It’s so easy to find inspiration: interesting garden projects, gorgeous plant combinations to try, and beautiful things to make. The hard part is finding the time to actually try some of the wonderful ideas that other people have come up with. My own to-do list is ridiculously long, but over the past few months, I’ve been ticking a few things off of the list and having a great time doing it. One project I’m particularly excited about has been at the top of the list ever since I read about it in the March 2014 issue of Gardens Illustrated. The article, which you can read online here, features the work of Rachel Dein in the U.K.. It focuses primarily on her work with making plaster castings of plants, though she works with other materials as well. The photos of the finished projects were so enticing that I knew I had to try the process for myself.
It sounded straightforward enough: rolling out clay, pressing plants into it, removing the plants, adding some sort of frame, and then pouring plaster of Paris over the clay to capture the impressions. How hard could it be? I couldn’t find many details, though, so it ended up being quite the trial-and-error process. I won’t get into the details here–it would end up being a mini-book rather than a blog post–but if anyone wants to try it, I’d be happy to answer your questions. (Those of you who live in the U.K. can learn directly from the master; click here for information about Dein’s workshops.)
The really interesting part, from a gardener’s perspective, is figuring out which plants turn out best when “fossilized.”
Flowers were an obvious place to start, but they turned out to be the trickiest to work with. Those with thin, delicate petals are easy to press evenly into the clay with a rolling pin, but their impressions can be very subtle. These colchicums had just enough substance to make for a beautiful casting.
More intricate, 3-D blooms can look crumpled when flattened, depending on how you place them. Some, such as nasturtiums, seem to work better from the side; some press better if they are face-on.
Flowers that are already relatively flat can work well, but the impression they leave can be very subtle unless they have some distinctive parts, such as the center disc of a single daisy, or the boss of stamens in the center of a fall anemone or a single rose.
The blooms of Spanish flag (Mina lobata) pressed beautifully, too: enough to show the parts inside the flowers as well.
Sturdy blooms and bloom clusters tend to give excellent impressions. I particularly enjoyed working with sprigs of lavender.
Umbels, too, can produce fantastic results: especially simpler ones, such as dill and golden lace (Patrinia scabiosifolia). The tile below includes the flowers of golden lace and a burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Purpurea’, I think).
Leaves can work very well: particularly those that are relatively flat, with distinct veining, lobes, or divisions. I made the tile below using multiple layers of ginkgo leaves.
Stems, buds, and berries create particularly strong impressions, giving the finished casting a lot of three-dimensional interest. This sprig of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) was one of my best results so far.
I liked this bit of wild crabapple, too. It would have been too busy with the leaves.
Grasses are particularly gorgeous subjects in leaf and in bloom. Below are a few stems of Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha).
They’re somewhat problematic, though, because their tiny parts tend to stick to the clay. I found that to be an issue with many of the fall plants I was working with, in fact. I was really excited about the potential of this combination of Brazilian vervain (Verbena bonariensis) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)…
…but oh, what a nightmare! As I lifted the stems, many of the verbena blooms and grass seeds were left in the clay. I picked out loads of them before making the casting, but I ended up with a bunch of seeds stuck to the plaster in the finished tile. This one ended up in the mistake pile.
I’m very much looking forward to working with spring plants, but I didn’t have to wait for one of them: Thanks to our unseasonably warm December, I had Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) in bloom for Christmas Day.
This is a tile I made just yesterday with that bloom. It’s a bit hard to see the impression because the plaster is still wet.
I made another with a variety of New Year’s Eve blooms: winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) and ‘Golden Starlet’ winter heath (Erica carnea) as well as a couple other Lenten roses:
Once the plaster dries, there are a number of ways to finish the tile. I tend to prefer the natural look, with a bit of the clay patina left to give a sort of aged look to the plaster. You can also paint it solid white or any other color, or use faux-finishing techniques to make it look like metal or stone, which would emphasize the fossil-like look. I learned to not be upset about damaged or broken tiles, because they end up being very handy for trying out different finishing techniques.
Of course, I couldn’t resist adding color to some of the best results. I tried colored pencils but found that they dug into the plaster if I pressed too hard, so the ultimate effect was a very light tint.
Regular watercolors and acrylic paints were much more flexible: I could dilute them a lot for very pale colors or build up the intensity for richer hues.
Imagine the possibilities with daffodils, ferns, and mmm…so many other spring and summer beauties: yet another reason to look forward to the new growing season. May it come soon for us all!
Update (May 2019): In case you are interested in trying this process for yourself and want more information, I did a series of video clips in a post on my Instagram account: find it here. You can access it even if you do not have an Instagram account. I don’t mind answering a few questions once you’ve given the process a try, but unfortunately, I don’t have time to provide extensive free mentoring. Each person that tries this comes up with their own ways of doing it, which is the real art to it!