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

My image shows Allium 'Ambassador," a tall bulb plant with a big flower.
David Beaulieu

You have probably heard landscape designers speak of hardscape, but the term, softscape is used less frequently. Intuitively, you might 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's furnish you with the precise definition.

Softscape Defined

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.

Why is it incorrect to say that softscape simply means all the elements in one's landscaping that are soft? 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.

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, the silver foliage of the perennial plant lamb's ears are velvety soft to the touch.

Examples of Softscape

Remember, because the term softscape describes plant life, even a lawn grass (or common lawn weed, depending on your point of view) such as tall fescue grass counts. It is not just the showy plants that qualify as being softscape elements.

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 here, we will stick to more conventional choices.

Most gardeners, even if they are 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 bulbs, such as the 'Ambassador' allium shown in the photo at the top of page, 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 can grow very low to the ground. Their spreading habit furnishes 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:

How to Use Softscape

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 rigidity out of a hardscape (it is softer on the eyes).

There is a potential problem, though. Most people also prefer to make their lives easier rather than more difficult 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 or pavers) that is rectangular. So you might have to make a choice between what looks better versus what is easier to build.

Softscape to the Rescue

In another Spruce article that describes how to build a brick patio, the emphasis is placed on keeping the project as easy as possible for beginners. Using the basket weave brick pattern eliminates having to cut bricks.

The drawback? You 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 build a patio with rounded edges if you have the right equipment.

Is it possible to have your cake and eat it, too? Yes, you can, by enhancing your hardscape with softscape. You can bring in softscape by placing container gardens along the straight edges of your patio to soften them.

For practical purposes, this method for softening sharp edges probably works best for small patios. A bigger patio means a longer edge, and a longer edge means that more container gardens are required to achieve the softening effect.

How much money are you willing to spend on softscape and containers? Only you can answer that question, which is why 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.