By Katie Elzer-Peters
Adding Hardscape Features to the Landscape
If you’re not in the landscape industry, you might not even know what constitutes hardscape. In landscape design, hardscape is almost exactly what it sounds like: non-plant elements of the landscape, or “hard” elements of the landscape.
This includes walls, patios, decks, fire places, fire pits, walkways, steps, and railings—basically anything that isn’t a plant. For most yards and gardens to be comfortable living spaces, some hardscape is needed. However, the hardscape doesn’t have to be humdrum or boring. Below are the basics you need to know about hardscape, and some ideas to help you create interesting and functional hardscape features for your garden.
Types of Hardscape
There are infinite possibilities for adding hardscape features to your yard. Here are some links for design inspiration:
Walls can separate garden rooms, or hold soil across varying elevations of the landscape. For example, if your house is on the top of the hill, and your yard slopes away from the house, down the hill, terraces and walls can help shore up the bank and add interest to the garden. Here’s some more information about landscaping projects with walls.
Patios and Decks
Patios and decks perform somewhat similar functions in the landscape. They are both open areas that generally hold furniture for relaxing and enjoying the garden. A deck is usually an elevated structure, made from wood or composite material. A patio is usually level to the ground, and made from stones, bricks or pavers. Here are some pictures of various patio materials.
Walkways can be made of pavers, gravel, grass, herbs, wood, brick, stones or other materials. It’s important that the walkway is accessible to the people who use it most often. If you have elderly parents that visit frequently, you might not want to install an uneven surface. Here’s a link with great walkway ideas.
Steps lead from one area of the garden to another. They can be made of wood, stone, pavers, bricks, or banked grass. One of the most famous sets of steps is in the Italian Water Garden at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. When Pierre DuPont first showed his family the new garden after construction was completed, he had the kids sit on the steps leading from the overlook down into the garden. Then, he turned on the water! The steps are really a fountain. You can imagine their surprise! Here’s a link to Longwood Gardens and other famous outdoor fountains.
Fire pits are becoming popular for the home landscape. You can purchase copper dishes and fire chimneys, but if you plan to use the fire pit often, building one into the garden is worth the effort and expense.
Pergolas, canopies, garden arbors, and awnings provide shelter in outdoor living spaces and space for climbing plants to grow. The Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College has some of the most beautiful courtyards, patios, and pergolas in any garden. Even though those gardens are adjacent to large buildings, the way the hardscape helps connect the buildings and the plants together, and form more intimate spaces for pedestrians, is inspiring to the homeowner. You can see examples of Swarthmore’s architecture and gardens by taking a virtual tour of the Scott Arboretum here. Just click on each map section to see pictures of the gardens and hardscapes.
Form + Function
As with any landscape feature, before you add hardscape to your garden, you want to think about form and function of the finished product. Together, good form and appropriate function create pleasing, useful landscapes. Often, hardscape acts as a bridge between larger buildings and smaller gardens, and creates outdoor rooms. It is important, therefore, for the hardscape design to complement or mirror the landscape around it.
One of the reasons that the courtyards, patios and other large stonework projects are so successful at the Scott Arboretum is that the paving and building materials for the garden structures closely match the materials used for the buildings. Grey stone is predominant throughout the architecture of the campus, and is used, in different shapes and sizes throughout the garden.
A sandstone patio would look very out of place next to a cabin in the Maine woods. A granite retaining wall would be sorely out of place fronting a beach house. Well-designed hardscape will enhance and blend, instead of sticking out. Here’s an article on stone hardscapes.
The look is important, and so is the function. A retaining wall that must hold up a bank needs to be sturdy enough to do so. A walkway leading from driveway to doorway should be well-lit, relatively even, and easy to navigate. Maintenance issues contribute to hardscape function. If you live near the ocean, use materials that can withstand the elements: wind, water and salt. Or, be aware that if you build with wood, you will need to scrape and paint often-at least once a year. If you are happy to do frequent maintenance, go with more natural materials. If you have little time and need longevity without much care, composite materials or hard stones are better.
Interesting Hardscape Ideas
If you type “hardscape” or “patios” or “walkways” into Google, you’ll see a lot of the same pictures and ideas. If you want your garden to look extraordinary, instead of ordinary, try these ideas instead:
• Use recycled materials.
At the North Carolina Botanical Garden, they have edged their pathways with old wine bottles or beer bottles stuck, opening down, into the ground. This Fine Gardening article on green patio materials encourages gardeners to hunt through architectural salvage shops for landscaping materials.
• Make a mosaic.
If you’ve ever had the great fortune to visit Dumbarton Oaks, a public garden in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. you’ve seen their beautiful stone mosaics. The patios look as if they are covered in giant, ornate carpets, but they are all stone. Check out these patios and walkways made from stone mosaics.
• Use tumbled glass for mulch.
The Garfield Park Conservatory used glass mulch in their outdoor gardens, after they renovated and re-opened the conservatory and its surrounding landscape. Here’s where you can find tumbled landscape glass.
While many of the tips and inspirations listed above come from larger, public spaces, visits to those spaces can provide ideas for the home gardener. The plus side of hardscape in a home landscape is that the space is smaller, requiring less materials and less money! It is easier to experiment with interesting materials and combinations if it is your own backyard.
Katie Elzer-Peters is a freelance writer living in Wilmington, NC. Her writing and PR business, The Garden of Words, L.L.C. serves clients all over the world. In her free time, Katie bicycles, surfs, reads books, and, of course, gardens.