Tuesday, April 14, 2020

DIY Topiary Tree Using Yard Trash & Paper

Now that you've finally seen our completed Wonderland room, let's focus on this baby:

 Our oh-so ridiculous topiary tree, which makes John and me grin every time we see it.

The inspiration came when I realized this corner needed some sort of floor plant. Then after 10 minutes browsing on Amazon, I realized that A) every sizeable floor plant was at least $100, and B) no way I was paying that much.

After another 30 minutes of googling, I announced to John that we were making a floor plant. John is pretty used to this sort of thing, so he just blinked and said, "Okay."

My first thought was to make giant palm leaves from EVA foam, but that wasn't over-the-top enough. Hey, if we're making a plant from scratch it should stand out from the pack, right? Nature, schmature. So I eventually found these inspirations:

Then I found two helpful tutorials for making smaller topiaries that I combined and adapted to create my own leaf technique. So shout-out to Pink Salt Riot and Lia Griffith for helping inspire what I'm about to show you.

I should mention this is incredibly time-consuming, but easy to do. You can also do the most time-consuming part while watching TV, since it's mindless and repetitive. So c'mon, let me walk you through it:

First you'll need some long dead branches. Thanks to our giant tree and general distaste for yard work, our back yard is FULL of those.


Pick out 2 or 3 likely candidates, and twist them this way and that 'til you find an arrangement you like. Screw them together, then trim off any extra twigs you don't need.

Now we have a dead tree! Yay!

Our branches were a little short, so John extended them & built a rough box to hold them up for now:

 We'll replace this later with a vase.

 With the trunk settled, now let's make some greenery!

I like the texture of Lia Griffith's crepe paper leaves, so I ordered 2 rolls in 2 different shades: "leaf green" and "mid green." The two shades are very similar, but add a little variation I think helps sell the look:

 And here's a closer look at the texture:

The crepe paper rolls I ordered were $7 each on Amazon, but they're currently out of stock, probably because they ship from the UK. So keep checking back! Because we wasted a fair amount of paper figuring out our technique we had to order more paper for our last ball, but 2 rolls *should* be enough for you.)


You may think Styrofoam balls are an obvious choice to glue our leaves to for this project. So did I, 'til I saw how much foam balls cost. (Spoiler: A LOT.) But no worries: who needs Styrofoam balls when you have crumpled paper and tape?

Make your paper-and-tape ball about 3 or 4 inches smaller than you want the finished topiary ball to be. Try to get it as round as you can, but don't worry if it's not perfect. Neither are trees!


There IS an essential trick to this, so listen up: you'll need a piece of hollow PVC pipe that's 3 or 4 inches long and wide enough to fit over your supporting branches. Embed the pipe inside your paper ball, and mark the pipe end with a marker like you see here. That way when you're done wrapping your paper ball with masking tape, you can cut the entry open:

Like this!

The PVC pipe is how you attach the ball to the branch; it slides in place like a pen cap. Now you can add all the leaves separately, then pop the ball in place on the tree. Easy-peasy!

Paint the ball dark green with cheap craft paint, to prevent any lighter areas showing through later.

This visual cracked us up so much. It look like a wadded up diaper on a dead tree.

Now we come to the super time-intensive part: cutting the leaves.

First cut your crepe paper down into 4X2 inch strips. John cut the long strips with a blade:

...then I cut those down with scissors 3 layers at a time. This goes pretty fast:

Now let's FINALLY make some leaves! This is a 4-step process, and since it's a little tricky to describe John and I filmed it and turned it into this handy gif:

1) Fold each piece in half
2) Stretch out the top edge by pulling the 2 ends apart
3) Cut 4 or 5 leaf points into the top edge
4) Open the folded leaf section & and pinch it open

Ta-daa! Leafy goodness!

Now throw that in a bowl and repeat about a thousand times.

Once you've amassed a truly staggering amount of leaves, you can start hot-gluing them onto your taped ball. John used the end of a silicone cooking spoon to help press the paper in place without burning his fingers:

He also made this stand by duct-taping a stick to a paint can. I advise doing the same, preferably with a full-ish can of paint, so the weight keeps it from tipping.

Through trial-and-error John learned it's best to work from the bottom up hot-gluing the leaves, as opposed to randomly placing them all over and filling in:

 Space them out as much as you can to conserve paper, but still make them dense enough that you can't see between the leaves.

