Cambridge, Mass. — Every July and August surveyers from the Gallup organization swarm all over the nation asking every pertinent (and seemingly impertinent) question imaginable, ranging from one's preference in toothpicks to his appreaciation of late night movies on transatlantic flights.
The idea is to find out just what is making Mr., Mrs., and Ms. America tick the way they do.
These response are then collated and sold in groups of questions to organizations or individuals who feed a need for the information.
For its part, officials at Gardens for All, the national association for gardening based in Burlington, Vt., bought up all the responses to gardening questions. What they got for their money was some very good news indeed, according to Nancy Flynn, who has just taken over the public relations spot at Gardens for All.
Some 38 million American households planted food gardens this year, 4 million more than last year. That's an all-time high. In percentage points (47), 1981 did not quite equal the 1975 figure or that of the World War II victory-garden era. But in sheer numbers, this season's food gardens have never been topped, nor has the total value of the crops produced.
The backyards, side yards, gardens grown at the expense of a front lawn, and community gardens around the nation produced vegetables estimated to top $15.5 billion (billion, not million). That's an impressive contribution to the nation's gross national product (GNP) -- a figure, moreover, that isn't included in the reported GNP.
Dave Shaefer, who delivered the Gallup findings to a meeting of the Garden Writers of America Association's annual meeting here last week, contends that just as the pressures of the war years produced the victory garden, "today's many uncertainties and changing values are creating the "independence garden.'
People," he says, "seem to be rebuilding American backyard by backyard."
Jack Robinson, president of Gardens for All, expresses a similar sentiment this way: "People want to do more for themselves and make the best of their property. This ability to be creative and productive with what we have at home is a simple gift that is rediscovered whenever we experience tough times."
Television is the top recreational actiity of Americans. Some 97 percent of US households watch TV, followed by listening to music (62 percent), sewing (55 percent), and movie-going (49 percent). Then comes vegetable gardening -- not gardening as a whole, but vegetable gardening on its own. That places backyard food growing fifth out of the 32 most-popular recreational activities in the US.
Here are some of the principal findings from the full Gardening in America report:
* In addition to conventional food gardening, 7 million households grew vegetables in containers.
* The typical food-garden size now averages 547 square feet, down from the 1980 figure of 663 square feet. This reflects the tendency of newer gardeners to start small.
* Saving money, better-tasting food, and enjoyment are listed as the principal reasons for food gardening. Non-gardeners says they have no time or space for gardening instead of saying they have no wish to do so.
* The Midwest remains the prime vegetable-gardening region in the country with 55 percent of all households reporting a food garden.
* The average amount of money invested in a garden for seeds, fertilizer, et. , was $20; the average return $408.
* Younger people are turning to gardening. The 18-26 age group jumped from 33 percent to 41 percent, the largest for any age group.
Mr. Schaefer also noted how the transition from novice to expert takes place among those who stick to gardening.
"They start out by seeking advice from established gardeners," he says. "Then, for the next 10 years, they avidly buy up numerous books and magazines on the subject, after which they become much more selective in what they buy."
From then on, they are the recognized experts "and other novices seek their advice," Mr. Shaefer concludes.