Give Me Your Rusty Metal and Your Beautiful Decay

Last night, I gleefully laid out the collection of items I had purchased from the flea market onto the floor and imagined how I will use them in the future. Most of the items were purchased for the garden and some will make an appearance in the photos I take for future book and assignments.

Most of the items that show up in my work projects are also used by me in my home. Few are purchased for one-time usage and then shuffled out the door. Perhaps it would be better that way, but I am a collector, always have been. Still, I can’t recycle the same plates, bowls, and fabrics book after book, photo after photo, so to keep things fresh, I collect an affordable hodgepodge of items that I like, primarily from thrift shops. I’ve never really been into sets anyway. It’s one part of my job that gives me an excuse to indulge in a whim that I would be otherwise forced to curb. It is why I go to the effort of dragging home dirty curbside “treasures” on my bike and why I fill up my luggage with special canning jars when I go away on business trips. In truth, I was doing these things before it became a part of my job — this just gives me the justification I need to continue.


Part of a burgeoning collection of rusty witches’ cauldrons. Some are used as pots. Some just sit there. What can I say? I like them.

Davin looked on lazily as I went through a sort-of ritual of assembling and disassembling the motley collection. Lay the items out. Ponder their use. Put them away. Pull them out again for a second glance. I looked up at him and remarked that laid out like that, I could see that what I had purchased that afternoon amounted to a pile of crap. If it is rusted, dirty, broken, and has sat unused in the back of a barn or storage shed for at least a decade, chances are good that I will buy it and bring it home. As long as the price is right.

There I sat, like a kid with new toys, delighting in a pile of wares that most people would identify as garbage. I’m like a bird seeking out shiny things, but the things I seem to like most are tarnished, pocked, and laden in a patina of filth.

“They’re for your Tickle Trunk,” Davin said.

“But I don’t collect costumes — I’m not Mr. Dressup.”

“It amounts to the same thing. You use them to tell your stories.”


Antique cobbler shoe lasts that will sit in the garden and hold up nothing.


Old tools. They’re all still in excellent shape and will be used in the garden. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.


I didn’t buy these, but I wanted to. They’d make great planter boxes. But at $75 a pop, they are not within my budget, nor do I think they were worth the hefty price-tag regardless. Someone with more dollars and less sense can have them. I tend to stick to things in the $1-15 range.


I loved this old bird mansion with the adorable topiary bushes flanking the doorway, but again, too expensive. I may be a sucker for junk, but I don’t drop $60 on things that are falling apart no matter how beautifully decrepit they may be. I have my limits. It is also far too big for my small yard.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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15 thoughts on “Give Me Your Rusty Metal and Your Beautiful Decay

  1. I love that bird house. I wouldn’t have spent that much on it either. I inherited a gaggle of good quality, rusty garden tools awhile back and just ended up painting the wood handles in granny colors (pastel-ish pink, minty green, kelly green) and they look awesome.

  2. Wow, those are great finds from the flea market! There’s several around where I live, so I’ve taken a liking to collecting beautiful, vintage plates.

    Those boxes are beautiful, but I agree – not really worth $75.

  3. You’re better than me, Gayla! Shelled out more times than I care to admit for those vintage-looking wooden boxes.

  4. I honestly LOVE seeing things like this in gardens. I’ve got plenty of found objects or things that were meant for the garbage heap and gave them a home in my gardens. Favorite find is a large rusted table/basket/THING that I am going to turn into a succulent planter [maybe ice plants... the options are endless!]… yesss….
    I would love you for a neighbour. ?

  5. You can never have too much enamelware! And a few chips off the edges just adds to the character of the item. Great for use in the garden, and for camping too.

  6. Sixty dollars? I would have told them birdhouse needs a paint job and offered $6.00! The Rust Collecting syndrome might be a new form of OCD and could be in the new DSM-5.
    Or you might have been reincarnated from a farming era when they used those tools. [Wondering whether you might be taking demoted Pluto's place out there in the orbit of the ninth planet?]

  7. Flea markets are great, but make sure you never tell them that you plan to plant something in their junk. They tend to not like to hear that their rescued treasures will end up outside filled with dirt.

  8. A few years back, around 50, if I’m honest, my grandmother had a large area at the back of her bungalow used for a vegetable patch and keeping a half dozen or so chickens.
    But more to the point she also had a large collection of enamel and various other metal, often rusty containers, some were copper I think that she had collected over the years from various sources probably paying nothing for them. She used them mainly for storing water in various locations around her garden plot. She also had some planted up with plants that always seemed to be in flower, winter and summer.
    As a 10 year old boy at the time, I wish I had paid more attention. But metal containers, rusty or otherwise have always interested me to this day.

  9. love your collection, love abundance and imbellishment, reminds me of 2 favorite books by Mary Darter Randolph, Garden Junk and Love of the OLd, hope I’m remembering correctly

  10. I went so far as to own a consignment/resale store for 10 years, to give my obsession an outlet!! (for me it’s textiles/costumes.. with garden detriment being a close 2nd!)

  11. Try not to place cauldrons where they can be stolen, seem to be treasured by some for cooking.
    Enjoy gardening in them.

  12. Maybe the same personality trait that creates gardeners also creates lovers of old stuff. I have a collection of old gardening tools that were my parents. I really like the cauldrons!

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