Sedum Trees Are Cheap,
Easy, And A Fast Way
To Scenic A Model Railroad

How to let Mother Nature help you make cheap trees

A forest of sedum trees takes shape above Port Feron
on my previous Utopia Northern model railroad
sedum tree model forest

If you live in the northern hemisphere you or one of your neighbours probably has sedum growing nearby. It's a very common autumn flowering perennial and there are as many as 600 varieties.I don't know which one I found in my neighbour's garden, but it looked like the makings for a model tree.  

The idea is to gather the plants at the end of the season when they're brown and the flowers are dead and let them dry for awhile. The cuttings I took sat in my basement under the layout for two years before I got around to using them. I was prompted by the need to complete scenery along one wall of the layout. 

On other scenery pages I explain how I painted a scenery backdrop and added other types of trees and scenery. If you have a copy of the November, 2009 issue of Model Railroader magazine you can follow along on page 32. I followed David Popp's article.  I have seen other descriptions of this technique, but his is a very easy method.

When dry, sedum plants are brittle. To overcome this, you dip the selected cuttings in a mixture of white glue and water or matte medium and water. 

A plastic container and matte medium for making sedum trees
matte medium tree dunking

I had some matte medium so I used it in roughly the proportions suggested by David: 1 part matte medium to 4 parts water. The proportions aren't critical. You just want a drippy solution that will cover the stalks and flowers.

I mixed up the solution in a plastic yogurt container and dipped the "trees" into the mixture for 20 seconds or so. I used a soft small paint brush to spread the mixture over the bottoms of the flower pods and spread it out where it was too thick. David suggests hanging the stalks upside down over a 5-gallon container to dry. I hung a string over my laundry tub in the basement (not the one my wife uses) and hung the stalks upside down with clothespins from the Dollar Store.

Hanging the stalks to dry
drying model sedum trees

I let the stalks drip into the laundry tub and then rinsed the tub and left them to continue to dry overnight.

Closeup of a dunked sedum tree
closep of dunking sedum trees

Fruit trees, saplings and smaller trees are the easiest to make as they have a single stem or trunk. Find ones that have a fairly straight trunk and snip off the ends with some cutters.

Clip and prune the tree for a shape that's pleasing
gluing sedum stalks

Clip off broken flower pods or unwanted limbs to roughly shape your tree. Consider the height of the trees and where they will be planted. You can put smaller ones at the back if you're trying to force perspective.

Trees aren't all the same height or shape. You can mix them together. For some reason odd numbers of trees look more natural than an even number. Plant three in a grouping instead of two.If you want a larger tree or one with a more rounded appearance, put two or more stems together by holding them side-by-side and secure them with a drop of cyanoacrylate adhesive (CA) glue.  

Glue stalks together for a fuller tree
glued sedum stalks

I used Sinbad glue and Sinbad accelerator but any "super glue" will work. It is then possible to build up the trunk of the sedum trees with latex bathtub caulking.  Old oak trees, for example, would need a bigger trunk. So would older maple trees. I had some white bathtub caulk left over from a project so that's what I used. The colour isn't important at this stage.

Build up trunks with latex bathtub caulk
caulking sedum trunks
Insert a straight pin
in the base
for planting
sedum stalk planting pin

Because I was going to mingle these sedum trees in the background for the most part with Woodland Scenics and other brands I wasn't too fussy about building up the trunks.  I tried a couple just to get the feel of it. You can be as creative as you want.  Observe the trees in your neighbourhood for starters.The caulk can be shaped when it is wet and carved when it is dry. The bottom should flare a little where the root system would start. 

  • The next step was to push in a dressmaker's straight pin (from WalMart) and cut off the end with cutters that work on steel. 

I used an old pair of rail nippers that are already chewed up.The pin can be secured with another drop of CA. In most instances I didn't even bother doing this. I hold the pin with pliers or the rail nippers when I want to plant a tree. If I'm planting into foam it will go in easily.

Tip: When planting into plaster cloth or hydrocal plaster I pre-drill a small hole and leave the drill bit in the hole until I plant the tree. Otherwise it's often difficult to locate the hole!

After the latex caulk had set up I took the trees out to the garage for initial spraying. David Popp suggested using a carboard box as a planter. This worked great because it was easy to push the pins into the cardboard. I set a small bit into my Dremel and pre-drilled holes in the top of the box.  The reason for the box is that some paints will attack the foam if you use a block of styrofoam. I keep the pink styrofoam block on my workbench when I'm adding the leaves. I'll get to that in a moment.

Sedum trees sprayed with gray auto primer
painting sedum trees

David used Rust-Oleum Dark Gray Auto Primer. I had some light gray automobile primer so I used that. It worked well. 

Tree trunks and limbs aren't really brown. They usually have a lot of gray in the bark. You can add highlights of brown. I didn't bother. If you're making aspen or birch trees you could spray with white and add the black dots or lines afterwards. The auto primers are fast and inexpensive and a lot easier to use than setting up an airbrush. 

  • The one caveat is to use a flat paint, not a glossy paint.

Spread the work out over several days and make your trees in batches.  I let the primed trees dry for 24 hours and then took them back to my workbench, removed them from the cardboard box, and replanted them in a scrap of pink styrofoam.

You could leave them on the box.

Putting leaves on your sedum trees

Spread the work out over several days and make your trees in batches.  I let the primed trees dry for 24 hours and then took them back to my workbench, removed them from the cardboard box, and replanted them in a scrap of pink styrofoam. You could leave them on the box.

Redipped sedum tree in matte medium with foam added
redipping sedum trees

The next step was to make a thicker mixture of matte medium. David Popp used a 50/50 mixture of white glue and water. I simply filled my half-empty yogurt container up to the top with matte medium.  I then dipped one tree at a time into the mixture and let the mixture drip off back into the container helped along with my paint brush. While holding the tree upside down over the plastic lid of a Woodland Scenics tree kit box (you could use any container you want for this), I sprinkled on various shades and textures of ground foam.  Even some old dyed sawdust I had.

My primary colours were fine turf green and a slightly coarser turf blend. I rotated the tree in every direction to get a good coating of leaves to cover all the flower pods. 

Sedum trees with first coating of leaves
group of sedum trees

I tried various blends and grades. It's even possible to add some clump foliage, but it tends to fall off the wet surface. i did try going back when a tree was dry and adding some Hob-e-Tac to a few branches in order to fill out the canopy with clump foliage. Anyway, after the trees were dry I used my fingers to rub off fine foam that had stuck to the limbs and trunks where there shouldn't be leaves.

1st planting. The tree on the left
is a commercial pine tree.
1st planting of model sedum trees

Finer foam will fill in gaps left by the medium coarse foam. Obviously, it depends on the scale you're working in and the size of the trees. I work in HO scale. David Popp was working in N scale for the article. He used finer grades of foam. The whole process is very forgiving. I wasn't satisfied with my first attempt at making sedum trees because some of the matte medium still showed through. I took those trees back to the workbench and resprayed them with a cheap hair spray.This provided a fixative to allow me to sprinkle more fine ground foam over the trees to hide any unsightly bits. After a final spray I replanted them.

A hilltop of sedum trees takes shape.
hilltop of model sedum trees

I ended up with about two dozen sedum trees for a couple of hours of work spread over a week.  This is an inexpensive way to add a bunch of deciduous trees to your layout. It's a nice change from the twine pine trees, bottle brush trees and puffball forests.

Learn about making pine trees.

Paint a scenery backdrop.

An overview about making trees.

Return from "sedum-trees" to my Home Page.

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