A trash-filled, vacant lot rests in a poor, crime-infested Cleveland neighborhood. Immigrants chiefly inhabit the neighborhood. When a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl named Kim plants bean seeds to honor her dead father, she unknowingly starts a change. Each chapter of Seedfolks is narrated by a different character.
Ana, an elderly Romanian woman, sees Kim from her window and assumes the girl is hiding drugs. Ana sneaks out to dig for contraband and pulls up Kim’s plants. Ashamed by her error, she tries to replant them. She enlists the help of a neighbor named Wendell to revive them.
Wendell, a school janitor, is a Kentucky transplant. His son was shot dead in the street, and his wife died in a car wreck. When he sees Kim’s plants, he decides she’s on to something. He plants some seeds of his own.
Gonzalo is a young man from Guatemala. He sees how his relatives who immigrate seem to become more childlike and lose their dignity in an English-speaking culture. His great uncle, Juan, seems utterly lost in America, until he discovers the emerging garden in the vacant lot. Farming is something Juan knows well, and he begins to find his place and his manhood again, as he plants his own garden.
Lenora, a black woman from Atlanta, passes the garden one day. She’s impressed to see a handful of people working the lot and decides to do her part by helping get the trash removed. After spending fruitless hours on the phone with government entities, she takes a bag of stinky trash from the lot to the proper officials. Soon they agree to see her. Men in jumpsuits start clearing away the trash, and residents learn that everyone is invited to plant in the lot.
An aging Jewish man, Sam, calls himself a pacifist. He’s spent his life trying to sew up the rips between people. He tries to talk and show kindness to everyone he meets in the neighborhood. Sam hires a Puerto Rican teen to grow pumpkins for him, after rejecting the boy’s suggestion they grow marijuana.
Sam is saddened to see the garden has become racially segregated, much like the neighborhood itself. People even start building high fences around their plots. He now likens the lot, which he once referred to as the garden of Eden, to the tower of Babel.
Sam recognizes the gardeners are struggling due to the lack of access to water. Many haul several heavy jugs a day to keep their plants alive. He creates a contest for school-age children, offering a prize of $20 to anyone who can provide a creative solution for the water problem. One girl wins by suggesting they catch rain in trash bins.
Virgil is a boy from Haiti whose father drives a taxi. When Father hears about the garden, he polls all of his customers about what to grow to make money. They tell him many fancy restaurants pay well for a certain kind of small-leaf lettuce. He and Virgil have no knowledge of gardening. They plant lettuce and struggle to keep it alive. Finally, other gardeners offer wise planting advice, and their garden thrives.
Sae Young, from Korea, ran a dry-cleaning shop with her husband. They couldn’t have children, and her husband died of a heart attack at age 37. After being robbed at gunpoint and attacked, Sae Young can barely bring herself to leave the house. She is lonely and lives in fear.
When she sees the garden and the community, she realizes she wants to be around people again. She starts her own garden and begins to meet her neighbors. Sae Young sees people struggling to get water into their jugs from the trash bins, so she provides funnels. People use them regularly, and she feels proud to have made a contribution.
Curtis is a young black man in his 20s. A few years earlier, he was obsessed with his body and working out. His pride cost him his relationship with Latisha, who wanted to get married and settle down, rather than run with an arrogant, immature boy. Curtis decides it’s time to show Latisha that he’s changed. He wants to win her back.
Curtis knows Latisha loves tomatoes, so he picks out a spot below her window and plants them. He initially knows little about growing anything, but he becomes a student with the help of his neighboring gardeners. After some of his produce goes missing, he hires a homeless boy to guard his plants. He puts up a sign near his plot that says, “Latisha’s Tomatoes.” He can tell that he has Latisha's attention.
Nora is the British nurse for a man named Mr. Miles. Mr. Miles has had several strokes and can’t speak. They discover the garden one day when Nora is pushing him in his wheelchair. She puts dirt in a tall trash can and buys seeds so he can reach his own plot of land. He enjoys planting his flower garden.
Maricela is a pregnant, 16-year-old Mexican girl with a bad attitude. Her parents refuse to let her consider abortion or adoption, so she hopes for a miscarriage. She and two other pregnant teens are part of an education program where the leader makes them garden. She wants them to learn to care for things and keep them alive. While working in the garden, Maricela meets and bonds with Leona. Leona helps her realize she’s part of nature, an amazing, ancient system of growth in the world. Maricela begins to see it as an honor to be pregnant, and she starts to wish less often that her baby will die.
Amir is an Indian man. He finds people speak to him out of curiosity when they see the eggplants he grows. He and some other men chase down a thief who steals a woman’s purse in the neighborhood. He says neither he nor the other men had ever done anything brave like that before. But the garden has brought the neighborhood together and causes them to look out for one another. Amir tells about someone bringing food to the garden and the whole group having a celebration. Stereotypes and prejudices are broken down as the gardeners eat and talk together.
Florence and her family were the first black people in her county. Her father always referred to them as seedfolks. She says she thinks of that term whenever she passes the neighborhood garden. The garden has grown and changed significantly since Kim’s chapter. Better irrigation and regulations have been put into place. Landlords have even begun charging more when people move into apartments that overlook the garden. Florence notes that it’s hard to watch winter take over and kill the garden. It’s also sad not seeing the people congregating there. But after months of cold and darkness, she sees Kim out planting again.