Hardscaping Ideas to Enhance Your Garden
by Steve & Cathy Lambert
Fall is a great time to plan landscape improvements. Let’s learn about an often overlooked area, with our Garden and Landscape Design Experts and Contributors Steve and Cathy Lambert. Steve and Cathy share with us great advice for creating beautiful gardens and outdoor living spaces.
Choosing the Right Hardscape Materials
For garden enthusiast planning the “hardscape” portion of your yard might sound like the boring part of landscape design. This may have been true decades ago when the three most popular hardscape choices were red or white rock, plain grey or aggregate concrete, or brick. Today’s choices are vast, exciting and can become the visual focal point of your yard.
Just like plants, the right paving materials can add interest to your garden through your choice of color, texture, and pattern. Hopefully the following information will help make your hardscape choices a little less hard.
Concrete has long been the most common paving material and is often the right choice especially if your budget is tight. Although concrete can be utilitarian—and styles and finishes come in and out of fashion—with today’s options of stamped textures and color additives, properly installed concrete can be a visual marvel.
There is a huge range of textured mats available to create distinctive looks, from forest floors (complete with fossil impressions) to flagstone patterns. Some of the newest mats we’ve used include a wind-swept beach with occasional shells scattered about, and a Mexican-tile texture.
One of our clients wanted a terra-cotta tiled patio but did not want the cost or upkeep so we installed colored, stamped concrete instead. We achieved the same look using a terra-cotta base color with three other colors added on top for variation; then we textured and scored the concrete with mats that resembled 16” Terra-cotta tiles. The last step was to mortar the score lines to give it an authentic Mexican tile look, at a much lower cost and durability than the real thing.
Another popular hardscape element for clients with young children, is a circular concrete tricycle path that runs around a lawn or play area, creating a safe raceway space.
For our own backyard trike path, we used concrete colored to resemble hardened earth; then we pressed in real leaves and grasses to add texture. For an additional “kid-fun-factor”, we pressed in dinosaur bone fossils using 3-D wooden puzzle pieces, and running across the path – dino footprints using a hand-made, clay, 3-toed dino-foot mold.
Concrete Pavers were once frowned upon by designers, for their inept attempts at simulating brick or stone. These cheap keyhole or I-beam shaped pavers are still being sold today; but modern pavers have shapes and textures that give a paving project a rugged, old-world look. About five years ago, paver companies started tumbling pavers to make them look antique and more stone-like.
Pavers are comparative in price to textured concrete, for jobs that don’t require a great deal of additional engineering. However, pavers have the added advantage of being more forgiving than concrete. Even badly stained or chipped pavers can be quickly and easily replaced. Concrete on the other hand is costly and time consuming to replace.
Stone, historically the longest-used paving material, has proven itself to be enduring and elegant. It offers an enormous range of colors, shapes, and sizes. From irregularly shaped Arizona flagstone for an informal look, to precision-cut geometric patterns for a formal patio, there is a stone for every garden.
All this however comes with a price, stone can be expensive to purchase and install. Even the most common of stone options installed on top of concrete usually run around twice the cost of concrete or pavers.
One of our favorite paving stones is Connecticut Bluestone, which comes in several color variations. Full-range Connecticut Bluestone has a blue-grey base with greens, browns and rust colors throughout.
Lilac Connecticut Bluestone has the same blue-grey base with lilac and purple veins and patches. Then there is “True Blue” bluestone that is solid blue grey. Many finishes are available from natural to honed (a rough, matte finish) and flamed (a smooth, low sheen finish).
Arizona Flagstone is also a top pick of ours. It comes in colors ranging from Oak (a very light tan), to Chocolate, Rose, Buckskin and several other variations of these shades.
Another stone we often use is called Oyster Thistle or Petrified Forest Floor. This flagstone has a light tan base with dark brown and terra cotta streaks and even some occasional fossilized plant impressions.
Slate gives a landscape a beautiful and unique look and it’s usually an easy material
The biggest drawback with slate is that because it’s a sedimentary material, slate sheets and chips easily, especially along the edges. Because it’s so breakable, slate must be installed over concrete. Whenever we install slate we insist that a border of concrete or other stone be used, which helps to protect its fragile edges.
Brick is another hardscape material that has been used for centuries. Brick is either made from fired clay or concrete, and is available in many color choices. Brick is very versatile in its application – it is just as at home in a cottage garden as in a grand estate. Often considered old fashion or traditional, there are some homes and applications that just scream for brick.
One way to use brick with a more contemporary home, is to install it in combination with stone or concrete as a border or ribbon material to help break up large spaces.
Gravel is a good option for small budgets and small spaces such as walkways, undersized patios outdoor breakfast nooks, etc. It’s easy to install but not as permanent as it requires refilling after it breaks down or is kicked or blown out of its original location.
Another downside is the level of care for gravel, not required with the previously mentioned hardscape options. Weeds will poke through and require regular maintenance to keep your gravel space looking clean.
Our favorite gravels include: “Brown Walk-On” which has a red brown look, and “Tuscan Gold” which is a blend of tan, gold and brown.
More than any other hardscaping element in your garden, the materials you choose for your patios and pathways determine the character of your outdoor space.
It’s important to match your garden’s hardscape to your home’s style. Adding the appropriate plants to soften the edges of your hardscape later will further define your style and complement the investment you’ve made in paving.
Steve and Cathy Lambert have created distinctively dramatic, custom gardens since 1989, through their award-winning Garden Lights Landscape & Pool Development in Orinda, CA. They share with us their advice and expertise on all areas of garden and landscape.
Landscape Designer/Contractor and Master Gardener Steve envisions and creates romantic, welcoming and functional outdoor living spaces. His writer-wife Cathy wordsmiths Steve’s technical advice into something easy to understand and fun to read for the everyday DIY gardener. Together they also write the “Way to Grow” column for The Orinda News.
What garden hardscape materials have you admired?