Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman is a 1997 novel about a group of people who come together to turn a vacant lot in their neighborhood into a garden.
- The story begins with nine-year-old Kim, who plants lima beans in the lot.
- As the months pass, more and more people from the community join in, each planting their own crops.
- The garden becomes a place where people of all ages and backgrounds can come together and appreciate the beauty of nature.
Last Updated September 19, 2022.
In the middle of a tough neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, there is a vacant lot filled with refuse and infested with rats. Inspired by a little girl, a diverse group of strangers converge upon the lot and make it into a garden. In the process, they discover the amazing gift of community.
In early April, on the tenth anniversary of her father's death, nine-year-old Kim takes a spoon, a thermos of water, and a handful of dried lima beans down to the vacant lot a short distance from her family's apartment. She chooses a small spot among the rubbish, far from the sidewalk, and digs six holes in the hard ground—one for each seed she has brought. Kim mourns the fact that her father, who had been a farmer in Vietnam, died with no memories of her. She hopes that he can see her "patience and [her] hard work" in the little garden she is starting now, and will recognize that she is his daughter.
As she returns regularly to tend to her bean plants, Kim is observed from afar by an old Romanian woman named Ana, who is watching from her window. Ana, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for decades, is at first suspicious, thinking that Kim is "mixed up in something she shouldn't be," and is most likely hiding "drugs...or money, or a gun." One day, she decides to see for herself what the little girl is up to. Hobbling down to Kim's makeshift garden, Ana hacks at the ground with a butter knife. When she discovers the beans taking root underneath the soil, she is embarrassed and contrite, and puts them back gently into the earth.
In May, Ana notices that Kim has not come to tend her beans for four days and that her precious plants are in danger of dying. Because Ana has hurt her ankle and cannot go down to the vacant lot herself, she calls her neighbor Wendell, who looks out for her. Ana sends Wendell over to water the plants, but when he is down at the garden, Kim arrives, and regards him with fear. Having grown up on a farm in Kentucky, Wendell knows about planting. He has scraped up a ring of dirt around one of the plants to hold the water in. Smiling as he backs away, he tries to indicate to Kim that he is just giving her plants some water. Although no words are exchanged, Kim understands that the man is only trying to help. When Wendell returns to the lot that evening, he sees that Kim has made a circle of dirt around each of her remaining plants, just as he has shown her.
Wendell is alone in the world. His wife died in an automobile accident and his son was "shot dead like a dog in the street." His meeting with Kim brings to mind the Bible verse that says, "And a little child shall lead them," and changes his life. Wendell decides that though there are many things that he cannot control, there are some things that he can. Because of Kim's example, he decides to cultivate a patch of ground in the "trashy lot" himself: "better to put [his] time into that than moaning about [the bad things that have happened to him] all day."
Gonzalo is an eighth-grader who has immigrated with his family to Cleveland from Guatemala. He is surprised to find that it is much easier for young people like himself to assimilate in their new surroundings than it is for their elders. This is especially true in the case of Tio Juan, his old uncle who had been a farmer in his homeland, but who has found that in America, he is...
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lost: he cannot work, nor can he understand anything anyone is saying. Tio Juan spends his days wandering aimlessly around the family's apartment like a baby, talking to himself. One day, Tio Juan disappears, and Gonzalo finds him down at the vacant lot around the corner. Tio Juan is trying to communicate with Wendell, who is working on some plants coming up in rows. The next day, Gonzalo's mother comes home from work with a shovel and some seeds. She asks her son to take Tio Juan back to the garden. There, the old man shows Gonzalo how to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. He has regained his dignity; he has "changed from a baby back into a man."
On her way home from the grocery store one day, Leona—an intelligent, middle-aged woman—notices three people working in different parts of a vacant lot. She sees that they have gardens growing, and she thinks that she would like to plant something too. Leona's grandmother back in Atlanta had taken a cup of goldenrod tea every day and had sworn that it was the secret to her longevity: she had lived to be ninety-nine. Leona decides that she will plant a patch of goldenrod for herself.
