How To Make Leaf Castings

In the continuing series of posts in the category of How To, may we present the instructions, with accompanying photos, of the way we, here at the Fairegarden, go about making leaf castings? Let us proceed with the gathering of materials needed. I suggest you read all of the instructions before you begin, to familiarize yourself with the process. It is quite simple, but time matters once the cement mixture is wet. Shown above is our very first leaf casting attempt from a few years ago, a Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’ leaf.

It is easier on an aging, or even young for that matter, back to be able to stand comfortably while doing any project,it has been found. An old table with a metal top is the workspace. Outdoors under the deck is the studio. This space has a gravel floor and cement projects can be messy, so find an appropriate area to work and dress accordingly. You will need a bucket of water to moisten the dry ingredients. Sometimes I use the cement bonding liquid along with water, but it is not necessary. It does make for a stronger casting, however. You will need a large tub in which to mix, and a long handled tool to stir. The mixture is one part Portland Cement to three parts coarse builder’s sand. Mix the dry ingredients well with the long handled tool. DO NOT WET IT YET. You may also use premixed mortar, but I much prefer using the Portland Cement and this is the same cement used to make hypertufa, with peat moss and perlite, so there are a lot of projects in one bag. It comes in large bags for a cheap price and needs to be stored in the dry, moisture is the enemy until you are ready to begin. Depending on the size of the project, various measuring devices can be used. Old pans, plastic containers, whatever is used should not be used for food preparation after being used for cement measuring. Also, wear rubber gloves, as the cement is very, very hard on human skin. Again, the mix is three parts sand to one part cement.

You will need a mound of moistened sand on the base, larger than your chosen leaf. This will form the curve of the finished project, but you can also make the casting flat, if desired. For the base of flat or curved leaves, I use pieces of packing styrofoam saved from the purchase of electronics, or a board also works well. It is good to be able to move the curing project out of the way to clear your workspace for the next project, so either foam or a board or something strong enough to hold the sand and finished project is best. You will need plastic wrap on top of the moist sand to neaten the edges, as the mixture can sometimes run and/or drip. In choosing your leaf, look for a nice size with prominent veining on the underside. This is what the top of your casting will reveal, so the more prominent the veins, the more interesting your cement leaf will be. Use a freshly picked leaf for the best results. I have used many different types of leaves and really like the look of the cucurbit family, squash, zucchini, pumpkin, etc., but today, I have none of those so will use the nicely veined large hosta leaf. (Brush the sand off of the leaf before adding the leaf casting mix. I wondered why the surface was all pebbly on the finished project and can now see why after viewing these photos.)

I wanted this finished product to be something of a bowl shape, so mounded the moist sand on the base before placing the leaf, UPSIDE DOWN, upon it. The veins should be facing up. For more or less of a bowl shape, adjust the moist sand to your liking. Place the plastic wrap on top of the sand with the edges sticking out well past the leaf, if it is too large a leaf to do it all with one piece of wrap, use several sheets. You will be glad to be able to lift the plastic to neaten the edges once you have spread the wet mix on the leaf. Smooth the leaf as neatly as you can on top of the sand and plastic wrap. Cut the stem off if it is in the way and fold or snip the leaf to make it lay flat at the stem end.

Now you are ready to wet your mixture. Getting just the right consistancy can be tricky, so add the water or bonding agent a little at a time, mixing well as you go. There will be a small window of wetness to be able to work with the mix before it begins to harden, that is the reason for waiting until everything is ready before proceeding. There is no formula for how much water to add, but I like the mixture to be fairly dry. If it is too runny, it will slide off the leaf into a puddle and you will have a casting that looks like a blob of melted ice cream. You should be able to squeeze it in your hand and have it hold the shape, but still be wet enough to spread easily.

Apply the mix onto the leaf using your gloved hand, placing a couple of handfuls in the center. I like for the casting to be about one half of an inch thick in the middle, tapering to one third to one quarter of an inch at the edges. You can make it thicker than that, but no thinner. If you are going to be using the leaf as part of a fountain, make it thicker. (If you want to make a very large leaf, it will need reinforcing with wire hardware cloth. I have not tackled that as yet, so you will have to look elsewhere for instructions.)

Begin patting the cement mix gently towards the edges of the leaf with your fingertips. This is a two handed job, but I was taking photos during the process is why there is only one hand showing. I pat with one hand and hold the other hand along the edge of the leaf. Try to be especially neat along the edges, following the shape of the leaf as best you can. The hosta leaf is simple, but the squash leaves will take more time to keep those edges crisp. For your first attempt, simple is best.

