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
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
Japanese hardscape design
Japanese-style hardscape design style
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.
Map Your 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,
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
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
Hardscape Elements to Include;
Consider the most common elements of hardscaping that you
may want to include in your overall landscape design.
Patio with potted
As a 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, for example.
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
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.
Ornate gazebo on pavers
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 itself.
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 hardscape budget.
Paver path and block wall
Concrete pavers and retaining wall
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
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.
Grading 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