As she surveys the area, Leona is appalled by the amount of garbage in the lot; in some places, it is piled waist-high. She decides to do something about it and spends the next three days on the phone, trying to find the civic organizations responsible for the lot's upkeep. Finally, she goes down to the Public Health Department in person, taking a large, smelly bag of garbage from the lot down with her. Unable to ignore Leona with her conspicuous piece of evidence, officials finally meet with her and make arrangements to fix the problem.
When a crew of men in jumpsuits arrives to clean up the lot, Sam, a seventy-eight-year-old activist who has devoted his life to making the world a better place in one way or another, is intrigued. The idea that the land will be available to "anyone who want[s] a garden" puts him in mind of "Paradise, a small Garden of Eden." Sam decides that a garden is something he really wants. Because he is in no condition to dig up the soil himself, he hires a Puerto Rican teenager to do the job. In addition to providing monetary compensation for his work, Sam gives the teenager a row of his own to grow whatever he wishes. The teen at first wants to grow marijuana, but ultimately compromises, settling on pumpkins to sell at Halloween instead.
Sam notices right from the beginning that there is no way to irrigate the garden; people must bring water over in their own containers. There are other problems too. Individuals tend to start their plots near others whom they know, creating divisions among themselves defined by language and ethnicity. Also, there is pilfering, causing people to fence their gardens in to keep others out. Sam is sadly reminded of the human propensity towards disunity and reflects that "from Paradise, the garden [is] turning back into Cleveland."
Having just finished the last day of his fifth-grade year, Virgil is looking forward to sleeping in, but his father wakes him while it is still half dark. Virgil's father, who drove a bus back in Haiti and drives a cab here in Cleveland, is intent on planting some "baby lettuce, smaller than the regular kind" in the vacant lot that is being cleared nearby. He hopes to sell his crop at a profit to restaurants for use in "rich folks' salads." Virgil's father directs his son to prepare a large area of soil. When the older man is questioned about his claim's size, he insists genially that only a small part of the "plantation" is his. The rest belongs to relatives "who have no tools or who live too far." Virgil is amazed to hear his father lying. Virgil's father has promised to get him a new bike with the money made from the sale of the lettuce, and Virgil tends the crop scrupulously throughout the summer. Unfortunately, the lettuce comes up "in bunches instead of [in] straight rows" and begins to die as the temperatures rise. Envisioning his new bicycle slipping away, Virgil is at first angry. He then begins to feel sorry for his father. He prays to the Greek goddess of the earth to save the lettuce.
Sae Young came from Korea with her husband in search of work in America. They started a dry-cleaning shop together, but her husband died at an early age. Sae Young continued to work at the business, but one day, she was robbed and beaten. It has taken her a very long time to develop the confidence to venture out of the house again.
One day, on a brief excursion to the grocery store, Sae Young encounters a Vietnamese girl who is picking lima beans in a neighborhood garden. The peaceful sight revives the woman's desire to be among people, and she returns the next day to plant a small plot of her own. Sam, an "American man [who] talk[s] to everyone," comes over and asks about the peppers she is growing, and Sae Young is very glad for the company. Sam is concerned that the people must carry water from outside sources to the garden, and he starts a contest, challenging the children of the area to come up with ideas to solve the problem. The winner, a little black girl, suggests that garbage cans be brought in to catch the rain that comes out of the spouts on the buildings surrounding the garden. People can then scoop the water out into their containers and use it for their plants. Sae Young notices that some people have trouble pouring the water into their small containers and buys some funnels for everyone to use. She has become a valued member of the garden family and feels very happy to be able to contribute to the community effort.
Curtis, a handsome twenty-eight-year old, is in love with a girl named Lateesha. Five years ago, they had had "a real nice thing going," but Curtis had not been serious about settling down, so Lateesha had "cut [him] loose." Now, Curtis is ready for a lasting relationship, but Lateesha will not talk to him. Curtis decides to plant a garden in the lot beneath her third-story apartment, hoping that "deeds" will impress the love of his life. Knowing that Lateesha likes tomatoes, he plants the most impressive variety he can find. As he tends his garden, he takes flack from the partying locals with whom he used to associate. Curtis passively disregards them and remains focused on his goal. When some of his tomatoes are stolen, Curtis makes a deal with Royce, a homeless teen, who will guard the plot at night in exchange for a sofa on which to sleep. To protect his plot during the day, Curtis paints a big sign which he places right in front of the plants, facing the sidewalk. The sign says, "Lateesha's Tomatoes," and when he pounds it in, he looks up and sees Lateesha herself in the window of her third-floor apartment, looking down at him.