Once the leaf is covered completely, I like to build up the surface on the bottom, which is the top while you are working on it, so the leaf will stand without tipping. Build up feet or one larger foot with mix, a little bit at a time until you can level it somewhat. I used a board to make the three knobs more level, pressing it very lightly onto the project. You can see the bits of wet mix on the board. If you don’t care about tipping, follow the curve of the leaf.

When you are satisfied with your work, lift the edges of the plastic wrap to clean up any drippings and pat outside the plastic with your fingers. Look for the green edge of the leaf to follow the shape. Hopefully you have not made the mix too wet, but if you did, don’t fret, just keep neatening the edges as the cement dries out some more, you can fix the edges later on, after pulling the leaf off.
After you are done, cover the entire project loosely with plastic of some kind, to allow it to harden slowly. The longer it takes to dry, the stronger it will be. Use props to lift the plastic cover off of the wet casting. Keep it out of the sun and allow it to set up overnight.

The next day, lift the veil of plastic to check for hardness. Depending on the air temperature outside, it should be set enough to move to the next step. Cold will lengthen the hardening time. The casting should not show an impression when you press your finger on it, and seem hard when gently tapped. If still soft, allow another day of hardening. When you feel it has set up properly, you will now turn it over, oh so carefully, for it can be easily be broken at this stage. Wearing gloves, slip one hand under the plastic of the entire leaf, the sand will allow you to get well under it. Place your other hand centered on top and carefully flip it over from hand to hand. Don’t blame the gnomes for these broken pieces, this was a casting from a large banana leaf and should have been reinforced with hardware cloth. Heartbreaking still, so do be careful!

Gently pull off the leaf. If bits of leaf are stuck, you can use a sharp knife to carefully lift what you can. All leaf bits will dissolve over time, it is best not to muck about with it too much at this stage, the leaf casting is quite fragile right now. (You can see what the sand left on the leaf did to the surface, shame on me!) If there are any globs along the edge that you don’t like, rub them off with your gloved fingers, or use a sharp knife to carefully cut them off. This is why the leaf is unmolded while it is not fully set, to fix any imperfections. If you need to make the veining more distinct, use a large nail, again, very carefully. When you are happy with it, cover again with the plastic and allow it to cure for a few days.

After the curing, which makes it much stronger, you can finish as you would like, or let it be as is. I like to paint the leaves and top with several coats of water-based polyurethane. For the paint, I use the small plastic bottles of craft paint, mixing colors and adding many layers for an aged look. Let the paint run into the veins for contrast, if you wish. Painting then wiping off some of the paint with a cloth or paper towel will give a nice effect. You are on your own with the painting, but using the protective poly coat will help the colors last, even when outside and exposed directly to the elements. Here are some projects that have been made over the years with the leaf casting mixture and posts about some of them:

Zucchini leaves

Fairy Doors

Cement Reflections, click to see the post

September 30, 2009 061 (2)

October 26, 2009 new 046 (2)

A Little Whimsy In The Garden Click to see the post

May your creative juices be flowing like rivers as you get out there and cast your own leaves with the cement/sand mix.

For other How To posts written by Fairegarden, look for How To on the sidebar page listing or click here.


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34 Responses to How To Make Leaf Castings

  1. Tiziana says:

    Great post, Frances!
    First, I apologize for not being more assiduous in commenting, but I will follow you forever.
    Your post is very informative, fantastic idea and explanations are excellent and it seems so easy to realize that I would give it a try!
    Happy end of August, dear! Hugs!

    Dear Tiziana, thanks for those kind words! There are no apologies necessary at all, I appreciate any and all comments, but know how busy modern life has become. Making the leaf castings is easy, but certain steps need to be followed for success. I do hope this post is understandable enough to enable anyone wanting to make a cement leaf to be able to do so. Hugs to you!

  2. Fab tutorial Frances – as I type this I have one eye on the garden – searching for the perfect leaf! 🙂

    Thanks dear Karen. I hope you find the perfect leaf for this project, although I also hope you make several! It is slightly addictive.

  3. Kathy Stilwell says:

    Amazing creativity! Thanks for the lesson.

    Thanks Kathy. I hope you will make some of these yourself!

  4. Carol says:

    Fabulous!! I want to make one!! Can we make them at the next fling? Please oh please!!

    Thanks Carol. Why wait that long to make one? You can do it at home much more easily and won’t have to try to carry the heavy thing home. Get the materials together and get started. I know you have leaves, maybe even squash leaves!

  5. Darla says:

    I always love your ‘How To’ posts…you give wonderful instructions and love seeing the photos..I will be borrowing this method. Thanks Ms. Frances.

