The first time I saw a leaf casting was in the garden of a friend. It was a heart-shaped hosta leaf preserved forever in concrete. Painted a light blue-green, it had intricate veining and was just deep enough for a birdbath. I knew then and there I had to have one.
Leaf castings capture the beauty of leaves. They're made from leaves fresh from the garden. My own garden didn't have any large-leaf plants. So I added some elephant ears this spring and waited for them to grow. When the leaves were big enough, I made my first casting. Leaf castings can be a bit tricky to make, but even a beginner can turn out a good one.
Concrete leaf castings take about a week to make from start to finish. Once the leaf is cast, it should be left undisturbed for 48 hours to dry. Then, the leaf is removed. Edges are smoothed, and the surface cleaned. Finally, it can be painted and sealed.
Making a leaf casting is messy work. So wear old clothes, and find a spot you can clean up easily. A garage or shop is an ideal workplace. But a covered area outside will work as well.
Weather is a consideration. Choose a time when the weather is cool. You don't want the concrete to dry too quickly. If you work outside, work in the shade and pick a time when rain is not expected for at least two days.
- A corrugated box or pan large enough for the leaf
- QUIKRETE Concrete Resurfacer
- Play sand
- Water in a cup and spray bottle
- Acrylic paints and paint brush
- Polyurethane or sealer
- Plastic container and sturdy spoon or paint stick for mixing the concrete
- Thin plastic like a plastic garbage bag (Cut off both side seams so it is one large piece.)
- Brush with nylon bristles, paint scraper or metal file
- Rubber gloves
- Dust mask (for mixing concrete)
- Safety goggles
Elephant ears, caladiums and hostas leaves are good choices. But you can use any leaf with well-defined veining and smooth edges. Select leaves without tears or holes. Leaves with a fuzzy back, like fig leaves, are hard to remove and leave a textured surface. Since large leaves require additional support, choose leaves less than 12" wide.
Pour the sand into the corrugated box or pan. (While any flat, sturdy surface will work, a box or pan with sides will reduce the mess.) Mound the sand in the middle of the box slightly larger than the leaf. Gently press the front of the leaf into the sand and make a small lip (1/4'') around the leaf. This is the area that will support your casting, The lip helps keep the concrete on the leaf.
Remove the leaf. Spray the sand with water, and pack it down for a smooth, firm surface. Keep in mind that the size and shape of the mound directly affects the casting. The taller the mound, the deeper the casting will be. If you're making a birdbath, you'll want a tall mound of sand.
Cover the sand with plastic leaving enough on both sides to wrap back over the leaf. The plastic keeps the concrete away from the sand, and it keeps in moisture.
Place the leaf on the plastic with the back of the leaf up.
Check to be sure the stem has been cut even with the leaf.
Always wear protective gear when working with concrete. Concrete will irritate the skin, eyes and lungs. Always wear gloves. Use a dust mask and eye protection when mixing or filing concrete.
The amount of concrete you need depends on the size of the leaf. Pour water in the plastic container, and then add the concrete. Stir slowly to avoid air bubbles. Keep adding concrete a little at a time until it's the consistency of toothpaste.
The right consistency is crucial. The mixture should be thin enough to capture the details of the leaf, but thick enough to stay on the leaf and not slide off.
Let the mixture stand for about 10 minutes to thicken before applying it to the leaf. If the concrete seems too dry, add a small amount of water (or spray with water). A little water makes a lot of difference.
Spread the concrete over the leaf starting at the stem and working towards the edge. Stop about 1/4'' from the edge. Apply the concrete a little at a time building up the center (3/4'' to 1 1/4'') and tapering to the (3/8'' to 1/2''). The larger the leaf, the thicker the casting needs to be.
It is crucial to keep the concrete from sliding over the edge. If it does, it will puddle on the front of the leaf and ruin the texture.
Pat the concrete to remove air bubbles and ensure a good casting. Take a minute to smooth the surface of the concrete, and then fold the plastic back over the casting.
Allow it to dry for 48 hours without moving it. Check it occasionally. If it is drying too fast, then spray it with water. Remove the leaf and clean the edges. Unwrap the plastic and turn the leaf over.
If the front of the leaf doesn't have any concrete on it, simply peel away the leaf. Use a brush with nylon bristles to gently scrub away stubborn leaf parts. Smooth the edges or any rough spots on back with a metal file.
If the front of the leaf has concrete on it, try to remove it. Wearing gloves and safety glasses, try to gently pry off the excess concrete with a paint scraper. If it won't come off, try to blend it in or file it away with a metal file. This is delicate work that often ends with broken leaves.
Let the casting cure for another day.
First, clean the casting. Take the leaf outside and pour water on the front and back of the leaf. Gently wash off any concrete dust or particles. But, don't soak it.
If you're an experienced painter, then get started. If not, first practice by painting the back of the leaf.
Start with a wet brush and two or more colors. Add a little water to the paint for a wash. After the first coat dries, add highlights. Use a lighter color and paint the center of the leaf. Let it dry a few minutes, then wipe off the excess paint. Paint the veins another color, if desired. Dabble and play until you get the look you want. If you don't like what you've done, either wipe if off or paint over it.
After the back dries, paint the front of the leaf.
Let the paint dry for a day, then finish with a polyurethane or sealer. Apply at least two coats, and let it cure for a day or more before moving it outside.
Now, find a place for it in your garden and enjoy. (Just remember to move it indoors or turn it over for the winter. Water freezing in it may cause it to break.)
Leaf castings are truly one-of-a-kind creations. Each casting is a learning experience, and the next one is an opportunity to try something different. You may find this creative outlet habit-forming. One thing is for certain. You'll develop an appreciation for the beauty of leaves. I'm already planning to add a large hosta to my garden next year -- one with heart-shaped leaves, prominent veining and delicious texture.