Twigology -Working with Naturals
Working with naturals found from nature can be an ever-evolving pursuit in itself. With a little imagination, nature can be your craft and supply store. Grab a cuppa and dig in. You’ll find a lot of ideas in here.
The one main caveat: anything natural isn’t permanent. Whatever you make out of anything natural will/can last for years and years if it’s treated and sealed but it is still organic and will not last forever – especially if left outside in the rain and the weather. But you can still get many years of enjoyment out of your creations. Remember to photograph your work when it’s look its best so you have something to show for it!
Leave any questions in the comments below or in the forum!
Harvest naturals when it’s dry out for the best results so you can see if they are bug and mold-free. If you bring home wet or damp items, leave them outside under cover until you know they are “clean.” Consider seed pods and stems too, for a mix of materials for your arsenal.
The fairy house shown in the two photos above are made from a Juniper stump that we had to remove from our garden. I got Steve to shave off most of the branches to make it manageable. The doors/scale are medium sized or half-inch scale.
Make notches in the twigs where the two places meet for a better join. You might be tempted to glue them but wire them too – as most glues will eventually fail in the moisture and weather in a miniature garden.
A wooden trug decorated with branches to look more fairy-like. The tops of the two fairy lanterns are beech tree pods that I drilled and hung curly-wires on, then mounted the pod on a short stick which was staked into the garden bed.
Intro to Twigology
Twigs can be used for a lot of props in a mini garden. A variety of furniture can be made, chairs, benches, fairy huts, arbors, decks and more. If you want fun and fantasy to add to your fairy garden or miniature garden that doesn’t cost much, twigs are an endless source of inspiration and crafting. In the fairy realm, almost anything goes, but in our miniature gardening where realism is critical, stick with the “faux bois” idea for the most realistic accessories.
Faux Bois refers to the artistic imitation of wood, branches or wood grains in various media, like cement or cast-in-metal. Often used to make furniture, frames or architectural details.
And every twig is different too. The Spirea tree gives me shiny, straight, skinny branches. The Cedar hedge has the rustic look down with its textured bark, the Madrona tree has branches that are a lovely shade of red, and they get more interesting with age too. Even the dreaded English Ivy has useful potential when thinking about mini garden accessories.
- Bend them for miniature arbors and trellises when they are just harvested and still supple. (See the new video below!) If you don’t have time to complete the project right there and then, at least bend them and let them dry the “right way” by bending them gently into the right sized box, with a gentle curve to the top and the sides parallel to each other. You can put the cross pieces on later by wrapping wire neatly around where the two pieces join.
- With any ivy, hops or strawberry vines, work with it while it’s fresh too. You can wind it in circles for wreaths, (see video below,) or ovals for future mini arbors, or door and window frames, and let dry and work with later.
- When making fences, notch the join for a more secure fit. Use a small handsaw and a sharp knife to whittle out the notches to make country/rustic-looking fences. Then put the notches together and wrap the wire around it. Shown at left – it’s also in the first Gardening in Miniature book on page 212. (Let me know if you want to see more info on this – in the forum or in the comments below!)
- Figure out a simple crosshatch wrap for your wire joins to the wire to keep it at a minimum. If you wrap the wire around the join too many times it looks clunky and contrived. Jewelry pliers and wire cutters are great for this kind of work.
- Don’t overwork the wire by constantly twisting the wire. Just twist the wire and be done. (Called ‘metal fatigue.’) This gets better with practice.
- Any fresh material you harvest will eventually dry out. Drying times differ due to the density of the cone/seedpod/leaf and the humidity in the air wherever you are working. For most areas, if you want it to dry faster, bring it inside your house. You can use an low-temperature oven to speed things up but it may make the twig too brittle. Experiment with this beforehand if you are making an important project.
- If you are building with fresh branches, note that after the twig dries the twig will shrink a bit and you’ll have to tighten the wire again. If you’re not expecting this to happen, it can be disastrous! So adjust for the drying/shrinking by checking-in on your project every couple of days to see if it’s dried – then tighten the wire holding the joins together AFTER it has dried completely.
- Twigs and branches are similar to wood in that the tiny fibers that make up the branch all run in the same direction: up and down the branch. When bending some branches, you can actually feel the fibers snap within the branch. Bend too hard and the entire branch will break. So when you harvest your building materials, harvest some extra pieces to experiment with. Don’t assume you’ll get it perfectly right away, practice it first, then you’ll know what to expect when you’re wanting to finalize the piece.
- Drill or poke a small rod (some twigs will have soft centers) right into the bottom of the post/twig to make the fence stay upright in the garden soil.
- Experiment with branches from perennials too. After they fade in the fall, you’ll see the twiggy structure of the plant, and then see the potential.
- You can mix and match your twigs and branches to your heart’s content. It will just look more ornate and interesting for your fairies but it will compromise the realism of you are creating a realistic miniature garden.
