The Art of *Legally* Decorating with $0 Stones, Sticks, and Leaves

published Jul 13, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Modern living room with beige leather sofa, graphic black and white accents

As the saying goes, “sticks and stones may break your bones,” but they also make wonderful design elements in your home. Every time I travel, I feel as if I take some part of my surroundings, whether it’s foliage, a rock, or shell (legally, of course) back with me to serve as not only a memento but also as a deliberate decor decision.

These sourced-from-the-great-outdoors finds have included pebbles near the glaciers of Alaska, granite from the somewhat polarizing Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota (where, as an active excavation site, taking one rock as a souvenir from a very specific spot is actually encouraged in on-the-premise signage), and even dried rose petals from a wedding ceremony in Mallorca. There is something about bringing the outside in that is not only inspiring but comforting, especially in an environment that can easily read as sterile. 

Arkansas-based artist and interior designer Beau Jones of Beautox agrees. “Using elements of nature in interior design can bring life to any space,” he says. “You can easily incorporate sticks in vessels or vases, use stones to create a feature wall or fireplace, and forage leaves from trees and plants to give an earthy feel to a living area. These touches also mix well with any design aesthetic.” 

But before you search for treasures like a modern-day Davy Crockett, keep these important tips in mind when looking for free natural decor — and decorating with it. I’ll also be showing you some images from my own Brooklyn apartment for inspiration, and you might be surprised just how well natural touches can work in any setting and with any color scheme. 

Make sure you are gathering materials legally.

I know it sounds like common sense, but it’s not wise to assume you can take anything that isn’t offered to you. In fact, collecting stones, sticks, and leaves could leave you with a hefty fine or even land you in jail. Be sure to read signage around you and look up the site you’re in online to see if there are any regulations on taking items home. “Make sure you know the local, state, and federal laws about foraging in your area,” advises Jones. “Consider visiting an open forest first, where it is typically safe and legal to do so.”

Another thing to consider when foraging is the local fauna. “You also do not want to disturb any animals or wildlife that live there,” adds Jones, noting that something as simple as a twig could be exactly what an endangered bird is looking for to construct the perfect nest. “Always be mindful of the potential impact.” If you’re not 100 percent certain something is up for grabs, err on the side of caution. Do your research and stay away from anything endangered in terms of greenery, too; on federal lands, collecting plants listed under the Endangered Species Act is illegal.

Credit: Joey Skladany

Clean and preserve your treasures. 

Though maintaining the look, feel, and integrity of your earthy findings is the primary goal, you’ll want to clean and preserve these items to ensure their longevity — and that you don’t bring dirt and insects into your home. “The preservation of stone is done by coating the surface with paraffin, linseed oil, or light paint,” explains Jones. “Protective finishes and sprays, such as those from the Minwax brand, are great options for sticks, while glycerin is a great way to preserve leaves over time.”

Of course, you’ll want to remove anything that has attached itself to your find as well. Soaking sticks and stones in water typically gets the job done, while leaves can receive a very light sponge bath with soapy water. 

Embrace natural touches, but try not to overdo it. 

Adding elements of Mother Nature can be quite exciting as you create your own oasis, but it can quickly teeter on the edge of a plant-parent-gone-totally-wild if you don’t exercise a bit of restraint. “It may be a cliché, but less is more,” Jones says. “Be thoughtful about where you place these pieces, especially when you incorporate more ornate and busy styles within your space.”

You can fill oversized, clear glass vases with branches or tall grasses, use large stones as paperweights or bookends, line a decorative tray or old printer tray with dried leaves and specimens, or place a few prized shells or pebbles in a see-through lucite or acrylic box. Keep your display method simple so the visual attention is on your natural find. “You don’t want anything to come across as too conflicting,” adds Jones. “Start by treating these natural elements as accent pieces instead of focal points. Once you’ve mastered that, you can then work your way up to bigger design moments.” 

Consider hiring a professional for a more artful installation.

Sometimes inspiration can run rampant, so you might want to consider teaming up with a designer to showcase a favorite item or collection of pieces. “Find an expert at using these materials and have them take care of installation, whether it’s covering a fireplace in stone or sanding and glazing a piece of wood to make a table,” says Jones. “You can also source objects and commission an artist to transform them into art.”

Jonnes, for example, concocted his own line of 3D art with hearts made out of wood. “I use a jigsaw to cut pieces of wood into different shapes and objects,” he explains. “I then sand, prime and paint, and then collage the wood pieces together to create these sculptural, 3D anatomical hearts that can hang with an attached hook on the back.” 

The right pro will be excited to collaborate with you on a special installation. “Designs like these are fun for both the artist and the client,” says Jones. “You can sit down and really come up with something unique that honors the material while giving it new life.”

Don’t be scared of green(ery).

Pops of green blend beautifully with warm and cool neutrals alike — take a look at the moss balls in my largely modern-leaning, black and white apartment, for example. “Greenery from plants, trees, and moss is a great way to brighten a room with a little color,” shares Jones. “There are many leaves that are unique in shape and design and will dry to a neutral cream or brown so that you can, technically, hold on to them forever.” 

You can also take the color scheme a step further by investing in throw pillows, curtains, knickknacks, and lamp shades with a green motif or simply let your nature-found objects speak for themselves. “Don’t be intimidated by the process,” says Jones. “The beauty of bringing these items into your home is that they won’t cost you anything and can make a big impact. If they don’t work, dispose of them safely and move on to the next idea.”