03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Digging in the Dirt: Changing Lives One Garden at a Time

It all started with a bean sprout and a cat that wouldn't let it be.

That's how Holly and Sean Hirshberg caught the gardening bug 13 years ago in their small apartment. Apparently, their cat enjoyed it too and developed quite a skill for early harvesting! Undaunted, the Hirshbergs pressed on with their pots and windowsill garden, all the while dreaming of a bigger plot to plant. So when they moved into their first house, installing an edible garden was one of the first things they did.

Their summer garden flourished and grew and so did their family. Seven years ago, Holly and Sean adopted a son and daughter out of foster care, removing them from lives of abuse, hunger and neglect that had taken their toll. Seeking a way to heal and bond with them, Holly and Sean turned to what felt natural to them...their garden. After all, what are gardeners but caregivers and nurturers? Soon, as the children experienced their first seeds sprouting by their own hand and, alongside their parents, shepherding their growing plants from garden plot to dinner plate, they discovered what empowerment felt like. That was their little garden's gift to them. Sounds like a small thing, but to this family, these children, it made all the difference. Holly watched the changes in their children as their garden rewarded them year after year and happily realized the powerful positive effects it had on them all.

Then came the summer of 2008. Gas prices skyrocketed and, of course, the recession hit and hit hard. In her community, Holly saw many middle class families, until then solidly employed, many highly trained and educated, have their existence drastically changed seemingly overnight. Many would lose their homes. Most would come to know what going to bed hungry felt like for the first time; a horrible sudden shift that took its toll not only financially but psychologically as well. These families never had to ask for help. Never before had they been unable to fulfill a financial obligation. Self-worth, self-esteem...they were collateral damage in this whirlwind of economic devastation. You can imagine what it was like for these families to have no choice but to reveal their plight to outsiders - local charities, government agencies - in order to feed their children. It was devastating and demoralizing.

Local food pantries couldn't keep up with the growing demand. Holly saw that, though playing an important role in immediate aid, food banks couldn't provide a long-term solution. Holly had an idea. As she saw her garden help heal her children, she knew that's where the answer the dirt. First, she expanded her garden to grow more produce, which she donated to the local food bank. That idea quickly grew into a plan that would help families and communities weather tough times by reducing or eliminating their reliance on food banks. What was this "plan"? Holly and Sean wanted to build an organization that would provide free seeds and support so that families could grow much of their own food, creating food security. No matter their gardening skill, no matter their financial situation; they'd never have to prove their degree of need. All they'd have to do was ask. As Holly reassures her fledgling gardeners, "There's nothing to fear about gardening. The seed does all the work."

In late 2008, Holly and Sean created The Dinner Garden, a non-profit organization that began distributing seeds and support to people gardening in Southern California and now serves families in 42 states across the country. The Dinner Garden has given away over 18,000 seed packets since their inception. As an "all volunteer" organization run entirely on donations, The Dinner Garden is looking for corporate sponsorship or a foundation grant that would enable the non-profit to move to the next level. "When we get more funding we plan to expand our Seeds For School Kids program into every state. Currently, we are working on sending seed packets home with the 25,000 Arkansas kids who only eat when they get free meals at school," explains Holly.

I met Holly when she joined the Home Grown Edible Landscapes fan page on Facebook last year. Like most edible gardeners, Holly envisions a nation where front lawns, empty lots, medians, parks, schools, religious and community centers devote space to fruit and vegetable gardens. "The Dinner Garden isn't just about the seeds," she says. "It is about giving people hope. It is about showing people another way to live. The Dinner Garden is creating communities where families spend time together in a productive way and children learn that they can create something beautiful and useful with their family." And to think, it all started with a bean sprout!

Holly and Sean are one shining example of the many remarkable people that edible gardening has brought into my life as a master gardener in the last year. You'll be amazed by what you discover digging in the dirt. Stay tuned.

The Dinner Garden can be reached at