I have a need to add landscaping to each of my dollhouses.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years designing and working on the gardens for my real homes, and find miniature gardening much more rewarding. After all, when you “plant” your mini shrubs and flowers you know exactly how tall they’ll be, they’re always in perfect bloom, and if you don’t like the way something looks, you just pick it up and try something else.
In minilandscaping hiding an ugly foundation is easy as pie. Is your yard too flat? Make a little slope, no trudging around with wheelbarrows full of loam or sand. Is your house crying out for stone front steps? You don’t have to pay a stone and gravel company, just use some balsa wood.
Yes, a minilandscape is a pleasurable thing.
I’m going to show you some of my landscaping skills and tips. Let’s start with the Pumpkin House, simply because it’s in my living room and handy for picture taking.
Yes, I know, the picture is not up to my usual standards, but in this case that’s a good thing, because I think it lets you see the basic elements more clearly.
I started out with a fake pumpkin glued to a piece of plywood. The first thing I wanted to do was to “wed” the pumpkin to the ground. I couldn’t think of a better word offhand, but wed sounds good.
I’ve used scrap wood, home made paper mache, and Styrofoam to build little higher portions in my landscapes, but this time I started with spongy foam. Since the pumpkin is round, the foam would be easier to cut to shape.
I just used scissors, cutting the foam into a semi circular shape to fit around the base of the pumpkin. I didn’t worry about cutting it just right, because I knew I was going to add something else on top of it.
I also visualized the front garden as being terraced, with various levels stepping down to the plywood base.
Here you can see the plywood base and the foam platform at the bottom of the picture. The foam I used was the usual yellowish stuff. I painted it with green acrylic paint. If you prefer to use a handy can of green latex paint, that’s fine too.
We’ll get to the painting part shortly.
Here’s a closeup of the same sponge that was in the previous picture. Notice the jagged edge. If I want my sponge to have a smooth edge, I’ll cut it to shape with scissors, pinching tiny bits off with my fingernails to round off the edges and make them appear more natural. Other times I’ve even tried nail scissors. I’ll find a picture later to illustrate what I mean.
In this case, however, I wanted a rougher look, so I cut the foam to size, then started pinching off pieces till I was satisfied with the result.
HOW TO PAINT SPONGES
You can’t paint them with a regular brushstroke as if you were painting a wall. I like to use an old larger sized artist’s brush, because that’s what I have handy. You can use a small paintbrush like you’d buy in the paint department of the hardware store if you like, although, it’s better to use an older brush. The reason is because you will be applying the paint by pouncing the brush up and down, over and over again. Wear latex gloves if you don’t want green paint under your fingernails.
I load the brush with a nice woodsy, leafy, lush green grass color and start pouncing on the paint. You have to push it into the little holes and the only way to do it is just to keep shoving it in with your bouncing baby brush. Don’t worry if you see little bits of the sponge’s original color show up just when you thought a section was done, you’ll be applying more paint later.
Generally, I like to paint most of the sponge, then let it dry before I paint the rest of it. The sponge absorbs the paint and it can get rather squishy.
Remember, you don’t want a nice glossy, smooth coat of paint on your sponge. It’s best to practice ahead of time and let your sponge dry so you can see the end result if you’re unsure of yourself.
To make your sponge turn into something that looks like living plantlife you need to apply more colors to create shadow and highlight. You can apply the
next colors while the sponge is wet, or let it dry and do it then. I’ve done it both ways, depending on the circumstances.
While the paint is wet, I’ll dip the tip of my old artist’s brush in a bit of black paint, rub off the excess on a paper towel and pounce on a bit of black towards the under side, inside deeper cuts and just a hint here and there. If I made a section to dark, I can wipe it a bit and add more green. If using black is too scary for you, and I can see your point, try mixing a little black with your green paint, or just use a darker shade of green. When applying the accent colors, I do advise the use of an sturdy old artist’s brush, or maybe a very small stencil brush. You should experiment and see what works best for you.
Next you want to apply highlights. I like to use a good shade of yellow. I’m very picky about my yellow paint. I used to have a yellow that was perfect for highlighting leaves and grass, until it got discontinued. After that I just kept buying bottles and tubes of yellow paint trying to find another version of the right color. I should add a list of paint colors that I like to use for greenery, but not right now, I’m on a roll. If I stop to look for the paint, I’ll find something else that just has to be done before I can get back to writing this.
In any event, I’ll add the yellow paint in pretty much the same way I used the black paint, except I’ll use it mainly on the higher surfaces of the foam.
Sometimes I’ll also use a bit of a blue-green before I use the black and yellow. Adding blue-green to some plants is a good idea, especially if your little landscape has a lot of foam plantings. It makes it all look a little more interesting.
If you prefer to wait, and let your sponge dry before you apply highlights and shadows, you’ll need to add a little watered down green paint to the sponge before you add the other colors. This will let them blend in better so you don’t get that dabbed on paint look. If you’re using some blue green, apply it right after you put on the primary green, then let the sponge dry.