    That is music to my eyes, dear Darla! These how to posts are more difficult to write than most, trying to get all the facts in there and taking photos while in the process. I am so happy to be able to help people get started on these projects, for they are quite worthwhile pursuits.

  6. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    You are getting so good at this Frances. I keep thinking I will try this but I haven’t done so as yet. You are an inspiration. Thanks for all the tips.

    Thanks Lisa, you are sweet. I hope you do give the leaf casting a try. I can imagine how cleverly you would paint them!

  7. Gail says:

    Frances, Love this very helpful and informative post. Your instructions, photos and fun asides were a treat to read. Like Carol I am checking my garden for big leaves~Which you and I know are missing from this garden with its little leaf syndrome! xxoogail I do have an indoor plant plant~Philodendron with giant sized leaves,

    Thanks Gail. I understand that little leaf syndrome all too well. Your houseplant might be the perfect subject! Good luck with it.

  8. Great explanation, and I love the paint. Never thought about fairy doors. Sorry about your banana leaf. Bummer. You should pitch this idea to a magazine.~~Dee

    Thanks so much Dee. There are many things that can be made from this mixture, limited only by one’s imagination. The banana leaf was a learning experience, maybe I will try the metal armature one of these days. As the for magazine pitch, maybe someday.

  9. I’m hopeful PaulfromAlabama will enjoy all the flowers in the garden without leaves! I’ve been lusting after leaf castings at the garden center forever… now I’m inspired to try my own. Thank you for an excellent tutorial and for sharing your beautiful castings.

    Thanks Lin-da/Paul. I hope you have fun using those garden leaves!

  10. Sandra Jonas says:

    This is wonderful Frances. I tried making some hypertufa pots and had limited success. I MUST try this.
    Thanks for the post.

    Thanks Sandra. I believe the leaf casting to be easier than the hypertufa to work with, but both improve with practice. Good luck with your projects!

  11. Patty Hicks says:

    Absolutely one of the better posts on this that I have seen to date. Sharing with my pals. Love the little fairy doors and faces. Great ideas for the left over mix.

    If those Cedar Waxwings in the blog banner are at your house I am so jealous! I adore those birds. Very sweet shot you got of them.

    Thanks Patty. There is always leftover mix with these projects, so finding good uses for it is part of the fun. The Cedar Waxwings are indeed from my garden. I have added the post that explains the story under the Recent Posts widget. It is titled Thirsty Throngs.

  12. CurtissAnn says:

    That is so cool! I used clay to do the same years ago, made castings to hang on the wall. You intrigue me to give it a try to make things to hanging on the outside garage wall. Thanks!

    Thanks Curtiss Ann. The beauty of this material is that it can be left outside in the elements for years and years with no damage. Hanging on a garage, or shed wall would be wonderful. Good luck with your project!

  13. Linda says:

    I’ve wanted to do this for years! Just seemed so intimidating. You’ve written this tutorial, so clearly, that this project is so much more approachable. Thank you, Frances! I will make a couple, this week…I’m very excited (I’ll get a jump on my X-mas gifts, haha.) Linda

    Thanks Linda. I am so happy that you find these instructions easy to follow, that is my goal! Good luck with your projects. These do make excellent gifts.

  14. Lola says:

    Love your leaves. I’m guessing they will hold water. You make it sound so easy. I may try this when I get some ambition.

    Thanks Lola. It is better for them not to hold water in the winter where it freezes solid. Good luck with your project, and ambition.

  15. I am so looking forward to making these. Thank you for such excellent instructions. They are beautiful! How do they hold up in the garden with rain and the change in season temperatures?

    Thanks Sage Butterfly. I tried to make the instructions as concise as possible. With or without paint, they have proven to hold up well in the garden here. They do not get brought inside or under cover. A harsher winter might require that, though.

  16. Lauren says:

    These are so beautiful, those leaves are inspiring.

    Thanks Lauren, glad you like them.

  17. These are great directions Frances with photos and easy to follow. I love the results especially the painted ones.


    Thanks Eileen. Glad to hear they are easy to follow, that was the goal, make it easy enough that folks will want to give it a try.

  18. Nice Job, Frances!! Easy to follow. I haven’t done this in awhile – you are inspiring me!!!

    I’ve used the premixed concrete/sand. Do you prefer mixing your own sand with the plain bagged concrete? Also, Mortar mix is nice and smooth… do you think it would last well outdoors?? I don’t usually paint mine, however I was wondering if I did and sprayed with poly, would it be safe for use by birds?

