On Free-Range Foraging

Is There Anything You Can’t Find on Our Hill Streets?

490
Bruce Brennan's painting, Chris Alvear's screen, and a thrift shop chandelier are among the neighborhood finds on the back porch.

Capitol Hill spills over with extraordinary finds. People are forever flitting off on mysterious and important missions, choosing to discard that which just won’t fit on the truck or suit wherever they’re headed.  Invariably, there are treasures to be found in the leaving. These often land on sidewalks on Thursday, bulk trash day. One salivates.

And bless Marie Kondo. I’m so tired of hearing about her – but what a wealth of fabulous things keeps turning up. While we used to have a thrift shop across from the Marine Barracks (which is sorely missed), now the finds are at yard sales – if not on the streets.

What’s particularly wonderful about these droppings is that so many have a charming patina of age and a level of craftsmanship that no longer exists – except at rarified price points. Old things, yes, but hardly junk.

I am not a hoarder. I simply believe in layering. Perhaps more layering than most people would be comfortable with – and does this neighborhood ever feed my habit.

That my garden, and my home for that matter, resembles an Ann Rice novel—as a dear friend once said – brings me joy.

The garden has particularly benefited.

The back garden includes a pair of discarded Victorian chairs and a dumpster door we reclaimed for the garage.

Like with the two rusting Victorian iron folding chairs that were dumped in an alley, waiting for the garbage truck. Gregory, my sweet-tempered husband, sanded them and painted them verdigris; they’re wonderful on the garden path, a place to settle in beside the pond and watch the feeder fish—goldfish commonly fed to your boa constrictor that we buy ten for a buck. The raccoons consider them lagniappes.

Then came two large, rather elegant urns – trés Frontgate –in a composite material that looks like stone. These are perfect for summering the parlor palms and filling with spring bulbs, pansies, and ornamental cabbages for winter color. Another large urn, this one cast iron, sits on the front porch and is home to the sago palm.

One of the back porch sofas was found on the street, the other at a yard sale along with the wicker chairs and ottomans, and a plaster birdbath. A fanciful painting of what looks like a plump, cigar smoking South American dictator rendered (more or less) in the style of Botero was a yard sale find too – thank you Bruce Brennan!

And that late lamented thrift shop was the source of our porch chandelier, and the fish pond, which was dropped off by Becky Dye who was putting in a larger one. I do like to know the provenance of my discoveries whenever possible.

The chandelier crystals came from a neighbor who was cleaning out his basement. Of COURSE I want your crystals, need you even ask? Which reminds me that Gabrielle Hill donated a large chunk of amethyst, which sits on a bed of moss next to the pond fountain; amethyst being a barrier to psychic attack, a chronic concern.

We paid a bargain price for the porch screen, a four-panel turquoise number inset with mirrors. That was from Alvear Studios, when Chris was closing the shop. Having never seen anything like it before, I still count it as a find.

Artfully broken fountain with amathyst crystal on a mossy bed.

But the beautiful door to the garage, which has been tarted up to resemble a cottage, came from a dumpster on Massachusetts Avenue – thick wood and antique glass panes ready to be hung with just some minor fidgeting (I didn’t do the fidgeting, so I consider it minor, there might be some disagreement on this) and a few coats of turquoise paint.

Plants are a little harder to come by, but we have benefitted from friends moving away and tendering their babies to our care. There have also been several beauties abandoned as cold weather approaches, which I’ve been happy to adopt, being lucky enough to have a little second floor greenhouse to nurture my oranges and lemons, hibiscus and jasmine during the colder months.

Always useful is the 6-foot fake ficus found outside an office building on 8th Street; a handy filler when something dies, as something always does. As long as you keep your fakes to – oh – 10% of the garden, they count as witty. Here’s looking at you fake lawns. Not in the least bit funny. But that’s another column.

Such abundance has forced us to grow pickier about our pickings, having filled needs several times over. We now look only for the rare and wonderful. For instance…

Two enormous Persian rugs that a woman was putting out on the sidewalk – they were too big for the narrow row house she’d just moved into. Clearly hand-made, we had them valued at $7,000 each if we want to sell them. They’re not in the garden but this was such a ridiculous find — how could I not mention them?

Another day, our 1989 Mustang rattle-trapped past a pile of something that needed inspection, so I put Greg in reverse and we discovered a bistro table and chairs, another Victorian find, that someone decided was beyond repair. The wooden tabletop was broken in three, the chair seats were busted through.  But the base of the table and the chair frames were lovely twisted iron that was so fine it would give your decorator palpitations.

Flipping things about. I’m also happy that we gave a home to two handsome wooden arm chairs that we found on South Carolina Avenue, stained driftwood grey, and used on the front porch for years. When we decided to swap them out for something new this summer, they were quickly carried off by a young couple.

It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? That our things move from house to house gaining layers of pleasure. Like those little libraries that are scattered about. We’re sharing with a highly extended family.

Here’s where I count myself an extremely fortunate woman. Forget the lawyers, the doctors (except, perhaps, a plastic surgeon), the politicians, and certainly no journalists. Indeed, we once hired a hungry journalist to assist with the repainting of the front of the house with disastrous results. But that’s another story.

What you want, at a certain stage of life, is someone who still has enough muscle to haul stuff around, and the skill to fix anything—from a busted lamp to, in this case, a cunning little bistro set, which now has a restored top, stained a deep cherry, and new seats for the chairs.

This will be the centerpiece of my little greenhouse this winter, perfectly lovely nestled among the tropical blossoms, I fancy.

Then, someday, the set will move along, bringing enjoyment to someone new.

Among other things, Stephanie Cavanaugh writes a weekly gardening column, of sorts, for mylittlebird.com