Woodland Art: Find Materials to Create Unique, Nature-Inspired Decor

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Unlike other arts, such as painting, in which gathering your materials may involve the fairly mundane task of going to an art supply store, gathering supplies for woodland art is an integral part of the creative process.
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Full of decorating ideas to admire and create, “Woodland Style” offers more than 150 pages of elegant, unexpected adornments made from pine cones, acorns, moss, bark, leaves, twigs, tree branches, river rocks, and more treasures of the natural world.
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Hair cap moss (Polytrichum sp.)
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Hypnum moss (Hypnum pallescens)
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Broom moss (Dicranum sp.)
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Orthotrichum moss (Orthotrichum anomalum)
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Callicladium moss (Callicladium haldanianum)
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Dicranum moss (Dicranum fulvum)
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Atrichum moss (Atrichum angustatum)
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Red maple (Acer rubrum)
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Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
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Fire moss, aka purple horned moss (Ceratodon purpureus)
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River birch (Betula nigra)
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White birch (Betula papyrifera)
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Lichen-covered sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
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Cottonwood (Populus freemonti)
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White pine (Pinus strobus)
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Black birch (Betula lenta)

The following is an excerpt from Woodland Style: Ideas and Projects for Bringing Foraged and Found Elements Into Your Home by Marlene Hurley Marshall (Storey Publishing, 2010). With dozens of step-by-step projects, Marshall gives readers inspiration on using nature’s offerings in creative ways, including as table centerpieces, wreaths, baskets, sculptures, and much more . This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Foraging for Materials.”

Making woodland art — such as a rustic wreath of acorns and pine cones, a coat rack fashioned from twigs, or a display of rocks and moss — offers rewards that are much greater than the end product. Unlike other arts, such as painting, in which gathering your materials may involve the fairly mundane task of going to an art supply store, gathering supplies for woodland art is an integral part of the creative process. Experiencing nature immerses you in the most pleasurable aspects of a day: the warmth of the sun; a gentle breeze; light seeping through trees; the scent of pine or honeysuckle; the sound of bird song, crunched leaves or a running stream; the softness of a gentle snowfall; the feel of earth beneath your shoes. Just being out in nature will brighten your day while also influencing your artistry. So take a walk on the wild side. Collect natural items from the woods or in your own backyard, and let them guide and inspire you.

Collecting Woodland Finds

The secret to being a successful woodland artist is to always be prepared for collecting treasured raw materials. Your basic tool kit should include utility bags and a knapsack, a trowel, a small camping knife, pruning shears, a good pair of work gloves suited for handling thorns, and insect repellent. If practical, keep a packed backpack in your car. You never know when you may see pine cones or pods on the side of the road, discover wild ramps or knotweed in your travels, or encounter a path that invites a stroll.

When collecting in any area, be aware of protected species of plants. Educate yourself on the rules of any park or preserve you enter, and always get permission from the owner before exploring private property. When foraging for wild edibles, be sure you know exactly what you are collecting and take only what you need, leaving some for others to enjoy and enough to generate next year’s crop.

Dress for Discovery

When you’re exploring woods or fields, being well-prepared for the elements will make the excursion all the more enjoyable. If you know you’ll be exposed to the sun, don a wide-brimmed hat. If there’s a chance of rain, wear waterproof shoes or rubber boots and bring along a water-repellent jacket. Long pants, socks and gloves will help prevent you from getting scratched or getting poison ivy, plus they’ll offer some protection from ticks. If these insects are prevalent in your area, be sure to check your skin and clothing after each outing.

Handy Places to Collect Natural Materials

There are many practical and easy sources for acquiring crafting supplies. Before you head out to explore new places, take a look around your own backyard. There’s a large weeping pine tree in my own yard, for example, that drops multitudes of pine cones. In addition, my neighbor has a weeping pine tree that hangs over my fence and sends down a few thousand more! And a friend offered me the bark from the pine trees she plans to remove from her yard. As part of spring cleanup, many homeowners clear fallen or pruned fruit tree branches that may still have buds. If so, you can take them indoors to force the blooms. You may also find places where local road crews are trimming trees in the downtown area or developers are clearing plots for new homes. Just be sure to ask permission before scavenging through the cuttings.

A permit to collect bark, pine cones, mushrooms and other woodland materials in national and state parks can usually be obtained from a park management service (the USDA Forest Service, the National Park Service, the state forest department, or another local agency).

When to Collect What

Every season has its special features and limitations, but there is never a time when collecting natural objects is altogether impossible. In the northern region where I live, for example, spring brings certain varieties of wild?owers, such as violets and wild irises. Summer features daisies, wild roses, phlox, mullein and other blooms and leaves in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes. The fall is best for ?nding pods and collecting vibrantly colored leaves that are still moist and in near-perfect condition. It’s also the season for Queen Anne’s lace, staghorn sumac, asters and other late bloomers. Late fall through early spring is the ideal time for collecting vines that are supple and easy to work with. And winter months are prime for collecting bark, twigs, stones, lichen and year-round green moss. I have even found intact leaves under the snow. See photos of different types of barks and mosses in the Image Gallery.

