What do you do with a bag of left over concrete (Quikrete) and a mammoth elephant ear plant (colocasia) nearing it’s certain and impending death? Well, if you’re two friends that are crazy for gardening and all things nature-like you make your own garden art! And that’s what my friend Amelia and I did. Keep reading to learn from our mistakes.
*Disclaimer – I need to be clear and upfront here… neither one of us had done this before and we were pretty much winging it. This tutorial shows how we did it. She had the goods (the plant and concrete mix) and I had the motivation. Oh and I did bring a jar of vaseline and gloves. Amelia looked at me funny on that one… but now it’s starting to sound like a bad adult film. I don’t know why I brought that, it seemed logical when I grabbed it. I’ve watched too many how to project shows but didn’t pay close enough attention apparently which leads to the disclaimer part. Always use protective safety equipment and follow instructions on bag of whatever mix you choose. I won’t be held liable if you go and suck in a bunch of concrete dust making you go nuts and causing you to smear concrete mix all over your driveway or yard or car or neighbor’s dog. Whatever… you get it, right?
On with the tutorial of how we made our lovely, albeit a little bit rough but still fun, garden art with leaves out of the garden. Amelia wanted to make a birdbath to sit on a log and I had visions of small leaves hanging with pretty cord and displayed here and there around the landscaping. So along with the giant elephant ears, we snipped some smaller ones and a couple coral bell leaves (heurchera). Any deeply veined leaf will work well. Or anything with a lot of texture for that matter. Just know that it probably will be ruined after you pull it off the concrete. See I’m thinking somewhere around this time is where the vaseline would come into play, but I digress.
Here’s a list of items you might need. (Notice I said might because this was our first time after all.)
- Bag of ready to use concrete mix (the Quikrete sets fast)
- Sand – we used sand underneath because we thought it would allow us to form the concrete into the leaves easier and we thought we could get make a mound for the indention in the bird bath (Sounds good, right? We thought so too.)
- Leaves with the stem cut off for forms or whatever you want to texture the concrete with
- Cardboard to leave everything on while it sets up
- Heavy plastic – we used heavy duty trash bags under the sand so we could easily reuse the sand and also so the wetness of the concrete wouldn’t soak through and make the cardboard fall apart
- More plastic – we used plastic wrap out of the kitchen to cover the sand and then put our leaf on it and then poured the concrete mix on top of the leaf.
- Gloves – for obvious reasons
- Water – plenty of water for mix and clean up
- Patience – cause we had to wait 48 hours for it to set
- Paint – Optional, to paint your leaf after it’s completely cured
- Money – to go buy pretty garden art if yours turns out to look like crap
Step 1 – Prepare your work area
We were fighting the wind, so we put down scrap wood to hold the trash bag in place. Have your buckets and water ready to go. The concrete set up faster than I expected (at least to a point to where you couldn’t mess with it any longer without it crumbling. Crumbling = no good. Then we poured what play sand she had down on the plastic and we wet it down slightly so that it sticks together (like for a good sandcastle) for the biggest leaf to be the bird bath and made a mound. We had a little extra sand that we saved for the other leaves. Place your big leaf down on the plastic now. It did help to have an extra set of hands. Also remember that you want the deeply veined side to be up touching the concrete and the mound needs to mounded up to hold water, not a well (think opposites and end result when you’re casting).
Now would be a good time to use the bathroom, too. Just sayin’.
» I’m going to list information I found out after the fact so you can have a successful project and learn from our mistakes. I’ll start here: I found on a few different sites that for a bird bath that will be deep enough to hold water, you really need a 4″ wide flat area at the top mound for a proper depth for a birdbath to have a deep enough well to hold water for the birdies. I also found on another site when making your mound, pat it down really good and solid so it has less chance of collapsing or just shrinking making your bird bath too shallow. Hint: Birds usually only want their baths no more than a couple inches deep. You also need to taper the edges but don’t go any thinner than 3/8″ for stability and so they won’t break easily.
Step 2 – Mix concrete
After cutting our leaves off that we planned to use, we mixed up a batch of concrete with water in some buckets she had. Amelia did most of the mixing and she just used a hefty stick to stir. We just eye balled it and made a mixture that was like pretty thick brownie batter. Brownie batter with rocks in it. Yum. Don’t breath in the concrete dust as you pour. Her house is on a hill and always breezy so the dust was whisked away.
» Found out a few different mixtures for the concrete “batter”. Birds & Blooms used this: mix three parts contractor’s sand to one part Portland cement. Mix 1/4 cup of water and 1/4 cup of concrete fortifier, and add slowly to the sand until it reaches the consistency of a thick brownie batter. On Flickr, I found a suggestion to use vinyl patch concrete that comes in 40 lb bags and doesn’t have rocks in it for a smoother and better impression of the leaf. I plan to use this vinyl patch concrete next time I do this project.
Okay it’s been a couple weeks since we’ve done this… I’m trying to remember what we did in the order we did it.
Step 3 (I think) -Pour the concrete on the leaf
We patted the freshly mixed concrete on top of the big leaf that we had previously placed on top of the plastic wrap which was on top of the sand. I’m not entirely sure we even needed the plastic kitchen wrap and it was a hassle to work with in the wind. We smoothed the concrete on all over the leaf and tried to get it on evenly. We were careful to stop at the edges of the leaf, but on the finished product you will notice it looks like we were really sloppy with it. We weren’t – I think the weight of the concrete and gravity along with me damming up the sides, made it slide and sink into the sand mound making it set without any pretty veining or leaf edge structure.
