What Is Hardscape?

From Paths to Patios

Image: brown gazebo.
A brown gazebo works well in a wooded setting, conveying a feel of rusticity. David Beaulieu

"Hardscape" consists of the inanimate elements of landscaping, especially any masonry work or woodwork. It is one of the two major subcategories of landscaping, the other being softscape. In particular, as the name implies, "hardscape" refers to hard materials such as those composed of:

  1. Concrete
  2. Brick
  3. Stone
  4. Wood (even though wood was once animate)
  5. Metal

Note that the terms "concrete," "cement," and "mortar" are often confused by beginners.

Work that one undertakes (or pays someone else to undertake) in one's landscaping that focuses on the use of such materials is often referred to as a "hardscape project" or as "hardscaping."

Examples of Hardscape Projects

All of the following would be considered part of the hardscape in a yard:

  1. Stone retaining walls 
  2. Concrete patios
  3. Brick patios 
  4. Flagstone patios
  5. Tile patios
  6. Stone walkways
  7. Gravel paths
  8. Stone landscape steps
  9. Wrought-iron fences
  10. Wooden fences
  11. Wooden decks  
  12. Wooden arbors 
  13. Wooden gazebos (picture above)
  14. Masonry and/or wooden pergolas 

What about home accents such as ceramic pots, garden gnomes, and, yes, those tacky pink flamingos? To be sure, these are examples of inanimate elements used in landscaping. However, the term "hardscape" is usually reserved for structures or for materials used to build structures.

Hard Water? Yes, Even Water Features Are Hardscape

It may be somewhat counterintuitive, but even water features used in your yard count as hardscape.

These structures assume a variety of forms, both with and without fountains. Fountain styles include:

  1. Stone fountains
  2. Ceramic fountains
  3. Inexpensive DIY fountains
  4. Clay pot fountains

In small yards, the pool portion of these water features often consists of a rigid-plastic liner (that is, a pre-formed liner).

On larger properties, a nice alternative is the flexible liner made from rubber (those composed of synthetic rubber are more durable). With flexible liners, you can shape your pond according to your own design aspirations.

Growing plants in and around a water feature is a way to marry hardscape with softscape, an example of which is this small pond project using ten great water garden plants.

Working on Hardscape Projects: Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Hardscape can be hard work. Even under the best climate conditions, these projects can be downright grueling. That is why most homeowners choose a period of favorable weather (in spring or fall, or during the least-warm parts of summer) for such work.

This does not stop professionals (and hardy folks, in general), though, from undertaking certain hardscape projects even in winter. But the viability of winter hardscape does depend on the nature of the project, as noted by professional mason and former Landscaping contributing writer, Joe Norton. As an example, Joe observes that a project with a horizontal orientation (such as a patio) would be tough to pull off in winter. Surface preparation is important for such projects, and wintry conditions are not conducive to such preparation.

But projects with a vertical orientation (such as stone walls) are doable in winter.

When engaged in hardscape projects, take measures to ensure your safety. For example, when lifting heavy stone, you will want to wear a back brace. Likewise, when operating a power saw to cut lumber for a fence, safety glasses are a must. Consult my article, Yard Safety Tips for further pointers.

Rentals to the Rescue: the Solution to Your Heavy-Equipment Needs

Some hardscape projects are too physically demanding to attack using manual labor alone. The use of heavy equipment is practically a necessity. But as a homeowner, you can't afford to buy the kind of equipment the pros use. So what is the solution?

Before you give up on a project as being "out of your league" because you can't afford the heavy equipment required, look into the option of rentals.

 Many people would undertake hardscape projects if they had the "big boys' tools" that make such work easier, but they can't afford to buy them. Fortunately, you do not have to buy -- just go the heavy equipment rentals route.

Rental stores can be lifesavers for do-it-yourselfers. If you have never set foot inside your local rental store, you should familiarize yourself with it. Home Depot and Lowe's also have mini-centers within their stores that give you access to heavy equipment rentals.

Using a rental rather than owning your own heavy equipment is often a prudent option for the homeowner. If you're going to use a $1000 piece of equipment only a couple of times, why own it? Heavy equipment is not only expensive, it also consumes a lot of storage space.

Don't think of hardscape as purely a matter of gruesome muscle-work. Yes, there will be hard work involved, but even some of the seemingly mundane projects can be finished off with an artistic flare. For an example of how to turn a concrete patio into a unique statement, please consult A Concrete Patio Floor Design. Making use of heavy equipment rentals frees you up to undertake the more interesting, more artistic aspect of hardscaping.

For an overview of masonry hardscaping, please consult my article, Landscaping With Stone. Treat the article as a source of ideas for the many uses to which stone can be put in beautifying your landscape.