What is the Difference Between Hardscape and Softscape?

mosaic patio
Overhead view of round mosaic patio. Jacqui Hurst/Getty Images

To better understand how to design for a landscape, the elements that make up outdoor living areas are referred to as hardscape and softscape. The easiest ways to remember the differences? Hardscaping and softscaping are the complete opposites of each other, yet both are necessary to make a landscape fully functional. In recent years, both terms have become more common to emphasize the distinction between the two.

Ideally, a well-designed landscape incorporates a balance between hardscaping and softscaping. We've all seen properties--maybe in your own neighborhood--that have too much of one or the other. An overly hardscaped front yard might have a circular paved driveway, kind of like a hotel. While some people--those who have or want lots of cars--love the idea and it used to be a swank design feature, it's just too much concrete or paving and can look like a commercial property. All you need is a valet. 

A home that goes overboard with softscape might look like a jungle--maybe that unkempt old house down the street or just a neighbor who's become a tad plant-happy and has a vegetable garden, herb garden, roses, succulents, fruit trees, ornamental grasses, topiary, etc. 

Too much hardscape or softscape in a front yard can compromise your home's curb appeal and might bring down property values for the neighborhood.

As for the backyard: Too much hardscape is not relaxing and soothing; while too much softscape cries to be pruned and weeded. Strike a balance between the two.

Hardscape elements:

  • Can be thought of as "hard," yet movable, parts of the landscape, like gravel, paving and stones, etc.
  • They are inanimate objects.
  • Solid and unchanging.
  • Other examples of hardscape include walkways, retaining walls, pavers for paths or patios, outdoor kitchens, water features, gazebos, decks and driveways.
  • Can be natural, like stone, or man-made, like an outdoor structure or a planter.
  • Hardscape materials have different effects on the environment. Pavement, which is hardscaping, prevents water from soaking into the soil, thus increasing runoff, which can carry contaminants into streams. Porous materials allow water to soak into the soil.
  • A shrub is not hardscape.

Softscape elements:

  • Consider these the "soft" horticultural (living, growing) components of the landscape. These might include flowers, trees, shrubs, groundcovers, etc.
  • Change and evolve constantly, as they grow and adapt to climate and other conditions.
  • Are softer to the touch, quite literally. Think about touching the leaves of a tree or perennial, or blades of grass. They are soft, not hard. 
  • A brick wall is not softscape.

More Hardscape Used in Drought Tolerant Landscaping

Many regions affected by drought have restricted water use, forcing residents to rethink and actually change their landscape. Instead of letting that lawn continue to die and depress everyone who drives or walks past it, consider incorporating at least a couple forms of hardscape into your front and back yards.

In front, you could replace the dead grass with decomposed granite (DG), pea gravel, pavers, or even concrete. Create beds of drought-tolerant plants or specimens with similar water needs. There are endless possibilities, and the bonus: you gain extra livable space in your front yard.