Cleaning Collected Materials

When you bring newfound materials home, leave them outside for several days. This allows them to maintain moisture and provides time for any lingering bugs to detach. Insects are the biggest problem involved in collecting woodland materials. In preparation for my Woodland Chic workshop at a local museum, each student was required to freeze any natural materials for 24 hours before using them in the workshop to guarantee that no pests would be brought into the building.

Remember: If you’re decorating for a big event and time is limited, or if you’re designing something that requires a large volume of twigs, acorns, birch bark or moss, you can purchase many of these materials at a local craft store or online. Although you will miss out on the enjoyable process of discovering these materials in their natural habitat, the bonus is that they will already be clean.

Storing and Preserving Your Collection

The best place to store woodland ?nds depends on the speci?c materials. Those stored indoors should be properly ventilated so they will dry without molding. The exception is grapevines and like materials that you want to be ?exible. Either use these immediately or store them outside in the shade, where they are more apt to maintain their moisture.

Bark. Store bark outside or in a shed, basement or garage. Place it on a ?at surface with a weight on top to keep it from curling up if you plan to hang it on a wall or use it as a serving surface. Or, use the curled shape bark naturally takes as part of a design. Let the bark dry completely and sweep it with a hand broom several times to make sure it’s dust-free before using it. (See photos of different types of barks in the Image Gallery.)

Leaves. Collect leaves in summer or fall when they are moist and pliable and often vibrantly colored. Lay them, not touching, between stacks of newspaper sheets or between magazine pages topped with a heavy book or other weight to keep them ?at. For the ?rst several days, turn the leaves over to check for mold, which can develop if the leaves were too wet when collected. When collecting fall branches of leaves to display in a vase, do so just as the leaves begin to turn. They will be in their ?nest condition and, if placed in water, will maintain their vibrancy for about two weeks.

Pine Cones, Acorns and Pods. All of these natural elements can simply be stored in plastic containers after they are completely dry. Punching a few air holes through the plastic will help keep them ventilated and prevent mold. Storing each type of material in a separate container will make it easy to access when you’re designing.

Moss. Moss can be kept moist and used live. Mist it often and keep it in the shade for use in a garden, on a table or in a terrarium. You can dry moss by setting it on newspaper indoors. Dried moss can be used to make wreaths and embellish a number of indoor decorations. (See photos of different types of mosses in the Image Gallery.)

Twigs. Twigs should be stored outside in a pile or in an open container.

Vines. It’s best to keep vines outdoors in order to maintain the moisture level needed to shape them into wreaths.

The Right Glue

There are many types of glues on the market, suited to a variety of woodland art projects. It’s always advisable to read a product’s label to determine whether it’s right for the project you’re undertaking. Here are a few types of glue frequently used in crafting and sold in most craft stores.

Silicone. This adhesive is water-resistant and a good choice for outdoor projects. Although it does take some time to dry, it has a thick consistency that holds elements in place fairly well while it’s setting, and it ultimately results in a strong bond. Always wear gloves when using this type of glue, and keep in mind that silicone has a strong odor, which can make it undesirable for working on large projects.

Aleene’s Tacky Glue. This all-purpose glue has a quick grab and works well for holding items such as shells, pine cones, pods and twigs. It is one of the adhesives I use most often.

Quick Grip. Another all-purpose, quick-grab adhesive, Quick Grip is permanent, water- and weatherproof, ?exible and paintable, and it bonds to almost any type of material. It also dries crystal clear. The only drawback with this product is that it is extremely ?ammable, so be cautious when using it.

EcoGlue. This is an earth-friendly power glue that bonds with all types of wood, stone, metals, ceramics and more. Besides being water-resistant and flexible, it is also heat-resistant and dries clear in about 20 to 30 minutes.

Hot Glue. A big selling point for this glue is that it dries almost instantly. For that reason, it’s especially important to be well-organized when using this type of glue. Be mindful, too, that it can lose its hold when subject to extreme temperature changes or a lot of movement. I sometimes add a touch of hot glue after applying stronger, longer-lasting glues — such as silicone or tacky glue — to hold the item in place while the stronger glue dries. The best hot glue gun to buy is Aleene’s Ultimate Glue Gun, which lets you adjust the temperature to control the ?ow. It also comes with four different nozzles and an easy-to-squeeze handle for dispensing.

Reprinted with permission from Woodland Style: Ideas and Projects for Bringing Foraged and Found Elements Into Your Home, published by Storey Publishing, 2010.