When you first start to garden you usually have no idea what the real delights are going to be. You generally suppose the joy will come from raising the first dahlia bigger than a washtub or the production of a rose seven inches across.

These are heady highs, of course. But they overlook the element of time. Time, you might almost say, is what gardening is about.

It's one thing -- and a fine one -- to see the leaves fall in November and the first crocus in January and the snowdrops on Feb. 4, and the azaleas on April 15 and so on and on, the first year you see all this.

It's another and more resonant thing the thirtieth time you see it. A certain daffodil opens March 4 and you are dumbfounded. Always before it opened March 15 or 16, not varying year after year. So why is it blooming so much earlier this year? The weather and temperatures give no clue.

Now this makes the flower much more engaging than it would be had you not watched it opening March 15 for the last 20 years.

The roses come and go. At first you think, when June comes and the bush is out of bloom, that an eternity will pass before next May when it blooms again. But after a few years you conclude that 'Agnes,' say, is worth growing even if it only blooms once a year.

It is very like discovering youth does not last or come round on schedule every year. At first it is a shock. But if you are reasonably lucky, as I was, you like getting older. You don't have to live through all that youthful bother again, and the future may well be novel and more agreeable than the past.

In the garden, at least, you soon grow almost sick of flowers that bloom endlessly. I love the petunias, the wild-looking off-white and pale lavender ones that keep popping up from self-sown seed. They always look cheerful in the heat, they smell just fine, and they never look worn out and bedraggled. Besides, their color is soft and they don't scream at you.

But floribunda roses can become boring after a while; so can marigolds. They are nice enough, it's just that after a few months you wish they would look a little different.

It is otherwise when the snowdrop blooms. Wow. Look at that. Right through the snow. Nobody ever gets bored with snowdrops or crocuses.

Or the strange flower of the Jack-in-the-pulpit or the marbled Italian arum. It only lasts a few days, then is gone, and is not showy even the four days it's in bloom. But what a pleasure to see it, when its brief day comes.

Azaleas are an example of a flower that finishes blooming just about the time I get sick of looking at them. For some people, azaleas bloom too long, but for me they hit it just about right. I have never liked those late azaleas of May and June; by then I have had a bellyful.

But when April comes round again the azaleas are greeted like long-lost friends. So there is something to be said for not being gorgeous for so long that everybody loses interest.

The coming and going of flowers, the rise and fall of plants, are of utmost importance in the pleasure of gardening, far more than the young gardener might think. That gardener has not lived until he has experienced the death of a magnolia or a yew or a camellia that he had thought would be there forever. What a shock. But after it happens a few times the gardener no longer goes to pieces. It's the way life is, and the gardener learns that life really does go on.

Sometimes you will plant a pecan nut, just for the hell of it, and then marvel when a violent storm snaps the crown off it 50 years later and (if the innings hold) how a new leader develops and the tree looks none the worse for wear at 60 years. A plant means one thing to you if you buy a house and find a 100-year-old oak, a wonderful bit of luck. But it means something else if you have an oak from an acorn you planted ages ago. The raging storms, the early freezes, the year the leaves turned brighter red than usually -- all that is part of the oak you have raised yourself, or the oak you have watched over many years.

So time does make a difference in any garden. At first you wonder if anything will ever get large enough to count in the general picture. Then you wonder if there is any way to keep it from growing further. For years the little cunninghamia was a favorite shrub, say, then all of a sudden it becomes a small tree, then after a while you start thinking of it as a gnarled and marvelous fixture of the garden, and can hardly think back to the time before you had it.

The great trick, I am now sure, is to flow with the tide.