Nora is a British nurse who cares for Mr. Myles, an aging stroke victim who shows little interest in his surroundings. One day, as Nora pushes her patient in a wheelchair past a vacant lot on Gibb Street, he unexpectedly raises his hand, motioning for her to stop. In the lot, a few hardy individuals are tending gardens. Their nationalities are diverse, and many are growing plants from their native lands. Perceiving Mr. Myles's interest, Nora secures some gardening supplies and seeds, and when they return to the garden, she helps him plant "hollyhocks, poppies, and snapdragons." For the most part, Nora and her patient work apart from the others, but one day, it rains, and everyone seeks shelter beneath a shoe store's overhang two doors down. Using pantomime to overcome language barriers, Nora and Mr. Myles get to know their fellow gardeners, who share a common interest—the welfare of their plants.
The woman who runs the local high school's program for pregnant teens thinks that the experience of growing something will help her students appreciate "the miracle of life," so Maricela finds herself tending a garden in a vacant lot in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings. Maricela is "a Mexican, pregnant sixteen-year-old" who is angry and bitter about her situation, and she wishes that her unborn baby would die. One day, Leona comes over and gives Maricela some goldenrod, telling her that if she makes it into tea, it will help with her delivery. Leona knows that Maricela does not want to be pregnant, and Maricela feels that she can talk with her. Leona says that the garden, the seasons, and Maricela herself are a part of nature, and the way she tells it, Maricela can actually sense life's wonder and grandeur. For "just that minute," she becomes aware of the cycle of growth and rebirth around her, and stops hoping that her baby will die.
When he comes to America from India, Amir is surprised at the divisions he discerns among individuals; in America, "the object [seems to be] to avoid contact, to treat all as foes unless they're known to be friends." When he sees the garden in the vacant lot for the first time, he immediately recognizes its potential to bring people together. Amir himself chooses a plot of land and uses it to grow eggplants. The rich purple color of his crop entices people he does not even know to come over and talk to him. The sense of unity nurtured by the garden is manifested one day when a man with a knife snatches a woman's purse, and the men working in the garden spontaneously join together to bring the criminal to justice. Amir finds that the experience of working side-by-side with others enables individuals to see beyond stereotypes. A perfect example of this is the case of Royce, who, as a young black male, is at first looked upon with fear by some people. Once they get to know him, however, they find that he is trustworthy and likable; Royce is "not a black teenage boy...he [is] Royce."
In September, Royce and a "Mexican man" start a barbecue, which turns into an impromptu harvest festival. Amir gets to talk to many people, including one woman with whom he had gotten into an altercation at the store at which he works. The woman had called him a "dirty foreigner," and he boldly reminds her of this. The woman, horrified at her behavior, apologizes profusely, repeating over and over, "Back then, I didn't know it was you."
Years have passed, and Florence, the great-granddaughter of former slaves, remembers when the garden on Gibb Street first started. Since then, spigots and hoses have been installed, and landlords of the surrounding apartments now charge more rent for units that overlook the beautified area. Florence does not cultivate a plot herself, because she has arthritis in her hands, but she frequently stops by and watches. She is as "proud and protective" of the garden as if it was her own. Florence is sad every year in the fall, when the greenery turns brown and the people stop coming. In the winter, the garden is covered with snow; the wait for spring seems interminable, and it takes faith to believe that the garden will bloom again. When April finally comes and the temperatures begin to rise a little bit, Florence waits in anticipation, wondering if anyone will return. Finally, one day, she sees "a little Oriental girl" planting a bag of lima beans, and she is happy. It is as if she has just seen "the first swallow of spring."