Virgil stands with her father and watches the men clear the garbage from the lot. Her dad is from Haiti and he worked driving a bus there. In Cleveland, he drives a taxi. One of his clients tells him that he can make a lot of money selling a particular kind of baby lettuce to fancy restaurants. So he decides to take over five plots of the garden, all for planting baby lettuce. He puts Virgil to work cleaning and preparing the ground. When one of Virgil’s former teachers comments on how many plots of land they’ve taken, Virgil’s father replies that he is planting them for his relatives who aren’t able to. Soon enough, the lettuce begins to wilt and the bugs eat its leaves.
Soon, Sae Young also becomes involved in the garden. Sae Young and her husband moved from Korea to the United States for work. They opened a dry cleaning shop and planned to have children and give them an easier life. But they were never able to have children and Sae Young’s husband died young of a heart attack. One day, a man pulled a gun on her and robbed Sae Young’s shop. He kicked her and hit her head against a wall, breaking her cheekbone and putting her into a coma.
Sae Young was always a people person, with a large family and many friends. But after the attack she was homebound for months and became terrified of people. Slowly, she gets better. One day, she passes by the garden. She sees people working there and longs to be around people again. She decides to dig a small plot. Sam asks her about the hot peppers she is growing and Sae Young is happy to be interacting with others again.
There is no access to water at the garden and people must carry heavy buckets of water long distances in order to water their plants. So Sam starts a contest for the children, offering twenty dollars to the one who can come up with the best solution to this problem. The winner is a young Black girl who proposes using the spouts from surrounding buildings to collect rainwater in garbage cans. The next day it rains and everyone is pleased. Sae Young buys funnels to make it easier for people to transfer the water from the bins to their containers. She sees people using her funnels and she feels like a part of the garden, “[a]lmost like family.”
Curtis—who is known as Atlas or Ceps due to his large muscles—also starts a plot in the garden for planting tomatoes. He plants the tomatoes to show a woman named Lateesha, who lives right across the street from the garden, that he is waiting for her. Five years ago, when Curtis was younger, he and Lateesha dated. Yet Curtis had flings with other women, and Lateesha cut him off when she found out. Now, Curtis is back on Gibb Street and ready to settle down. He has heard Lateesha is single, but she ignores him. So, remembering that she has a deep love for tomatoes, he plants the biggest ones he can find. They grow beautifully and people from the street start taking them. So he puts chicken wire around them.
One day, he finds out that Royce—a Black fifteen-year-old from the neighborhood—is sleeping in the garden at night. His face is banged up and he says his father did it and threw him out. Curtis buys him a new sleeping bag and gives him money for food for the week. He also buys him a pitchfork, and asks him to use it to watch over the tomatoes. He also puts up a big sign that reads, “Lateesha’s Tomatoes.” Finally, he catches a glimpse of Lateesha looking at the sign through her window.
A British nurse named Nora, and her elderly, Black patient Mr. Myles, also become involved in the garden. Mr. Myles had a stroke and can no longer speak. Lately, his interest in the world seems to be declining. Yet one day, when they pass by the garden, Myles brightens up and he gestures to Nora to stop. Two days later, Nora buys seeds and a large plastic barrel. She cuts drainage holes in the barrel and fills it with dirt. This enables Myles to plant seeds from his wheelchair. He chooses only flowers. At first, Nora and Myles don’t interact with the others. But one day they are caught in a thunderstorm and take refuge under an awning with their fellow gardeners. There they meet everyone and become a proud part of the family.
In contrast, Maricela works in the garden but she doesn’t want to be there. Maricela is a sixteen-year-old girl of Mexican descent and she is pregnant. At first her parents were mad, but then they got excited and they won’t let her abort or adopt. Maricela feels the whole world is against her and she doesn’t want to have a baby. She participates in a G.E.D. program for pregnant teens. The program advisor, Penny, signs the girls up to work a plot at the community garden. Maricela hates working in the garden. She hates the vegetables they grow and the ones that people give to her.
One very humid day in August, Leona comes over. She gives Maricela some goldenrod and tells her if she prepares it in tea it will help with the delivery. Leona says she knows Maricela doesn’t want to be pregnant and she’s there if she wants to talk about it. Suddenly, thunder strikes, the power goes out, and it is very quiet in the garden. Leona talks about how plants and nature don’t run on electricity or clock time but rather the rain and the seasons, and about how Maricela is a part of that system. Her body is part of nature. Maricela enters a daze and for a minute she stops wanting to kill her baby.
Fleischman explores the themes of community and the collective through the efforts of the Gibb Street residents to turn the vacant lot into a vibrant garden. In the city at large, there are leaders with power. Cleveland residents must appeal to these leaders if they need something, just as Leona did in order to get the trash removed from the garden. Yet in the garden there are no leaders. Each person contributes in his or her own way, and each of these contributions is important to the whole.
Sae Young’s participation in the garden is a case in point. When she sees her fellow gardeners are having a hard time moving water, she buys funnels to make the work easier. Most likely, the other gardeners have no idea it was Sae Young who helped them in this way. Yet this does not matter. What matters is that through her small act, Sae Young is contributing to the greater good of the garden. For this reason, she feels that she forms a part of a larger whole.
Through Sae Young and many other characters, Fleischman highlights the themes of family and belonging. The participants in the community garden are not related by blood. However, they feel like they belong to a community—to a family even—due to their participation in the garden. Many of the families on Gibb Street are in some way broken. Kim lost her father. Wendell lost his wife and son. Sae Young’s husband died and she never had the children she wanted. Royce’s family kicked him out and he’s living on his own. Yet at the garden, each finds a sense of belonging, family and community. Many of the characters have also experienced hardship and trauma, and through their individual and collective work at the garden, they find solace, healing, and connection.
More broadly, Fleischman uses planting or gardening as a metaphor for community building. At the beginning of the novella, Gibb Street is a run-down, insecure, and desolate place. Its residents are for the most part isolated and divided, especially along lines of race, nationality, and language. Yet in planting a few seeds in the lot, Kim and those who follow her also plant seeds of community. This is because they must suddenly share a space, interact, and resolve problems together. As Nora, the nurse, remarks, “We, like our seeds, were now planted in the garden. ” They all become invested in their shared space, and in so doing, they become invested in each other and in their broader community.
In this sense, Fleischman presents nature as a great equalizer. While Gibb Street’s residents may all be very different from one another, in the eyes of nature there is far more that unites them than divides them. As Nora remarks: “Pantomime was often required to get over language barriers. Yet we were all subject to the same weather and pests, the same neighborhood, and the same parental emotions toward our plants.”
Fleischman continues to develop the role of nature through Leona’s speech to Maricela. Leona speaks about two different logics. The first is the logic of electricity and “clock time.” This is also the logic that governs the unequal city that the Gibb Street residents live in, in which their access to opportunities and services is unequal, and in which people like Maricela do not have the power to make decisions about their own lives. Yet the blackout highlights the fact that there is another logic: the logic of nature. The plants in the garden are unaffected by the blackout, since they are part of nature and they run on sunlight and the seasons. Leona tries to show Maricela that through nature it is possible to connect to something larger, to life itself. In so doing, it is possible to find a kind of meaning and freedom beyond the inequalities of the city and the lack of choices for people like her. In a daze, Maricela feels the power of this possibility, and for a moment, she stops wishing for her baby to die.