Hardscapes: Landscaping's Bones(page 1 of 3)

Get tips for creating the walls, paths, decks and other hard surfaces in your outdoor space


Hardscape refers to any solid landscaping surface or structure, from paving and decking to retaining walls and fences. These permanent, human-made elements form the bones of a landscape and are the first thing to be installed in a landscaping project.

"As you think about the design, construction and maintenance of your landscape, consider how sustainable each component is and how it could be modified to be more sustainable," advises A.M. VanDerZanden of the Oregon State University Extension Service.

When choosing materials for your hardscapes, ask these questions:

How well does it incorporate the principles of "reduce, reuse and recycle"? Risa Edelstein, president of the Ecological Landscaping Association, loves the look of antique cobblestones, but was shocked to learn that the ones in her Boston-area stone yard were being transported from India, which wasn't doing much for her carbon footprint. "Ask where the material comes from," says Edelstein, who has since sniffed out sources for hardscape materials that are locally made, quarried or reclaimed.

What is the product's impact on the environment once it's installed? Impervious pavement such as concrete, mortared stone and asphalt prevent water from soaking into the soil. But permeable materials such as interlocking pavers, gravel and stepping stones allow water to filter into the ground, reducing stormwater runoff. Also make sure that materials don't leach toxic chemicals such as arsenic or metals such as lead.

What are the product's maintenance requirements? Wood needs to be resealed or painted every few years but "plastic wood" composite needs no paint and is resistant to water and insects. Concrete or mortar can shift and crack, requiring a major repair. Repairs to a paver system are easer; remove a few pavers, fix the damaged section of the base and put the pavers back.

Gallery: Types of Hardscapes

When adding on to an existing landscape or blending new and old materials, if you can't match the original hardscape, repeat the color scheme in another texture or material. Try these tips for each hardscape in your landscape design plan:

Driveways. One of the most challenging expanses of hardscape to design aesthetically is the driveway. Because of its size and typically prominent location, the driveway has a significant impact on curb appeal.

You can draw attention away from the driveway by using materials such as stained concrete, cobblestones or pavers that tie into the overall landscape design. Concrete pavers cost more than asphalt or poured concrete, but they're less maintenance and permeable, allowing water to filter through. In some parts of the country, new driveways must be permeable by law.

Planted borders can soften the impact of the driveway's vast dead space, drawing the eye into your landscape. In regions with icy winters, perennials and shrubs can take a beating from salt, plows and snowdrifts, so you might be better off creating visual interest with patterned pavers, an arch or planters incorporated into piers or a retaining wall. Or install a heater system, where electrical or natural gas coils under the drive way melt the snow.

Walkways. For walkways and paths, choices include: pavers, brick, stone, pavers that look like brick and stone, concrete (poured, slab, colored or textured), terrazzo, gravel and glass pebbles.

Available in a variety of patterns and colors, pavers can be made to resemble stones, cobblestones and brick. "Tumbles" are artificially "distressed" in a machine to wear down the sharp edges for a less formal or antique look. An interlocking paver system is often a good choice in places where extreme freeze-and-thaw patterns cause concrete to crack and heave.

Besides climate, take into account the property's topography and drainage patterns. Orient walkways along axes of the property grid to create a logical circulation pattern.

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