» To stop this from happening to your leaf garden art – Make sure you have enough sand (went and sticking together) to make large mounds. Remember to pat your mounds into solid structures and this will require water (think making sandcastles). One site even mentioned using a wok (without the knob) to form the bowl (for water) underneath the leaf but on top of the sand. You need to use vegetable oil all over the wok so the concrete won’t stick to it just in case or it may not be removable! (maybe this is wear I was getting the vaseline idea) While talking about oil, one site said to rub vegetable oil on the leaf so it will come off the concrete easier when it’s cured. Someone mentioned they just used cooking non-stick spray instead of vegetable oil and that worked great.
I’m also going to say here that plastic in between the leaf and sand is a good idea. Remember me saying with the wind it was a hassle? Well on the smaller ones we didn’t use the plastic and just placed it on the sand. When I brought home my share of the garden art leaves we had created, I noticed that the sand was hard to get off the concrete. I used a stiff brush and then noticed that doing that revealed the bumpy gravel in the concrete! I think I took off part of the smooth concrete with my too vigorous brushing. Lesson learned: If you place it directly on sand, use water and your fingers to gently get sand off and be patient. Better yet – Use a thick plastic sheet like found in the paint department to cover the sand entirely and not have this problem in the first place.
Another after the fact realization: Below you can see us adding small leaves to put concrete on. You can also see that our sand is not wet enough and there is not enough of it. I thought it would form the leaf and you had to have it, but now I think if you’re wanting something flat, like say a stepping stone you won’t even need the sand. Remember if you’re wanting stepping stones to make them very thick like the squares you buy – they are like what? 2″ thick?
Step 4 – Step back and admire your handy work
Do you see my friend Amelia (above photo) moving a leaf on cardboard? She had created that one by herself before I got there, oh maybe an hour or two before. She decided to move it over with the others we had just finished so it would be out of the way for curing time (48 hours). Just picking it up put enough bend in the cardboard to crack the leaf. We had hoped that it would still be intact and the crack would seal itself since it hadn’t been that long but it didn’t. The finished piece crumbled and broke apart. Lesson: Do not move them once you start.
We were cleaning up and feeling good about our accomplishment when I remembered I had forgotten to put holes in my smaller leaves to string cord or wire through. I took a stick and gently worked it in. Now I’d say less than 15 minutes had gone by (and this was a windy dry fall day) but I decided to not continue putting in sticks because I could tell already I was crumbling the concrete. I didn’t want to run the risk of ruining them all since I had just seen Amelia move hers and crack it. Lesson: Insert stick or wire immediately when you’ve covered your leaf with concrete.
Below is another photo by Amelia of the concrete leaves that have finished curing. She has just removed them from the sand, taken off the plastic and removed the leaves from all but the big one. I wasn’t present during this part but I read on other sites that you may have to scrape parts of the leaf off with something like a chopstick to get to leaf remains out of the deeper veining. I didn’t ask Amelia if she had a hard time with this part, but obviously others had. I’m guessing if you use the veggie oil or non-stick spray on the leaf prior to adding the concrete, that would eliminate any sticking problem.
After all this, I am still quite smitten with our first try efforts. Here’s some beauty shots of my share of the bounty 🙂
Okay wait, here (the large one on the left) is a perfect example of the concrete going over the edges and then setting up that way. This must’ve happened after we were finished and left it alone because I’m pretty sure we left our edges as neat as possible. I don’t think I can get that off with any chiseling because the edges are a bit crumbly from being too thin I guess. While I don’t like this globbiness at all, I’m not tossing these. I plan to paint them and I can bury the rough part under some mulch and it won’t be so noticeable.
You can also see that sand is still on them if you look close enough. Now, I was in a hurry when I photographed these and racing the sun going down for light. Had it been warmer and I had picked a better time to do the picture taking, I might have gotten the sand off with a simple rinse. I’m not sure. But in my haste I grabbed a stiff brush and began scrubbing. You can see the most roughed up one is the top right leaf if you look closely. I do want to mention that the larger one looks much smoother than the small ones. I think this may have something to do with it being a different mixed up batch of concrete and maybe it wasn’t wet enough. It could also be the concrete was already drying while we were laying it on, who knows. I’m no concrete expert. I would love to know though. Please tell me if you know why.
Now, on with the photos.
So there you have it, my first go at making garden art with live leaves and concrete. It has got me wanting to do more for sure. I better get a move on though, frost is just around the corner.
If you decide to give it a whirl, I’d love for you to link back here in the comments so I can see your garden art! While this is not a perfect tutorial, I hope you’ve learned something from our mistakes and what is it they say… “if you can’t be a good example you’ll just have to be horrible warning” LOL… (Catherine Aird)
I’ll post an update when I paint these. Please come back and check them out! If you’re like me and will probably forget, why don’t you just sign up to get my blog posts sent to your email and then you’ll know when I post them. Don’t worry, I won’t fill up your inbox and it’s easy to unsubscribe if you ever want to. To sign up all you gotta do is put your email in the field under “Have my blog posts emailed” on the left and click “Sure, sign me up!” Hey, while you’re at it I’d love to have you sign up for my art newsletter, too!