I should start this by saying that although I'm using Crepe Myrtle "tips" as the basis for these foreground trees, those of you north of southern New Jersey are going to have a hard time finding Crepe Myrtles. These plants truly do not like extended cold weather.
But don't despair. Next time you're down south you'll find these things everywhere from Virginia south to Florida. I understand they're also quite common in southern California.
Of course you don't have to use Crepe Myrtles - the key is to find something that has a fairly tight branching structure. I've used hydrangeas, and while they don't work quite as well for the process I'm sharing, they're not bad. Another option is to create your own armature from florists wire. That can produce truly stunning results, but can be extremely time consuming.
But this post will focus on starting with natural armatures. No matter what plant you find, you want an armature that looks something like this:
These are from one of the Crepe Myrtles in our yard. I let the Crepe Myrtle flowers go to seed and leave them on the plant until mid-winter before cutting them from the plant. This way they'll be completely dried out.
After cutting them from the plant, and removing the seed pods, you'll be left with something like the ones shown in the photo. These are extremely bent - the flowers kind of droop a lot on that particular plant, and the result is a bent seed head.When I encounter this problem I usually combine the individual branches together to create the basic armature of the tree. By placing two or three of these with the branches arching away from one another you can quickly create the look of a tree. I often need to trim away bits and pieces of the main "stems" to get something that looks like a tree and not a handful of branches!
If the bend is very severe I'll glue the branches together at some point other than the base of each - and then trim the remainder away once the glued has dried completely.
I also have found it useful to trim an angle into the bottom of some of the larger separate branches so the join looks more natural.
Next Step: Finer branches and a fancy new glue pot!