometimes when I look at this walk, and this silly patch 40-feet-square through which it runs, I think of beautiful forecourts I have seen. If I were suggesting the planting for a friend, I would be full of wisdom and restraint.

But I have no other space in which to grow my anemones, crocuses, chionodoxas, scillas, viburnums, hollies, azaleas, variegated lily-turf, yews, mountain laurel, andromedas, barberries, euonymus, etc., etc.

I have therefore rather overdone it, no doubt. There is just a smidgin too much variety for the best effect, possibly.

Still, there it is, and I am endlessly diverted by it, whether it looks like anything or not. The trouble with superb restraint in gardens and the trouble with the most superbly composed pictures in a garden, is that ultimately they tend to be quite boring, really.

Besides, as the years pass, hopelessly over-planted patches tend to sort themselves out. Some plants take off and flourish; others sulk and at last disappear. So at the last, the effect is not nearly as bad as purists predict.

How often in great gardens -- as distinct from the little cat-runs we call our gardens -- do we see some inspired grouping of plants that only the highest art could have placed just so; that only the most informed and delicate taste could have arranged in just that combination of texture, color, bulk.

And almost always it turns out it was not specifically planned that way at all. Usually the original planter had included a revolting assortment of this and that (all of which has died or been chopped down because of desperate overcrowding) and the thing we admire, in the great garden, is not some glorious composition come at last to maturity. Instead, it is merely the feeble survivor of all that had once been intended, but which never worked out at all.

In this respect the garden is very like life itself. The coherence, the pattern, the glory even, is rarely planned and steadily approached, but is instead merely what at last is seen from the rubble of false starts, absurb ambitions and clumsy efforts.