What is the Difference Between Hardscape and Softscape?

Balancing Elements in Landscape Design

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

To better understand how to design for a landscape, the two main elements that make up outdoor living spaces are referred to as hardscape and softscape. The easiest ways to remember the differences? Hardscape and softscape are the complete opposites of each other, yet both are necessary to make a landscape fully functional. Both terms are often used to emphasize the distinction between the two.

Hardscape is the hard stuff in your yard: concrete, bricks, and stone. Softscape is the soft, growing stuff, like perennial flowers, shrubs, succulents, and trees. Softscape is living; hardscape is not.

Ideally, a well-designed landscape incorporates a balance between the two elements. 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 considered a swank design feature, it's just too much paving and can look like a commercial property. All you need is to hire 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, rosessucculents, fruit trees, ornamental grasses, topiary, etc. growing in a chaotic mess with no paths or separation in which to access them.

Too much of one or the other in a front yard can compromise your home's curb appeal and might bring down property values for the neighborhood. As for the backyard: an overabundance of hardscape does not create a relaxing, paradise-like atmosphere. On the other hand, too much softscape can get out of control and begs to be pruned and weeded. Strike a balance between the two.

Hardscape Elements

Once you know the distinction, the characteristics of hardscape make sense. Among them:

  • Hardscape can be thought of as "hard," yet movable, parts of the landscape, like gravel, paving, and stones
  • They are inanimate objects
  • Hardscape is solid and unchanging
  • Other examples of hardscape include retaining walls, pavers for paths or patios, outdoor kitchens, water features, gazebos, decks, and driveways.
  • It can be natural, like stone, or manmade, like an outdoor structure or a planter
  • Hardscape materials have different effects on the environment. Pavement, which is hardscape, 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 Features

Plants are available in a variety of colors, shapes, textures, and sizes. When selecting softscape:

  • 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.

Design Considerations for Small Spaces

With smart planning, even the smallest yard can be well designed and incorporate areas of hardscape and softscape. Don't forget vertical space for growing shrubs and trees or hanging a planter on a wall or fence. Raised planters and pedestals (hardscape) with container gardens (softscape) draw the eye upward and economize on space. Pavers placed in a slight curve or around a corner give the illusion that there might be much more yard, even when there isn't. 

Make wise use out of hardscape features. A low retaining wall could double as extra seating in a small yard and hold a planter of herbs. Sturdy, low-growing groundcovers that can tolerate foot traffic add softscape in between pavers and retaining walls, creating a nice balance.

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, think about 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.