- A great time to find natural materials is after a storm, especially a wind storm. If you live near a coast, the best time to go beach combing is after a storm to see what kind of things the waves tumbled onto the shore. Keep anything you find separate and spread-out on a towel or rag to dry out – it might be smelly too.
- Gather materials from your garden when it’s dry out – the seed pods and stems get weak when they are wet and it’s hard to judge the final piece. Damp pieces can get moldy quickly if they aren’t dried out in a timely manner.
- When using seed pods – dry them out by hanging them upside down so they will “face-up” when they are dried. Fasten a wire or string around them that can hang on a hook in your garage or basement.
- Use caution when harvesting naturals if you have allergic reactions to some plants or their sap. Know what you are picking in this case.
Shrink Me Down: How to calculate the size you need.
In calculating what size to build your miniature accessory, there is some wiggle room. ONLY if you are entering a contest where you need to have an exact miniature replica of a full-sized object, do you need to be precise and exact about the size of your miniature.
First, figure out how big your object is in full size. Let’s use a trellis for an example. We know that trellises are about a foot or two taller than us (dependent upon your height, of course,) so we’ll say our trellis is about 8″ tall. (I usually round off to the half-foot when I’m eyeballing to make it even easier.) So our math is as follows:
- One Inch Scale, where 1 inch = 1 foot, we would make an 8-inch tall trellis.
- Half-Inch Scale, where 1/2 inch = 1 foot, we would make a 4-inch trellis.
- Quarter-Scale, where 1/4 inch = 1 foot, we would make a 2″-inch tall trellis.
If you need any help doing any kind of math, I’m glad to help. Leave your question in the comments at the bottom of this page or in the forum.
Extended Chapter from the Prop Shop Book
This video is longer than I wanted it to be – I’m working on that. Lol! I call it “Janit’s Slow TV” but I hope you find it interesting at the very least.
In this video, you will learn about:
- Different kinds of branches to use
- Different kinds of wire
Twig Projects from the Gardening in Miniature Prop Shop Book:
Wedding Arches – pg 89
Gnome Home – pg 161
Border Fence – pg 89
Space Aliens & The Mothership – pg 181
Tree House – pg 173
Light Posts (can use twigs for this) – pg 117
And from the first Gardening in Miniature Book:
Twig fence & trellis – pg 211
All wire is not made equal when it comes to miniature making!
Floral Wire in Spools – The spools come in different colors. The dark green color seems to be foolproof – but its dark green and kinda boring. The gold and red (or any other color,) don’t perform very well when you start to twirl them or use them in smaller places as the color flakes off and it looks ugly. The silver spooled wire is one of my go-to because it’s just wire, with not coating.
Floral Wire in Lengths – aka Stem Wire – The lengths of floral have come in handy for twirling marbles to make gazing balls – or wherever you need straight lengths of wire as the spooled wire is hard to make perfectly straight. Comes in different thicknesses or diameters, call gauges. The higher the gauge number the thinner the wire is. I like the 20 gauge wire, it’s thin enough to bend easily and it’s thick enough to last of several years in the outdoor garden.
New Find: Jewelry Wire – You can find all kinds of different colored jewelry wire but make sure it’s NOT coated. Find the end of the wire and look at the tip – you should be able to see if the wire is a solid color, or if it’s coated. If it’s coated, the color will probably flake off.
Using Naturals as Texture
You’ll see naturals used as texture in a lot of different ways: The naturally-adorned, decorative balls that are piled up in a bowl on coffee tables in design magazines or websites use leaves, feathers or slices of wood for an organic, down-to-earth look. Natural materials are popular for holiday all kinds of shapes and sizes of decor, ornaments or sculptures covered with acorns, cones, twigs or seedpods.
The above photo shows a variety of textures. The board is 3 1/2″ tall so you can get an idea of the detail. From left to right:
- Mexican Angel Hair grass – thickest parts
- Ornamental oregano petals
- Dracena leaves
- Hydrangea Petals – 50 approx
- Crocosmia leaves
- Hawthorn hulls – about 40 used
- Hemlock cone pieces – about 6 used here
- Mexican Angel Hair grass – thinnest parts
Adhesives for Miniature Textures
Use wood glue for the best results. Read the directions to make sure it doesn’t yellow with age and it is for outdoor. Wood glue, indoor or outdoor, is the consistency of white glue so you can paint it on with a paint brush or spread thicker coats. Paint another coat of glue over the whole think after it dries.
Finish your miniature texture with a couple of light coats of Polyurethane or similar. Pay attention to the shine as a “glossy” finish may look a bit contrived when working with naturals – or it could be the finishing touch that you need. I like a satin finish, or eggshell for an in between finish that is not too dull (matte.)
NOTE: Any adhesive will eventually fail if left outside. Everything does but if you treat your miniature work of natural art gently, it’ll last for years.
→ The moss in the gnome pot to the right was harvested on the cement next to my mailbox here in Seattle. Our moss comes back every fall when the temperatures become cooler and the rains return. In late spring, it’ll go dormant, turning brown and not looking alive – but it is, just add water!
