Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Hardscaping

What is Known as ‘Hardscaping’ in Landscape Design?

Landscape Architects and others in the field of landscape design often use the terms “softscape” and “hardscape” to distinguish between plants (soft) and rock or soil work and all the other “hard” elements of landscaping. A simple definition of “hardscape” is anything in the landscape that is not plantings, soils, or earth works.

At first thought, it might seem counterintuitive to think of ‘hard’scaping as a wanted element in an environment designers often take great pains to keep natural and soft. So, why would this seemingly contradictory intrusion into the world of soft and floral be a critical part of any landscape design?  

Why Hardscaping Should be Apart of Any Landscape Design

Hardscaping provides many added benefits beyond what plant and soil materials can accomplish on their own. Here are just a few of those reasons:

  • Hardscaping areas provide contrast and added visual interest to planted spaces
  • They provide designated areas for user activities within the garden spaces, such as reading, gathering, eating, or relaxing
  • Hardscape elements are the most efficient materials to use to create accessibility within your natural spaces. Paths made of stone, brick, or compacted gravel provide a better walking or running surface than those made of organic materials such as hardwood mulch
  • Since hardscape materials are natural but inorganic they generally require much less long term maintenance and resources such as fertilizer and water

How to use Rocks & other Hardscape Elements in your Garden Design

Hardscaping can be thought of as the bones, or framework, of a garden. It could be sleek flagstone patios, pebble mosaics, brick or rustic gravel walkways; perhaps a uniquely shaped boulder placed as a focal point in the garden or near a building to highlight architectural features. Natural stone, retaining walls, benches, seats, and sculptural landscape features, create the immovable structure through which designers (or handy diy homeowners) can easily weave in combinations of trees, plants, and shrubs into the garden tapestry.

Photo: Source

Just as any good landscape designer should draw plant choices from the natural surrounding landscape, hardscape selection should also relate to the native environment as well as the style of house. For example, a colonial or Georgian house would benefit from the addition of brick or cut stone to add formality. A farmhouse in the countryside would combine well with fieldstone walls and paths of flagstone or flat river stones set in gravel. A Craftsman-style house in the city might call for a pattern of square and rectangular stones, and walls of cut or ashlar stone, or brick.

Archeticulally speaking, a good hardscape plan can help you divide the landscape into a collection of “rooms” or sequence of gardens. This is a timeless method of design as it provides separate spaces for different activities and a sense of surprise and thrill of discovery in moving from ‘room to room’. Stone walls and hedges act as room dividers, and steps and paths act as transitions between these rooms, as well as the necessary means of moving between them.

Photo: Source

How a patio or terrace will be used in part should dictate your choice of paving material. Flat stones with mortared joints or sand-set brick are preferable for areas to close into the house, entries, and higher traffic areas. Irregular, dry-laid stones, crushed rock or packed decomposed granite are great for garden paths and casual areas. Dining areas or a seating terrace can be on stone, gravel or crushed rock, or wooden decking, depending in part on the furniture chosen for that use.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Hardscape Elements:

1. Color

Besides needing to harmonious with the colors found in the landscape plantings and architectural features, the color of your hardscape elements can play an important role. Light colored stone may help to brighten a shady corner but could also create glare in a sunnier spot. Dark stone materials might absorb too much heat for nearby planting materials.

2. Porosity

The level of permeability a material has may matter more in some locations than others. A lava rock boulder, with its open honeycomb-like surface, would collect every fallen leaf and flower blossom if it were placed below a flowering ornamental tree. This might not be a bad thing, depending on what aesthetic you are going for or what level of garden maintenance you are willing to put into your landscape.

3. Finish

Much like the porosity of stone materials, the finish can greatly affect the look, feel, and functionality of an outdoor area. Rough cut or chopped limestone blocks offer a rustic, natural feel while the same stone with a saw cut finished edge can transform a wall face or column top to a modern, sleek reveal. Additionally, when dealing with patio or walkway hardscape choices, consider how slick the stone finish will become during periods of precipitation or with a layer of snow or ice.

More factors to consider

Paths need to be stable, easy to walk on, and preferably look like they belong. Again, a sense of fitting in with the natural landscape is important. Gravel, crushed rock and decomposed granite paths should ideally be edged, either with metal edging, wood timbers, or smaller brick or stone pieces. Dry-set paths of flagstone should use thicker stones 2” – 6”. Stone steps need to be set in concrete for stability, unless they are fairly massive (5-6” thick).

Photo: Source

The use of large, natural stones or boulders as pure design elements in the garden can help lift an ordinary planting plant to a new level of visual interest. Enormous granite boulders flecked with sparkly quartz, limestone or sandstone outcroppings that mimic those found in nature, large half-buried mossy fieldstones, or even a special grouping of uniquely shaped beach stones you found on your last vacation can help add a truly one of a kind feel to your landscape and make them “pop” with unusual interest.

So, if you’re designing a new garden, or looking to rehabilitate a portion of one already in existence, think of the hardscape components just as carefully as you consider what trees, shrubs, and plants you want to put where. In the end, you’ll have a more integrated, harmonious design, less maintenance, and a more interesting garden!

Photo: Source

Pricing Stone Landscape Elements

While the reasons to add stone and hardscape elements to your landscape design might be numerous and easy to define, setting a price to this addition is not as clear. The cost of stone varies considerably depending on its weight, smoothness or texture, style, and thickness. Another variable is the process of installation, or how much labor will be required to complete the installation and how easily accessible is the final location of the stone or brick. Also, using stone sourced near a quarry will be more economical (not to mention contextually relevant to your natural surroundings). This means if you live in an area naturally rich in stone, like Texas, then getting limestone will be easier on the budget compared to shipping in a Canadian granite.

All of those variables aside, the average cost to install a flagstone patio will range somewhere from $15 to $30 per square foot. Natural boulders are usually sold by the pound or ton depending on how big they are. Be sure to account for heavy equipment needed to deliver and set these elements. River rock or other small stone aggregate is sold by the cubic yard (1).

If this all seems overwhelming, do not be discouraged. In the world of landscape design, pricing and product availability is often changing. The best solution is to work with a local landscape architect that knows the most sound solutions for your specific climate, native plantings, and natural resources.

Photo: Source

Stone connects the garden to the land, since stone is literally of the earth. It is a natural material that complements plants, lasts forever, and is intrinsically beautiful. Flagstone terraces, high walls combining large, vertical granite stones with small fieldstones, low traditional dry-laid walls, outdoor fireplaces and fire pits, fountains and waterfalls, rock paths and walkways—all woven together create a wonderful weft for the warp of landscape of plants, and work to further enhance natural elements such as wooden pergolas, woven branch fences and antique ornaments or placed artistic objects.



Top Photo: Flickr // Redi-Rock International

About Wikilawn

Wikilawn’s mission is to provide the best resources and information to help you enjoy your outdoor spaces the way you want. Whether you are a DIY, lawn-loving, gardening guru, or someone who wants help in picking a local lawn care professional, we can smooth your path to a beautiful backyard!

About Wikilawn

Wikilawn’s mission is to provide the best resources and information to help you enjoy your outdoor spaces the way you want. Whether you are a DIY, lawn-loving, gardening guru, or someone who wants help in picking a local lawn care professional, we can smooth your path to a beautiful backyard!