Amir, a businessman who moved to Cleveland from India, grows eggplants, onions, carrots, and cauliflower in the garden. His pale purple eggplants cause curiosity among his fellow gardeners, who use them as an excuse to talk to him. He knows some of them from the neighborhood but they’ve never spoken before, and now he discovers they are friendly.
The garden unites the residents. One day someone dumps a load of tires on the garden and they all collaborate to lift them up. Another day, a man with a knife tries to rob a woman, and Amir, Royce, and another man run after him and catch him. Amir realizes that all the stereotypes he has heard about Polish people and others are shallow and worthless.
For example, some of the gardeners were initially afraid of Royce because “[h]e was young and black” and “[h]e looked rather dangerous.” However, they soon learn that Royce has a stutter, likes stray cats, and is good with his hands. The gardeners begin to give Royce food, and in turn he weeds and waters their gardens and makes other repairs. Royce becomes popular and beloved among the gardeners.
In September, a Mexican family throws a celebration at the garden. They build a fire and roast a pig on a metal spit. Friends arrive with musical instruments. Amir compares the party to an Indian harvest festival, since all of the gardeners show off what they’ve grown and share their bounty with the others.
Florence, the descendant of freed enslaved people from Lousiana, cannot participate in the garden due to the arthritis in her hands. However, she has watched the garden attentively from the beginning and she feels proud and protective of it. She also notices others in the neighborhood who, although they are unable to participate, watch the garden attentively from their windows or on their walks.
Florence’s great-grandparents walked all the way from Louisiana to Colorado. Her father called them their seedfolks, since they were the first of their family to settle there. Florence calls the first people who started the Gibb Street garden seedfolks. The seedfolks were there before the garden had spigots, hoses, a toolshed, and new dirt, and before the landlords started charging higher rent for the apartments that have views of the garden.
Florence says it’s hard to see the garden turn brown every fall, but it was especially hard that first year. The garden had brought the neighborhood alive and now it was quiet and covered with snow. Florence worried that maybe the garden wouldn’t continue. That year it snowed twice in April. But eventually, spring came. And one day, Florence saw the first of the seedfolks—Kim—digging into the ground to plant her lima beans.
The novella closes with a note from the author, Paul Fleischman, entitled “From Seed to Seedfolks,” which explains how he created and developed Seedfolks. Fleischman got the idea for Seedfolks when he read an article about a psychotherapist who used gardening to help her patients. He was also inspired by his parents, who were dedicated gardeners. His mother was also a volunteer at a therapeutic garden for veterans. She died several years before the publication of Seedfolks. This inspiration, combined with Fleischman’s interest in writing a book about recent immigrants to the United States, led to the creation of Seedfolks. In general, Fleischman writes books designed to bring people together, and Seedfolks was no exception.
Fleischman presents the garden as a place where residents can challenge the normal rules of American society and function according to a different logic—one more oriented toward community and generosity. The role of the garden as a space with alternative rules comes to the foreground through the author’s characterization of Amir, a businessman from India. As a businessman, Amir is “trained to give away nothing.” According to this logic, everything is about profit, and humans can only get what they need by spending money. However, in the garden, the participants trade harvests and gift what they’ve grown to others.
Furthermore, Amir notes that in America, everyone aims to “avoid contact, to treat all as foes unless they’re known to be friends.” However, the beautiful, purple eggplants he grows “[give] them an excuse for breaking the rules and starting a conversation. How happy they seemed to have found this excuse, to let their natural friendliness out.” In this way, Fleischman implies that most people are naturally friendly and long for connection and community. However, it is the stereotypes and prejudices that we have about others who are different from us, combined with cultural norms, that cause us to be isolated, divided, and suspicious.
Many of the diverse residents of Gibb Street have prejudiced ideas of their neighbors, often based on cultural and racial stereotypes. For example, Amir has heard that many Polish people live in Cleveland. Yet he’s never actually met anyone Polish. All he knows about them are stereotypes: that the men are tough steelworkers and the women cook lots of cabbage. In the garden, he befriends an old Polish woman and learns about her experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Hearing her story, Amir reflects on “how useless was all that I’d heard about Poles, how much richness it hid, like the worthless shell around an almond.” For this reason, according to Amir, “the garden’s greatest benefit...was not relief to the eyes, but to make the eyes see our neighbors.”
Similarly, an Italian woman who once called Amir a “dirty foreigner” now strikes up a conversation with Amir about his beautiful eggplants. When Amir reminds her of her comments, she apologizes profusely, noting that “Back then, I didn’t know it was you….” Before the woman knew Amir personally, all she thought she knew about him was based on cultural stereotypes about people from India and new immigrants in general. But once the garden provides her with an opportunity to actually get to know Amir as a real, individual person, those assumptions fade away, and she is able to truly interact with him. Amir sums up this shift in perspective that the garden enables through the gardeners’ new perception of Royce: “He was not a black teenage boy. He was Royce.”
While the gardeners may be separated by language and culture, Amir realizes that they have far more in common than they realize. When the Mexican family throws a party, Amir doesn’t know if they are celebrating a particular Mexican holiday or just throwing a party for the sake of it. Yet the gardeners’ abundant sharing of the food they’ve grown reminds Amir of the harvest festivals that people celebrate in India. Across many cultures, celebrating and sharing a bountiful harvest is a common tradition that unites community members.
Immigration is a central theme in Seedfolks. In the final chapter, narrated by Florence, the author explains the meaning of the term seedfolks, which gives the book its title. Florence says her great-grandparents were her family’s seedfolks, since they were the first of their family to settle in Colorado. They planted their family’s seeds there so that its members could grow and flourish.
Similarly, many of the participants in the Gibb Street garden are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. They or their ancestors planted their family’s seeds in Cleveland. However, many of them do not feel part of the neighborhood and leave the first chance they get. The Gibb Street garden changes that.
Florence says that the first Gibb Street gardeners are seedfolks, since they took the initiative to transform the vacant lot when all that was there was trash. Later, the garden obtained more amenities, and rents in the area even went up. But the first gardeners put in their hard work, time, and commitment before there was anything there. They planted their seeds so that the garden—and the neighborhood more broadly—could grow and flourish.