Hardscape elements are generally considered to be the hard or structural elements in a garden. These materials include concrete, brick and stone.
Hardscape elements are the things in your garden that give it structure and contrast to the softscape elements. These can be categorized by material such as concrete, brick or stone but can also be by type such as fences, patios and pathways. A combination of hard and softscape help to balance a garden.
There are a wide variety of hardscape elements which you can incorporate into your garden to create a pleasant and useful space. In this article we will look at many of the elements and how they can be used in your garden.
As an avid gardener I have spent my fair share of time pondering what materials to use is my own garden. I now use my research skills and personal experience to help you do the same for your space.
What are Hardscape Elements?
Simply put, hardscape elements are anything that is hard. Or you could consider them anything not living. The most common examples are stone, brick and concrete. But this clasification also encompases things made from these materials such as archways, pathways and patios.
On the other side of the equation are softscape elements which include all your plants and the soil. Bark chips are a bit of a gray area but I’ll get into the nitty gritty of that debate later.
Now let’s look at all the possible options for hardscape elements.
Types of Hardscape Materials
There are two main categories of hardscapes. The actual materials and then what can be made with them. Here is a list of hardscape materials.
- Stone- A popular choice for garden projects due to the natural look it provides. Stone is often used for walkways and patios.There are many varieties of stone such as limestone, marble and slate. The category of stone also includes pebbles, crushed granite and boulders.
- Brick- Bricks are blocks made from dry clay and are commonly used for patios and pathways. They can also edge garden beds. They come in a few different colors and are usually very cost effective.
- Tile- While tiles are generally ceramic they can also be made with glass, concrete or even marble. The thin, flat design of tiles makes them a good choice for patios, steps and walkways.
- Concrete- When a large and flat area is needed, concrete is often chosen due to its lower cost. While normally grey in color there are staining options to give this rather mundane material more interest.
- Wood- Always a good popular choice, wood is a natural element that is classified as a hardscape but provides a softer element than something such as concrete or stone.
- Faux-Wood- This product, designed to look like wood, can be made from PVC or vinyl. The main advantage is that it should last longer since it is resistant to rot.
- Gravel- Cheap and ubiquitous, gravel is a mainstay of landscapes in the US. The size ranges from tiny pea gravel to rough chunks of stone. Gravel is often used to cover large areas or pathways where other materials would be too expensive.
- Plastic or Rubber- Both rubber and plastic are not common garden materials but they may be used to edge garden beds or in furniture.
- Pavers- Pavers are anything used to create an outdoor floor or walkway. Therefore, pavers can be made from stone, brick, tile and concrete but it is their specific use that defines them. Permeable pavers are often concrete bricks that have gaps strategically placed in the design to allow water to flow through and into the ground below.
- Bark Chips- While bark chips are not technically alive, they do break down and become soil over time and therefore can be nourishing to plants and eventually considered soil. But I put them on the hardscape list because their intended use is usually to define an area, keep weeds down or create a path. All jobs for hardscaping.
Now that you have seen the list of materials which are considered hardscape elements let us now look at the structures or architectural elements which can also be considered hardscape.
A hardscape structure could be something as simple as a wooden archway or as complicated as a full outdoor kitchen.
The following list is not every single type of hardscaping elements that might go into your garden but it will give you a good idea of what is typically done.
- Deck- A deck is a raised platform, much like an outdoor floor. It is typically made of wood or faux-wood and can be anywhere from a few inches off the ground to a few stories.
- Patio- While a deck is raised, patios are built at ground level. Most patios are made of stone, brick or pavers. Both decks and patios offer a level space to relax and dine.
- Archway- What is more magical than walking through a plant covered archway or arbor? These hardscape elements act like a door into the garden or garden section. They are often made of wood but can also be made of metal.
- Trellis- A trellis is a support structure one which climbing plants can grow. They may take the form of an archway but can also be flat wall-like structures or wall mounted for overhead growth. A good trellis is a must for many climbing plants such as kiwi and wisteria.
- Raised Garden Beds- Ideal for planting vegetables, raised garden beds can range in height from a few inches to a few feet. Wood is a common material but metal containers or cinder blocks are also available.
- Outdoor Kitchen- This particular hardscape usually combines a couple elements. There is generally a deck or patio and then some sort of food prep and cooking space. Grills are often in outdoor kitchens but you might also go for a wood fired pizza oven.
- Pool or pond- From a quaint koi pond to an olympic size pool, any water feature is considered a hardscape element. Except a puddle. If you have a big puddle, line it in plastic, throw in some water plants and call it a pond.
- Pathway- You have to get from point a to point b and pathways make that possible without crushing the flowers. A pathway can be as fancy as a marble paver walkway to some haphazardly bark chip trail.
- Fencing- Good fences make good neighbors. And wood, metal and even sometimes plastic make good fences.
- Chicken coop- Raising backyard chickens is becoming a popular activity and the necessary chicken coop is certainly part of the hardscaping in your garden. I’ve seen some pretty elaborate and cute coops so if you are sprucing up your garden you might as well make the chicken coop look good too.
- Gazebo- A six or eight sided small building with open walls but solid floor is what makes a gazebo. Most often made of wood, these are places to put grandma while she knits during the summer months.
- Bird houses and Bug Hotels- While small, bird houses and bug hotels can bring life to a garden. Most people know about bird houses but far fewer understand bug hotels. A bug hotel is a place designed for beneficial insects to live. These can be the size of a small bird house or as big as a wheelbarrow.
Uses for Hardscape Elements
Why do you even want hardscape elements in your garden to begin with when they can be expensive and difficult to install?
Well, the short answer is balance. Having a few “hard” things in with all the soft plants can make the garden more functional and give a visual contrast that is pleasing to the human eye. A gently curving pathway that leads to a stone patio seating area will look good and offer a place to sit and enjoy the garden.
You can certainly design a garden without hardscape elements but you may quickly end up with more of a jungle than a garden. Hardscape elements, particularly the edging of planter beds and pathways, help create separate spaces so it doesn’t all become a tangle.
And larger hardscape elements like decks, patios and outdoor kitchens give people space to enjoy the garden without trampling it. Other pieces of hardscape such as bird houses and bug hotels help bring in interesting and beneficial creatures to the space.
Then there is the increase to home value. I don’t recommend adding in a bunch of hardscaping to your garden plan just to increase your home’s value but a few elements can really make a huge impact. A stellar deck or patio combined with functional pathways or raised planter boxes can add a lot of value to a house.
Choosing hardscape elements that fit into your garden design and aesthetic is a great way to give form and function to a garden.
About THE AUTHOR
My interest in gardening started on the island of Viti Levu in Fiji where my work as a Peace Corps volunteer had me helping rural villagers start gardens to feed their communities and improve soil health. When I finally settled down with my own garden I became interested in permaculture, food forests and how growing my own veggies can help the planet.Read more about Selby Gunter