Basics of Hardscape Design
Formal hardscape design
Hardscape refers to all the permanent, structural components of the
landscape - paths, patios, arbors, walls, decks, and sheds - as opposed to
the softscape, which is limited to plants, soils, and mulch. Installing a
hardscape is a long term investment in the functionality and aesthetic
appeal of your property. Based on price per square foot, hardscape is much
more expensive to install than softscape, though maintenance is usually
needed less often than with plants.
Typically, the hardscape is
designed first, which forms the structure that the softscape will fit into.
There are two main approaches in landscape design - formal
and naturalistic - which also form the jumping off point when considering
the design of your hardscape. Formal design emphasizes straight lines and
symmetrical shapes, while a naturalistic approach utilizes assemblies of
asymmetrical shapes to achieve an overall design that appears balanced and
A kidney-shaped patio edged by the sweeping curve of a stone
retaining wall that tapers off into the hillside exemplifies the
naturalistic approach. Formal hardscape design might include a series of
rectangular raised beds constructed in two parallel lines with a central
path between them leading to a circular fountain.
Japanese-style hardscape design
A garden shed with
weathered wood siding and a rustic wood-shingled roof has a very different
style than a stucco-walled outbuilding. A flagstone patio with tiny ground
covers creeping between the stones conveys something very different than a
stamped concrete surface with brick edging. In other words, style has
a lot to do with the materials used and the ambiance they create when
combined in the landscape. The key is to choose what suits your personal
sense of taste, what matches existing features (especially the house) and to
use the choices consistently throughout the design.
It's a good idea to start designing with an accurate base map of
your property. Draw outlines of the hardscape features you desire and link
them with a network of pathways. You will see very quickly whether a formal,
symmetrical approach is a good fit for the shape of your house and property
lines or if it would be an unnatural, forced approach.
Consider the layout of paths
carefully, as they are the arteries of the design. Try to keep it simple by
routing them along the contours of the landscape as much as possible to
avoid going up and down a lot and having to install stairways unnecessarily.
Amount of Hardscape
When thinking about how to far to go with
your hardscape project, it's wise to strike a good balance between the
amount of hardscape and the amount of softscape. In an average size
backyard, limiting the amount of hardscape to about one-third of the total
space is a good rule of thumb to keep a good visual balance. Of course, if
you have a tiny yard, you may want convert the entire space to a patio or
deck, in which case the plantscape can consist of a container garden.
Hardscape Elements to Include;
Consider the most common elements
of hardscaping that you may want to include in your overall landscape
Patio with potted plants
ground level entertaining area, patios are considered an extension of the
house and are usually adjacent to the back door. On larger properties, they
can also be located away from the house as a destination for cookouts,
parties or simply relaxing in the sun.
Consider incorporating other
hardscape elements with your patio to make it even more user-friendly - an
overhead awning or pergola for shade, water feature or an outdoor fireplace,
Decks are by nature
elevated off the ground, making them a logical alternative to a patio if the
back door is not at ground level. They're also a great fit to hang over the
edge of a slope to create flat, usable space on a hillside and to take
advantage of a sweeping vista.
Retaining walls are
a way to stabilize slopes and make flat space for gardening or for a patio,
deck or other form of hardscape. They serve an important function but they
should be designed with aesthetics in mind - imagine the terraced hillsides
of Tuscany or Indonesia for inspiration.
Combined elements and materials
Sheds, gazebos, pergolas,
arbors and trellises are other common hardscape elements to incorporate into
your design. Pergolas and gazebos are enchanting backyard destinations,
while arbors and trellises are designed to support the growth of vines, the
former at entryway locations, the latter adjacent to a structure or the home
Often several of these hardscape elements are adjacent to
each other or related in some way, so it's best to design them with a common
visual motif, in terms of style, materials and color scheme.
Each hardscape feature can be built with a wide range of
materials, depending on the way it will be used, personal taste, and budget.
Whether in the form of flat flagstones, decorative boulders,
ornamental gravel or as a rustic retaining wall material, natural stone has
a timeless - some would say priceless - presence in the landscape. One thing
for sure is that it is pricey. Using it strategically in small quantities -
such as the concrete wall blocks with a thin stone facing that are commonly
available - is one way to enjoy the look of stone without draining your
Paver path and block wall
Concrete pavers and
Concrete is generally the cheapest material to
work with and offers an incredible degree of flexibility in terms of the
form it can take. Wet concrete can be poured into forms for patios and
walls, while concrete pavers and pre-fabricated blocks are an inexpensive
alternative to their natural stone counterparts.
Concrete can be
dyed, stained, polished, textured and stamped with patterns to achieve any
look desired - but alas, it is still concrete, which never quite looks or
feels like natural stone.
Wood has a lighter, less dominating
feel in the landscape compared to stone or concrete, though its lifespan is
somewhat limited. It is the only choice for decks, but can also be used for
retaining walls - in the form of stacked railroad ties, for example. In
general, wood is conducive to a landscape design featuring straight lines,
while concrete and natural stone are easier to work with when curved lines
and organic shapes are desired.
Tips, Tricks and Details
Designing a successful hardscape is costly, complex and involved. Make sure
you have all the information on the table before jumping in.
Drainage is a major consideration in hardscape design that is often
overlooked during the planning stages. Your property must be graded for
water to flow away from all structures and hardscape elements and to move in
a gentle, constructive way that does not result in erosion.
is often necessary to build hardscape features and is a costly part of the
process that must be considered at the outset. Plus, most types of hardscape
are impervious to rainfall, meaning the water that falls on them must be
collected and routed to some sort of drainage system.
Pile of broken concrete
Concrete rubble for reuse in hardscaping
Concrete rubble is one of the world's biggest waste products - why not
recycle it and incorporate it into your hardscape? Flat, flagstone-size
pieces of broken concrete can be used as a path or patio surface or stacked
into retaining walls. Colored with concrete stain and planted around the
edges, urbanite, as it's often called in the trade, is an inexpensive,
Earth-friendly hardscaping material.
Know When You Need a Contractor
Decks, patios, walls, drainage systems and other hardscape elements often
require a permit from the local planning or building department. Depending
on their complexity, plans from an engineer, landscape architect or
contractor may be necessary. As load-bearing structural features, there is a
safety element involved and it is better to hire a professional than assume
liability if your good intentions result in unintended consequences.
Start Planning Today
With all this information in mind, it is time to
start dreaming and put pen to paper in planning out the hardscape components
that will make a foundation for the landscape of your dreams.