Softscape: What It Means, How to Use It, What Your Choices Are

It Does Not Have to Be Soft, but It Does Have to Be Alive

My image shows Allium 'Ambassador," a tall bulb plant with a big flower.
Plants are considered "softscape"; e.g., this Ambassador allium. David Beaulieu

You have probably heard landscape designers speak of "hardscape," but the term, "softscape" is used less frequently. Intuitively, you may guess that, being the opposite of hardscape, it must refer to everything in the landscape that is soft. But that would not be quite right. So let me furnish you with the precise definition.

Meaning of "Softscape"

Softscape comprises the animate (living), horticultural elements of landscape design. More simply put, it refers to the plants. Softscape elements are complemented by hardscape elements, such as wooden pergolas, stone walls, tile patios, and brick walkways.

So why is it incorrect to say that softscape simply means all the elements in one's landscaping that are soft? Well, contemplate this. A tree is considered part of the softscape, but if you are playing catch with the kids in the yard and accidentally run full-steam into a tree's trunk, will it feel soft to you? Hardly, because you will most likely come away with a bruise.

So, to qualify as softscape, an object has to be a plant. It does not have to be soft to the touch, although this will sometimes be the case. For example, velvety lamb's ear plants are as soft to the touch as possible.

Examples of Softscape

Remember, since "softscape" describes plant life, even a lawn grass (or common lawn weed, depending on your point of view) such as tall fescue grass counts. So it is not just the showy plants that qualify. While a landscape designer would not normally include weedy plants under this heading, trying to exclude any class of plants is tricky, because homeowners' tastes vary greatly. The philosopher, Emerson famously challenged our perception of what constitutes a "weed." Some gardeners go out of their way to grow beneficial weeds. But in offering examples of softscape below, I will stick to more conventional choices.

Most gardeners, even if they are just beginners, are familiar with annual plants. These are the plants displayed so prominently at garden centers in late spring, including the following red-white-and-blue trio popular in the U.S. around Memorial Day:

The number of different kinds of perennials and biennials is mind-boggling. They grow in all sorts of different ways, inject great variety into the way your softscape looks, and serve all kinds of purposes. 

For example, spring bulb plants, such as the Ambassador allium in my picture, spring to life the next year from an underground bulb.

Some perennials are quite tall. They are the kind of softscape you would grow up against a fence or wall in order to soften its appearance. Examples that come to mind are:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some perennials are very short. The ones that spread furnish you with softscape potentially useful as a ground cover. Here are some ground covers of note:

As showy as flower borders of annuals and perennials can be, trees, shrubs (bushes), and vines make perhaps the biggest softscape statements as individual plants. I will conclude by citing a favorite of mine from each category:

How to Use Softscape (Example: Softening the Edges of Your Hardscape)

Many a reader interested in DIY landscape design has asked, How do you soften the straight edge of a patio? That is because, when given a choice, most people prefer a rounded edge on a hardscape feature, as opposed to a sharp, straight edge. A curve "flows" better and takes some of the "hard" out of hardscape (it is softer on the eyes).

There is a potential problem, though. Most people also prefer to make their lives easier rather than harder when undertaking a project. And building a brick patio with rounded edges is more difficult than building one with straight edges, because you are working with a material (brick) that is rectangular. So you may have to make a choice between what looks better and what is easier to build.

Softscape to the Rescue

Thus in this article on building a brick patio, emphasis was placed on keeping the project as easy for beginners as possible. By using the basket weave brick pattern, we avoided having to cut bricks.

The drawback? Well, you will end up with a square or rectangular patio -- in other words, one with straight edges. If you do not mind making your life a little more difficult, though, you can cut pavers and give your patio rounded edges, as long as you have the right equipment.

Is it possible to have your cake and eat it, too? That is, is there a way to build a patio with straight edges but then somehow soften them later? Yes there is: It means complementing your hardscape with softscape. Specifically, what is referred to here as bringing in softscape is the use of container gardens (or potted plants, at least) along the straight edges of your patio to soften them.

For practical purposes, however, this method for softening sharp edges probably works best for small patios. Why? Because a bigger patio means a longer edge, and a longer edge means that more container gardens will be required to achieve the softening effect. How much money are you willing to spend on softscape (that is, the plant material) and containers (that is, pots, urns, etc.)?

Only you can answer that question, which is why we cannot put a number on it when, in that article, the statement is made that building bigger patios will require a different approach. While one can't quantify "bigger," the fact is that, after a patio reaches a certain size, the cost of having to soften the edges with softscape becomes prohibitive. In such cases, it is probably best to use a curved hardscape design if you want to avoid straight edges.

Reader, Luke sent in an email on this subject recently. Luke wrote:

Thanks, David for the information on building a brick patio. I am about to start my currently 20' x 17' brick patio and am wondering what you meant by your statement about taking a different approach for large patios (i.e., consider using a curved design for them). Is my 20' x 17' patio a "large" or "small" patio? Should I be thinking of a curve to soften the edges?

And the response:

"The smaller the patio, the easier to soften the edges with potted plants, because you would need less softscape to pull it off. When you start getting into large patios, you are talking about having to use a lot of potted plants to achieve this softening effect. Now, just what constitutes "a lot" will vary from individual to individual; so unfortunately, we really can't quantify it.

"Injecting even more subjectivity into the issue is the fact that a patio edge that you consider "softened" might not pass by someone else's standards, and vice versa. In other words, how many pots would be needed, say, along the 20-foot edge of your patio to soften it? If you spaced small pots along the edge at 3-foot intervals, would that do the trick? Hard to say, without actually seeing it. But let's say that this number would, indeed, do the trick. Well, then you would have to decide if -- by the time you handled all four edges -- that would run into too many potted plants for you to buy or not."

Curious about your choices in that other major arena of landscaping, namely, your hardscape? To begin, check out the many possibilities in landscaping with stone.