Working with Moss
Real moss is a wonderful thing. You just can’t beat that green-lush-carpet-magic that only moss can deliver and we are constantly trying to replicate it. The truth is, it’s hard to make moss grow where it doesn’t want to. Most moss needs to be watered through its leaves, not its roots, which makes it a great candidate for terrariums but not-so-much for miniature gardens – unless you live in a rain forest. We have some work-arounds though – and some warnings.
Fairy Garden Moss
The “fairy garden moss” out on the market today will not work with live plants nor in real soil. It’s fake and should be used only for artificial scenes. That includes any kind of preserved moss, moss sheets, moss clumps, Spanish moss, reindeer moss, whatever you want to call it. And the funniest thing is – it’s expensive!
THEN, I see videos of “professionals” laying the moss sheets right on the soil, then tucking the odd plant here and there. And, well, that’s just not going to work out well at all. The moss is smothering the soil, keeping the dampness in and creating a nice moldy mess around the base of the plants – you just know they are not going to be happy!
- If you want moss, stick with real moss.
- If you want moss, you need the correct environment for it to grow it in which is difficult to replicate if it doesn’t happen naturally.
- If you want moss to grow on rocks, you need to find moss that grows on rocks or pavement but it will take a while to “grow” onto the new rock.
- If you want moss to grow on the soil, you need to find moss that grows on the soil. This new moss will need nurturing to become acclimatized to it’s now home.
Here is our moss guru, the indelible David Spain with his great website on everything mossy: https://www.mossandstonegardens.com/ And leave that fake moss for your indoor crafty projects. Make a purse for Mom’s Day or a tie for Father’s Day.
At left top: Comparing real moss (bottom) to the fake moss.
2nd from top: Take a look inside the fake moss and you’ll see fibers. You can’t look inside real moss.
3rd from top: A great alternative is Irish Moss, (Sagina subulata) but it is a perennial, not a moss. It grows into a great miniature garden lawn however. Tiny white flowers in early summer are just the cutest. Great in containers and it may even bonsai itself. In ground, it can be known to mound and form a hill and will need dividing every couple of years to keep it flat and happy.
Bottom: The moss we use for our Moss Terrariums we harvest from our pathways around our studio where we let it cultivate naturally – and keep the dog away from it. We harvest it gently, using a fork.
More Ideas with Naturals
The above were from the collection of Bobbie Pearson.
You can make all kinds of things from natural items by breaking-down the shapes of things. Half a seed pod becomes a cup with a small acorn-cap for a base. Tiny branches or tendrils can become handles on anything from a teapot to a door. A piece of reed becomes a cylinder container with a painted see for a lid. It’s all in how you break-down what shapes you need to build with.
HOW THIS REALLY WORKS: Be careful of pushing the reality too far. For example, you’re already asking the viewer to “see” the teapot that is made from an acorn and seedpods. If you change the shape of the teapot to something totally unlike a regular teapot – you’ve gone too far and there will be no connection with the real thing in the eyes of the viewer. Remember it’s not only you that is going to enjoy your scene (for the most part, anyway,) so give the viewer something to relate to and keep the object looking like it’s supposed to look like – but made out of naturals. (I hope that makes sense, leave any questions below. :o)
About the photos at left: I had the opportunity to work with Bobbe Pearson a few years ago. She was the granddaughter of a homesteading family in Oregon who lived about an hour south of Seattle. I was slowly helping her document her natural work. What was fascinating was she was in the natural business before they put any parameters on mailing any plant materials throughout the world and apparently had contacts for all sorts of naturals in all parts of the world – and had all sort so naturals in her arsenal. Her and her husband, Bob, (yes, it was Bob & Bobbe!) supplied artists and florists with all kinds of unusual things. They had a direct mail business too that sold kits and other bizarre naturals to crafters and artists around the US. These are just a few of the pieces I photographed for her. Bobbe Pearson passed a few years ago, around 2013.
Inspiration from the Philadelphia Flower Show
If you’ve never been to the Philadelphia Flower Show, it’s an amazing show unlike no other, not only for the size of the show itself, but for the quantity of different kinds of gardening and garden art that have a special place in each show. I thought to include these examples here on this page as an inspiration to how much these cones, leaves or seedpods can be made to look like just about anything, it seems. You’ll see the breakdown of the pieces in the charts beside them.
Kinda makes you want to make jewelry now, doesn’t it? Lol!
Apologies for the blurring images, I was shooting through glass and moving too quickly – I had to see the rest of the show! :o)
And More Ideas….
For the first fairy house, I used a block of wood as a base, then covered it up with the birch bark and twigs using a hot glue gun with high-temperature glue for better adhesion. (A version of the Deserted Island Treehouse I made in the Prop Shop book.)
For the round one, look closer. I used an upside-down black poly pot that a plant came in for a base. Covered it with bark and decorated it with twigs. (A version of the Desert Island Cave I made for the Prop Shop book.)