When you're done pop it on the tree, and start on the next one!

The other advantage of making your own taped balls: you can make any size you like. All 4 of ours  are slightly different sizes.

Pop the whole tree in a vase filled with rocks to keep it steady. Of course, we didn't have a vase, and we're staying away from stores right now. So I asked John to build a basic wooden box - something simple, since we wouldn't see it much behind the chair anyway.

The next morning I got up to find John had made THIS:

Yes, he MADE that... OUT OF WOOD. Scrap wood, even!

I didn't believe him either, but look, I have proof:

How he figured out all these angles I'll never know. My brain simply doesn't work in 3D this way.

Gluing it all together.
John finished it off with a little putty and sanding:


Then he spray-painted it metallic bronze. He already had all of this in the garage, so it's like he conjured this gorgeous thing for free out of thin air! 

I mean... it's disgusting, right? UG. (Love you, Sweetie. ;))

For the finishing touch I ordered a color-changing accent light for $15, and since our vase is WOOD, John was able to just screw it directly into the bottom where it won't show:

 As your reward for making it all the way through this tutorial, let's set this baby to DISCO MODE:


With the light's remote we can set it to any color, or have it alternate. Mostly we leave it on this warm orangey glow:

... but I also like the teal that matches our glowing mushrooms:

 (Mushroom lamp by The Snow Made!)

 One more of the purple/fuchsia, because WOW do I love these colors:

The light is directional, so it doesn't affect the whole room unless all the lights are out. Mostly it looks like this in the evening:

I'm hoping to add fairy lights around the topiary balls themselves using thin wire LEDS, but that will be an experiment in custom wiring. Fingers crossed we can make that work, because imagine how much more magical this would look with little lights in the tree!

So now the big question: is anyone else inspired to make your own topiary tree?? Tell me what you'd change, or how else you would use this! John and I are already working to modify my leaf pattern to make smaller versions, since I'd like to make something desktop size next with our extra paper. I'll let you know how that goes!


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  1. The four-step leaf gif in particular impressed me. Why? You didn't get trapped by thinking everything had to be the same (all still photos) and used the full capabilities of the medium.
    Seems like y'all are good at that in MANY forms!

    1. Thanks! You know my default is still photos, but I quickly realized they'd never work for this. The .gif is so much clearer.

  2. The thing I really love about the way you did the topiary balls on pvc pipe is, if you want to change the shape/color/style of them, they just pop off. GENIUS! The could come in handy for, say, Christmas and/or Hallowe'en. I love how creative you both are!

  3. I would say that I would either add fairy lights to the balls before flying the leaves or hanging fairy lights to look light dragon flyers around the topiary

  4. I can just imagine this decorated for different holidays.

  5. My first thought: You made the arm from Twin Peaks!. But really, it looks amazing! :D Hope a smaller one works, cause I would love to have one on my desk as well!

  6. Y’all are just amazing. Love the tree and I had noticed the lights in pics. All of it is gorgeous!

  7. Love everything you all do. I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for in the tiny fairy lights but Ikea has this https://www.ikea.com/us/en/p/vissvass-led-string-light-with-40-lights-indoor-battery-operated-silver-color-40414102/. Perhaps it's not ideal but it's certainly cheap enough and once we emerge from hibernation you can grab it locally.

  8. Gosh that light at the bottom ands so much. I definitely think twinkly lights would make your poms look magical. I wonder about making the paper balls in shapes to look like you'd shaped them. Like squares or even like you've carved a figure into a hedge. Could be cute to have a little Figment topiary in your office. But that might take some mad shaping of tape balls...but somehow i bet you guys could manange it.

  9. I love this! And I'm totally making a small one for my office to hang some special ornaments on that I want out all year long. I'm going to wait and see what you do with the lights first though. I have some thoughts, but wonder what you'll come up with. I can't wait to see it again when its done. Also - that 'vase' is AMAZING!

  10. Gorgeous. Twinkle lights would be beautiful. If you're looking for something cheap and battery operated look on ebay for this: 20/50/100 LED Battery Micro Rice Wire Copper Fairy String Lights Party white/rgb.

    I bought some like this and used them in one of my lanterns. They come in different colors and multi colors and have a little battery pack that you could probably hide amidst your leaves and they aren't very expensive either.

