Hardworking Hardscape

Paths, patios, and pergolas are just a few of the structures that make a garden lively and livable

Fine Gardening - Issue 166
path lined with plants leading to a chair

If I had a gardening time machine, I would use it to return to the day I started my garden. Instead of going to the nursery and getting a trunkful of plants, most of which wouldn’t live to see today, I would head to Staples to get some graph paper and a pencil with a big eraser. I would use them to create a framework for my garden with hardscape. Any element in your garden that isn’t a plant is probably hardscape: paths, walls, patios, pergolas, water features, etc. These man-made elements are best planned before any plants go in because of the way they influence the purpose and execution of the design.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to improve your hardscape. Sure, some happy plants might have to move to a temporary home—or be lost altogether. But the improvement in your garden’s design will be worth it. And then you get to buy more plants, so really it’s a win-win situation. Whether you’re starting a garden fresh or improving what you already have, here are some ideas to keep in mind when designing a hardscape.

Good paths aren’t just to walk on

The primary function of a path is to provide a way to get from one point to another. But because a path cuts a line through the landscape, it naturally draws the eye as much as it draws the feet. A good path takes advantage of this attribute, making sure it leads the eye somewhere, as this path leads the eye to the chair ahead.


The lines of the stones in the wall and step echo those of the furniture and the house

Stone doesn’t just sit there

What makes stone such an essential material in a garden is that its sense of permanence is matched by its versatility. Of course, it makes sturdy walls and steps, but stone also can play a role in design. In the top photo, the lines of the stones in the wall and step echo those of the furniture and the house and signal a transition from hard, man-made areas to softer, natural spaces. In the bottom photo, the stone wall also serves to create a raised bed and a place to sit.

the stone wall also serves to create a raised bed and a place to sit.


Provide a sheltering roof

a pergola with a tree through it over a table and chairs, further from the house

Trying to re-create the feel of an indoor space out in your garden isn’t always about comfy cushions or hammocks (both of which are great). A key element in making a space comfortable is a feeling of enclosure. By providing a sense of a roof over our heads, a pergola makes us feel sheltered, especially when it is in a space far from the house. When a pergola is connected to the house, it is the perfect transition from the complete enclosure of the home to the openness of the outdoors.

a pergola connected to the house, transitioning from the complete enclosure of the home to the openness of the outdoors.


angular man-made path through a natural looking area of the garden

Provide order to nature

When you have an area that appears to be (or actually is) wild and natural, it can help to add something man-made to it, so as to put a gardener’s touch on it and make the area part of a purposeful design. Adding something man-made also helps accentuate the area’s natural feel. This angular path does all of this while also looking like quite a bit of fun to walk on.


Turn the tables

intimate seating area with table and chairs closely surrounded by flowers and foliage

Plants usually are brought in to soften hardscape, but bringing hardscape into garden areas works, too. The hardscape changes the mood of the space, turning that area into a destination rather than just a place with more plants. The area below is open and inviting, ensuring that the exuberance of the neighboring flowers is put to use. The area above is more intimate because it is closely surrounded by foliage and only a few flowers.

a more open seating area with table and chairs surrounded by exuberant flowers


You don’t need a lot to do the job

stone steps in the grass narrowing as you go up a slope

Of course these stone steps make it easier to get up the slope, but by being so wide at the bottom, they are inviting. As they gradually narrow, they draw the eye right to the focal point container. These steps also prove the point that not all hardscape needs to be overwhelming. If the stairs were all stone, rather than insinuating themselves into the grass, they would have ruined the area’s natural feel.


Hardscape is just as good as an evergreen

pergola over a bench in the fall

One can’t really call hardscape evergreen, but it can serve the same role as one. When all the deciduous plants have gone to bed for the year, your hardscape will remain, providing interest and, perhaps, a place to sit and contemplate the coming season.

Do I Need a Permit for That?

Local laws can be a bit odd. In my town, you need to have 2 acres of land just to raise one chicken. In a nearby town, it is illegal to walk backward after sunset. So before you start adding any hardscape, stop by your local town hall to see if there are laws or permits that might affect your plans.

path lined with flowers leading up to a fence

You might need a permit for:

  • Arbors
  • Fences
  • Gates
  • Pergolas

walkway surround by flowering plants

Garden shed with flowers and plants nearby

You most likely won’t need a permit for:

  • Patios
  • Walkways
  • Decorative Items

You probably will need a permit for:

  • Decks
  • Sheds
  • Gazebo

Steve Aitken is the editor.

Photos: Ann E. Stratton; Saxon Holt; Brandi Spade; Danielle Sherry; Michelle Gervais; and Virginia Small.

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