I have already started buying seeds locally and ordering special varieties from catalogues – which means that I have also started making plant markers for plants or varieties that I have not grown before. If I don’t make them now, I find that I get too busy to do them once the seeds are in the ground and the weather is warm enough to be in the garden every day.
I make all kinds of markers – as you will see when the book comes out next year – but some of my favorites are the leaf shaped markers that I make from polymer clay. These clay markers are easy to carve or imprint before they are baked and finished. The butterflies – in a variety of colors – add some accent to the gardens, while the green leaf shapes blend right in with the other foliage.
Polymer clay is widely available at craft stores in dozens of fabulous colors and under the brand names Fimo or Sculpy. The colors do fade a little after long exposure to the elements, but these markers should last for several years.
Polymer clay is easy to use and requires only minimal equipment. You need a rolling pin, large dowel or length of PVC pipe to flatten the clay. If you have one, a pasta machine is great for this because it will maintain even thickness and can process a lot of clay in a short time. I often see them at tag sales and flea markets, testimony to abandoned dreams of homemade pasta.
Depending on how thick and how large you make them, you should be able to make 4-6 marker tags from one block of clay. I make my leaf-shaped markers in several shades of green and then mix the left-over bits together for a last marbleized marker to avoid having tiny amounts left over.
Polymer comes in little blocks that are quite firm when you open the package, but kneading the clay with your hands will provide enough warmth to soften it and make it quite workable. This conditioning step is essential to the process.
Once you have kneaded and conditioned the clay, roll it out to about ¼” thick. Then just cut out the shape you want your marker to be. You can use a drinking glass to cut out a circle or novelty cookie cutters for fun shapes. I use a knife to cut out the green leaf-like shapes that I favor because they blend right in with garden foliage.
You can poke a hole in your markers prior to baking them, but I prefer to wait until after they are baked and cooled to drill even, clean holes for hanging them on twisted wires. When I make my leaves, I allow extra material at the end where I plan to drill the hole and fold the clay over itself one or more times to make it thicker in that area. Sometimes, I just roll the end of the marker around a couple of toothpicks instead. After the pieces are baked I remove the toothpicks and insert a wire through the channel they leave behind.
Polymer can easily be forced through a garlic press to make grass or leafy effects, cut with cookie cutters or rolled into little balls. You can add all sorts of surface texture and decoration – and probably will because this is a very enticing medium to work with and once you start using it, you won’t need anyone to provide you with ideas. Just make sure that you lightly scratch the surface where you want to add texture or join two pieces and then smooth the edges together for a good bond. I usually use an orange (manicure) stick to do this.
Depending on the size of your marker, you can use tools like metal skewers, chopsticks, knitting needles or an awl to incise the lettering. Just make sure you carve them deeply enough to be read. I have a set of 1/4” plastic alphabet stamps that I like to use because the lettering is crisper and more even. They came with a little rack that makes it easy to spell out intact words (in reverse) and then stamp the whole word onto the clay. This is helpful when you plan to make multiple tags with the same information. Otherwise, just hold each individual letter and stamp them in a line. I bought my plastic alphabet stamps at Michael’s. Rio Grande Jewelry supply (www.riogrande.com) sells wonderful sets of metal stamps, but be forewarned that the larger (and more readable) the type size, the higher the price.
Once you have formed your polymer pieces, they need to be baked according to the manufacturer’s directions. Generally, directions call 20-30 minutes in a low oven (temperatures from 225 – 250º). Thick pieces need to bake a little longer than thinner ones and polymer objects that are too thin or have been baked too long will be brittle. So, to simplify things, try to keep all of your pieces about the same thickness when you make them.
You can use your kitchen oven or a toaster oven to bake this clay, but keep the windows open for good ventilation as some people find the smell irritating and do not bake food and polymer clay at the same time. I usually bake my pieces flat on a parchment covered cookie sheet. They still feel somewhat flexible when they are warm, but stiffen up as they cool. To give my leaves a more natural, graceful shape, I drape them over a little wad of crumpled parchment paper when I bake them and they retain the curve as they cool.
I leave my polymer markers outside year round even though Connecticut winters can be bitterly cold and the clay could crack and break as a result. So far, I’ve been lucky.