The garden of my dreams ought to have been started a hundred years ago. I would love to be able to say that my grand- father sowed the original black-eyed Susans to remind him of broad meadows and narrow country roads and that he planted the irises because his young, city-bred bride asked for a more formal flower to look at through the lace curtains she crocheted. In a world more ordered than ours, my parents would have held hands for the first time in the scented shade of my grape arbor, and I should have merely added to my uncles' collection of rocks for edges and walls.

A great garden happens over a long span of time, and there is a never a final score in the battle between nature's will and its tenants' whims.

It takes years of digging and hauling and raking to transmute our common clay into a magic mixture of dead leaves and fireplace ashes, compost and manure and sawdust. Rocks, which keep rising from the depths, must be cleared. Eventually, the earth is as dark as pumpernickel and as fluffy as a down blanket. Drainage is perfect. After a rain, a handful of dirt yields the fragrances of corn silk and rotting apples, oak moss and almonds.

A garden is both the most public and the most private of living spaces. Mine is a writer's garden: a place where metaphors are concrete and the tangible is illusory.

I admire the innocence of daisies-- they are so simple, so glad to be-- as well as the splendor and the neuroses of lilies. I can't resist the loud, lush, carnal reds of poppies. But I keep faith with the nasturtiums of my childhood: their wizened petals and their round, oversize leaves lolling at the end of a long, thin stem speak to me of the hoarded gold of fairy kings.

Rubbing basil between my fingers or breaking off a sprig of dill, I declare my loyalty to Charlemagne, who listed them among the 39 herbs to be planted in his realm. For me, lavender stands for the South of France, so hospitable and civilized; and onions, for biblical Egypt, fecund and mysterious.

Remembering the cozy bays of the Mediterranean, I'd want limestone lions on top of my gateposts--one reclining, the other roaring.

In my heart I know that groups of wanderers from the Old World came to these shores long before Columbus. One of their barbecues could have taken place in my yard, and I have had dreams of digging up their coins. Or fragments of a jade jaguar or an onyx stele. Thus far, I have found nothing during the day.

For me, the ideal site for a garden is a rolling hillside, with a commanding view from the top and shifting vistas at every step. The challenge is to civilize the slope by leveling terraces and raising a progression of walls to retain the dirt of the terraces.

I count among life's finest hours the project of fitting rocks to form a sturdy wall; raking each terrace level is a consummation. The result is a pyramid of horticulture, an improvement on the natural order: The rain no longer steals the topsoil, and each terrace is a field.

In building walls, I believe in mixing curves and straight lines, crescents and rectangles. The straight line is an abstraction, a high standard set by preachers and engineers; the curve is a detour, a diversion, an excuse.

Flowers never look more ephemeral and ethereal than when set against a backdrop of boulders--solid, unchangeable, forever. Blossoms and leaves speak of symmetry; stones are free form. One celebrates the sun, the other is architecture from the depths of the earth. Rocks look as if they had always been there; flowers are a surprise addition, improved and implanted by humans.

Whether used as a planter or as a crossbeam in a grape arbor, wood is a reminder of the wilderness. There is a forest smell and a leafy softness even to creosoted timber laid flat for a pathway or to railroad ties stacked for retaining walls. Wood is never quite dead. After every rain, oak stakes think of growing branches again and send out signals in a code only believers can decipher.

My fantasy garden must have a vegetable patch--as well as a bridge to arch over a pond, stocked with water lilies for show and fat carps to eat.

If money is no object, I'd go for wrought iron: gate, fence and railings. The more curlicues the better. To add to the tangle of lines, I'd plant hollyhocks and ornamental grass next to the fence. What I desire is clutter, to be framed by order. The wrought iron defines a baronial mansion, which is one presumption I admit to.

The garden pictured here is based on the property that I bought 12 years ago and that I haven't stopped redesigning.

This blueprint offers enough projects for the next 12 years. I'll do as many of them as I can. Then it's up to my children.