  11. This is brilliant! They would make amazing Truffula trees from Dr. Seuss. There are so many options when you make something yourself!

  12. I'm amazed the cats didn't decide the leaf-balls were their new favorite playthings.

  13. I am in love with the vase! I would never guess it was wood from the pictures. Ah-mazing.

    Not sure I have the patience for something like this. I can appreciate all the time, creativity, and patience it took. It’s a topiary of love! (Ha! I bet you could make heart shaped ones at some point!)

  14. I'd make flat tree balls for my library displays I think - they'd need to be flat so I can transport on public transport without too much smooshing and then pack them away for use in another school another day. I've got a Dr Seuss themed display that this would tie in VERY nicely with. The leaf technique is neat, I wonder if I can get my primary-aged library clubs to help me out...?

    1. I made truffula trees for my pre-K classroom's entrance using the old tissue paper flower method just big for this exact reason. I needed to transport the tops by public transportation. We used pool noodles and tape for the trunks, but tree branches would be fantastic! I wonder if I can get away with making some of these for classroom decor now that we have to keep the toddler rooms so bare for disinfection purposes this school year... We could maybe mount them up high from inquisitive hands. It would definitely soften the emptiness of the classroom...

  15. ok not gonna lie my relationship goals used to be Lily and Marshal from How I Met Your Mother (its the only reason I watched the show!!!) but you 2 are slowly overtaking them as my relationship goals couple. All you need now as a cool high five like Lily and Marshal and you will be my new number one!

    "we just need a simple box to hold this since now one will see it"

    "No wife of mine will use a simple box! behold a vase that looks like its from the store, but now you have to show proof pictures that I made it so nobody thinks we broke quarantine and we get in trouble!"

  16. Oh wow, that's amazing! I need a John to do all this woodcrafting for me. :)

  17. As someone who loves fiddly papercrafts (paper flowers! pop-ups!) and fiber art of various kinds (needle-felted, knitted, crocheted), *HOW DO YOU CLEAN IT*?

    I make ornaments, but Christmas tree ornaments are out for a short-enough period of time that they don't tend to get too dusty, and they're small enough you can usually shake them off or canned-air-blast them if they do get dust, and I have made temporary large-scale decorations for events (see: 25ft tall paper-and-tempera-paint seaweed for the gym at an ocean-themed VBS) but I have been deterred from doing anything larger-scale for decoration because I don't want to have to watch it get sad and then throw it out in six months... but 3D decor is so much fun to do! And so much fun to have! But how does one clean it?

    1. vacuum cleaner hose with stocking/cloth over the opening to keep the pressure down?

  18. John, you are AMAZING! That vase is perfect! I could see you using textured paint to make it look like stone. The possibilities! Do you think you will embed the battery packs into the balls for the twinkle lights? I'm sure John will come up with some kind of genius solution.

  19. There is just something happy about that tree. It's making me grin, too, from many states away!

    I loved seeing how it was made, and that vase is amazing too. Such fun!

  20. Leaping off of Karen W.'s comment about the interchangability of the balls- you could make orange balls with jack-o-lantern faces for Halloween! You could make multi-colored balls that look like Christmas ornaments! I'm sure you could think of even more ideas, but I love the genius of making them so easily removable & interchangable.

  21. Your technique for the leaves reminds me of those crafts we used to do in grade school, where you took a square of tissue paper and scrunched it around your pencil and dipped it in glue and stuck it to something... this is obviously superior!

    And I have to say, I would be so tempted to add giant googly eyes...

  22. This turned out so cool! My mom's favorite medium is paper/paper mache and I can see different shapes on your tree instead of round. Especially with your genius geometer guy. ;-)

  23. Okay, I need to know how John worked out those angles, please! Did you calculate them by hand somehow, or use drafting software or what? It turned out beautiful!

    1. Definitely no software, we're not that high-tech! John's just reeeeallly good at math and visualizing builds in his head.

  24. I built a topiary for a stage set years ago--not so tricky, more formal stack-o'-spheres--and it was one of my favorite things I've made for a play. (I used balloons and paper mache for my spheres, but I might go your way if I did it again-I've hatched a latex allergy.)
    Now I want to build another one....

  25. Man, I want to come to your someday house just to ogle all your and John's amazing projects and DIYs with my own eyes. This is SO cool!! I can't imagine having the patience for this. Kudos to you and to John too for making that wicked vase!!


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