    Inspiring as usual! 🙂

    Thanks Shady. Since you have made these before, you know that it is Portland cement mix, not concrete that is mixed with the sand, and I have used both the mortar, (premixed) and mixed it myself as is shown in this post, with sand. The Mortar mix is smoother, but I like the more grainy texture of hand mixed and make lots of hypertufa so need to have cement on hand for that. Birds have been seen on the painted projects so I assume they are safe with the poly coating. I use the water based poly.

  19. Wonderful post, such clear instructions, will have to have a go ! I’m off to the garage to raid husbands supply of cement and sand, many thanks !!

    Thanks Pauline. Lucky you to already have the supplies from which to borrow! HA

  20. Rose says:

    I’ve bookmarked this page for future reference, Frances. Making leaf castings is always something I’ve wanted to try–your instructions are, as usual, so clearly written and easy to follow–thanks!

    Thanks Rose. Do give it a try when time allows, although it takes very little time to do. Getting everything together and ready takes the most time.

  21. Emily says:

    Fun! I’m going to file this away in the things to do after I move category!!

    Thanks Emily. The beauty of the internet is that this post will be there when you are ready to make your castings. Don’t you just love that?

  22. cheryl says:

    Hi Frances! This is one of the best posts I’ve read on leaf castings. I’ve seen others do it for their gardens but never painted, o wow. Colour gives a whole new dimension to them. My mind is twirling already, thank youuu

    Hi Cheryl, thanks for those kind words. Yes, painting the leaf castings is loads of fun and makes them stand out a bit more in the garden. Twirling minds are a good thing.

  23. Fabulous, fabulous post! I’m inspired! It makes me want to run to the squash patch right now and cut a few zucchini, or Boston marrow leaves! Thanks for posting these instructions!

    Thanks CV. Lucky you with squash leaves to cut! I am glad you are inspired, good luck with your project.

  24. Bookmarked! Thanks for the comprehensive how-to, Frances. Hope you don’t mind if I share.

    Thanks for visiting, Helen. I don’t mink one bit if you share, that is the core idea of the blog, sharing!

  25. Lyn says:

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’m thinking Fatsia japonica leaves would look awesome. Now to find the time…

    Thanks Lyn. The Fatsia leaf would be perfect! Good luck with your project.

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  27. Sue Hill says:

    I am very much enjoying your blog on your multitude of projects that anyone can do at home! The picture of your leaf casting that is a plum color and set in front of a similarly colored pot–what colors did you use to get that finished color? One of the prettiest I have seen!

    Hi Sue, thank you very much. That leaf casting was my first attempt, and I spent several days adding color, then wiping it off to get that layered look. I think it began with a yellow green, then added darker colors, with a final overcoating of black, with most of it wiped off. I have no idea what colors were used, probably every color I had on hand. Keep adding, wiping off with a cloth or paper towel, add water, etc. It is a process. Good luck!

  28. Debbie says:

    I read your information after attempting the leaf project. Mine did not turn out well. I used the same recipe adding a little fortifier with the water. After three days, the leaves are still very sandy, cool and not hardened. I very carefully tried to unmold the leaves, most broke. The larger leaves were reinforced with drywall tape to make them stronger. I painted on fortifier to the couple of leaves that did survive the unmolding. Any other ideas?

    Hi Debbie, it sounds like you may have used the mortar mix rather than the Portland cement. If you choose to use the mortar mix, there is no need to add the sand. I have done that myself, it looks the same out of the bag. Don’t give up and thanks for reading!

  29. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this post along with the beautiful pictures! I hope you don’t mind, I’ve posted this to pinterest as I think it will be cherished by many. Be well. 🙂


  30. Colleen says:

    I am going to make some of these leaves, to put under my gutter down-spout drains! Your tutorial is EXCELLENT! I think I’m going to use either a hosta leaf, or an elephant ear for my first attempt this spring. It’s just TOO cold here in Iowa to even consider an outdoor project right now {as I longingly gaze out my living room window for warmer weather with 5″ of snow on the ground}

    Thanks and good luck with your project when it warms up!

  31. Linda says:

    Hi-These are beautiful! I have made several hosta leaf castings last summer and they are painted. I am quite pleased with them. However, I made holes in each end of mine to hang for birdfeeders. However, I need a rigid hanger to hang them as other wise they flop from side to side. Chain might work but need support underneath/ Any suggestions?

    Hi Linda, thanks. Your leaf sounds very cool. You might try to make a hanger that has three or four connections for more stability, especially when a bird lands on the edge. As to how to do that, you are on your own! I am not very good at that sort of thing. Good luck!

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  34. Bev Clark says:

    Do you put the poly coats on the leaf casting before or after you paint them?

    I put the poly coat on after all of the painting has been done to my satisfaction. They have lasted out in the garden for several years without any loss of color.

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