"A Country Herbal," by Lesley Gordon (Mayflower Books, illustrated, 208 pages, $19.95).

This mix of folklore, history and fact covers more than 130 different herbs and spices with pictures of each, many in full color. Recipes are scattered throughout, including one for the most unbeatable hot and spicy chili.

"It is impossible to write of herbs without writing of the men and women who discovered the plants and dared to taste them for the first time," says the author. "Among them were the samplers who searched the hedgerows and waste ground for a possible rare herb but who found only nettles and dandelions," she says. "But nevertheless these were healing and useful plants.

"There were the housewives who cooked the plants for the family meals, or pounded and mixed them for curing the sick, the pioneers who must have suffered many a catastrophe in gaining knowledge, and the gardeners who transplanted the wild herbs to their own backyards, discovering by trial and error how best to propagate them and coax them to flourish.

"The pleasure of beautifying themselves and each other gave women the satisfaction of gathering plants from their own gardens, or from the surrounding countryside, to make the little luxuries of hairdyes and freckle-removers, skin-lotions and washing-balls, starch for laces and perfume for gloves, and all the charming nonsenses of sweet-bags and potpourri bowls.

"Even small houses and farms had their still-rooms, with dried plants hanging from rafters and aromatic herbs contained in pots. But these pretty things were only the shining surface of life.

"Beneath the gloss lingered magic and witchcraft, darkness and superstition, the terror of the plague, and human spite and human fear. There were plants in plenty for those who knew where to look: mandrake and herbans, belladonna and vervain -- some poisonous in root and berry, others harmless in themselves but with rank scent, sad color or strange form and texture to excite the imagination."

"Improve Your Gardening With Backyard Research," by Lois Levitan (Rodale Press, illustrated, 256 pages, $6.95 paperback).

Such a book as this has been needed for a long time. With the proposed research, you can discover how your garden functions, and how these parts influence your garden as a whole.

Local differences in soil, for example, are due to differences in parent rock, topography and drainage. Every farmer knows that soils may differ within a distance of a few feet. The different parts of a farm and even parts of a field may need different treatment.

Your research can let you find the answers to questions like: What kind of soil do I have? And, is it suited for gardening? How can the weather affect my gardening? And, can I minimize any negative effects? Why are some seed varieties more successful for me than others? Which advanced gardening techniques can I use effectively?

Finding the answers can not only greatly improve your yield from the garden but also make gardening far more pleasurable.

Air must move through the spaces or pores between soil particles. The smaller the particles, the slower the air moves. If the particles are too small, plant roots suffer from lack of oxygen and too much carbon dioxide. The pores must be large enough to let excess water pass through.

Air moves very slowly in a water-soaked soil. If water fills all the pores for quite a while after a heavy rain, the roots may suffer severe damage or even be killed.

Organic matter is the best soil conditioner. It helps unite fine clay particles into larger ones and increases the size of channels through the soil. pIt helps sandy soil by absorbing and holding moisture, preventing the soil from drying out.