A word of warning…………Painted sponges can take quite a while to dry. Depending on the size of the sponge, and the humidity, it can take a couple of hours or overnight.
Once painted, sponges stiffen up, depending on how much paint you used. They never get hard, though. Remember, if you find that after your sponges are dry, you have the original color of the sponge showing here and there, you can just touch those spots up. On occasion, I’ve even left a hint of yellow sponge showing on purpose.
The arrow shows you a spot where I did just that. In this case, the little bit of yellow sponging peering through blends in with the yellow highlighting.
By the way, although I prefer to use the yellow or yellowish sponges for mini landscaping, I’ve also used red ones, because that’s what I had handy.
While writing this, it occurred to me that these sponges might be used to create granite steps. Here in Maine, granite front steps are quite the thing. They’ve been quarrying granite in my area for a very long time. Here in Kennebunk they say that if you live on the seaward side of the turnpike you’ve got sand, on the other side of the turnpike you’ve got granite. Either way, it’s a pain for gardening.
As I looked at this piece of painted foam, it occurred to me that if it were painted gray, it would probably look like a rough edged granite step.
BUT LET’S GET BACK TO PLANTS.
Reindeer moss is a dandy thing for mini gardening. I’ve used it as ground cover, I’ve made small shrubs out of it, I’ve even stuck it in a tree.
The stuff comes in two colors, green, and yellow-green. As you can see, I like to use them both, it creates a nice contrast. I’ve found that if I need to use a lot of it, I can even tint it, thereby creating several shades of greenery.
I buy reindeer moss at a craft store like AC Moore or Michael’s. It comes in a bag, and if you dump it out on the table you’ll see that some of it will look smooth and compact, like tiny evergreen bushes, and some of it will be rather loose and airy. I’ll save the rounded compact pieces and use them as small bushes, or cut off bits of them if I want small bits of neat, compact edging. The airier stuff can be spread out, bunched up or torn into suitable bits.
In the picture above, I placed more compact sections close to the pumpkin wall, to hide the gap, and spread the rest out in a mound below. I tucked bits of it into the section between the foam and the steps, and between the two “terraces”. I use hot glue whenever I glue foam or “plants”.
Taking a look at the above picture, you’ll notice the steps end on another little “terrace” This one is cut from a piece of scrap plywood. I cut the outer edge in a semi circle, covering the cut edge with a thin strip of foam. I painted the foam, then glued it on when it was dry, touching up with more paint as needed. It doesn’t show up in the picture, but the yellow foam color does show through a bit here and there.
I like to use sand to simulate a close cut grassy look. I’ll brush a thin layer of wood glue on to the plywood, which has already been painted green, then I’ll sprinkle on some sand. When the glue is dry I’ll paint the sand.
Here’s a picture showing how I used just foam and reindeer moss to give a variegated look to the garden. I had two kinds of foam sponges. One had very small holes and was rather compact. The other sponge had bigger holes. They’re just basic sponges, the kind you can buy at your supermarket or hardware store. I’ve also used natural sea sponges on another project. With them you get an entirely different look.
An important point to remember when making an artificial landscape is to use many different shades of green, layering color on color to give your work depth.
Since we’re looking at the picture, I might as well cover a bit about steps and stepping stones.
I used balsa wood to make the steps. I bought a bag of assorted balsa pieces once and had a couple of the chunkier blocks left. I cut them to size with my saw, making them a bit irregular, not quite square. I used my large disc sander to carve the blocks in order to make them look more natural. You can use a hand held sander, though it’s a bit trickier to do. You could also use a utility knife and hand sand, or use a Dremel sanding attachment.
When I was satisfied with the general shape of my stones I sanded them smooth, then applied a light gray basecoat. When the paint was dry, I sanded again.
The next step is to apply colors that will give the stones a more realistic look. I chose to go with a bluer color, some may prefer browner tones.
I don’t recall exactly which colors I used this time. I know there was white, black and a dull blue. I’m pretty sure it was Soldier Blue by Accent. I use that color for lots of projects. I probably used just the teensiest bit of a dull brown, like burnt umber. Green is also a good color to use in stone painting. The best choice is probably green earth, though some might use sap green. I use just a breath of brown and or green when painting bluish gray stones. If you practice a bit, you’ll probably see what I mean. If it all sounds too confusing, forget all about the brown and green tones and your stones will still turn out nice.
The effect you want to achieve is one in which all the colors blend so well that it looks like one color, until you look at it closely.
The stepping stone at the bottom is cut from a thin piece of balsa or basswood. Sometimes I use scrap plywood to make stepping stones, and they work very well. There’s one thing to remember about using plywood, though. You can see the layers on the edges. No amount of paint or sanding can disguise them, so do what I do. Use reindeer moss or tiny slivers of sponge to make a groundcover to surround the stones. It’ll hide the cut edges, and looks really nice too.
Continue to landscaping part 2