Hard surfaces add definition, stature and elegance to Garden State landscapes, but planning designs and choosing materials take thought.
You won’t find “hardscaping” in the dictionary. The word is that new, and yet anybody who covets a gorgeous garden knows what it means. It stands for “hard landscape” and refers to the non-living elements of the landscape such as walkways, driveways, steps, patios and fences made of stone, concrete, bricks and even wood.
“Technically, any non-living ornamentation in the garden is part of the hardscape,” explains Lothar Ehrich of Ehrich & Ehrich Landscape Architects, Cranbury. “Wood is included even though it was once animate, but no doubt most people think of hardscaping in terms of stone, brick and pavers, and it’s wildly popular.
“That’s a good thing,” continues Ehrich,” for hardscape provides the garden with proper ‘bones.’ All the world’s great gardens look so fabulous because their designers knew how to balance the proportions of plantings and stonework. Yes, stonework is beautiful, but you mustn’t overwhelm a small garden with combinations of walls, paved areas, built-in seating, masonry fireplaces, and other incidentals. On the other hand, a large garden strictly devoted to plantings looks unfinished.”
A Trend Is Born
Considering the current fascination with hardscapes, it’s surprising to realize that not long ago, gardens were all about lush plantings. Aside from wood decks and pool surrounds, nobody had even heard of hardscaping. So what happened?
Trend watchers come back to 9/11. After that, everything was about making home a great place to hang out with family and friends, they say, and once the house was remodeled to the hilt, we started in on our gardens. Suddenly, we craved outdoor rooms, kitchens and fireplaces, ever more luxurious pools, man-made waterfalls, ponds and streams, most of them requiring extensive hardscaping, especially stone work.
“Well, other factors did play a role, too,” says Bill Butler of Landscape Dynamix in Mahwah, “among them summers of drought and the green movement. People realized that there were alternatives to enormous lawns that needed chemical treatments and turned brown for lack of water. Hardscaping furnished an alternative, and once people discovered how beautiful it could be, cut down on maintenance and up a home’s resale value, there was no looking back.”
Professional designers all agree that hardscaping can play a huge role in blending outdoor spaces seamlessly and also create harmony between house and garden.
“Sometimes people forget that the garden should be an extension of their overall living area,” explains Kurt Bongiovanni of GA Landscape Design in Westfield. “Walls and fences, for example, should go with the house and set the theme for the rest of the hardscaping. A smoothly-cast concrete wall doesn’t go with a curlicued Victorian home, and a rustic stone wall doesn’t complement a crisply boarded contemporary.”
By the same token, a patio or deck close to the house should relate to its exterior. For a brick house, a brick patio is a natural choice, but nobody says that you need a wood deck just because your house is wood-sided. You might simply use color to unify the scheme. Flagstones, pavers and concrete, for example, come in many colors.
“Planning is everything,” emphasizes Ehrich and reveals that his firm routinely will prepare around 1,000 technical drawings for a landscape project. “And it’s certainly not a good idea to plan a garden piecemeal. That can result in a haphazard look as well as extra costs.”
“A well-planned, phased-in program will provide an orderly, pleasing landscape and also be kinder to your budget,” notes Rich Sponzilli of Sponzilli Landscape Group in Fairfield.
Keeping the hardscaping simple is another of his edicts. “Don’t combine too many hardscaping materials,” he warns. “You don’t want your landscape to look cluttered. Limit materials used in boundaries to one or two, and two or three-at the very most-for major hardscape floors.”
Places to Pave
The patio, a common transition point between house and garden, is a natural candidate for hardscaping, but considering that it becomes an outdoor dining and living room in summer, it’s often too small.
“At the very least, the patio should be the size of the living room,” says Sponzilli. “Remember, you want to have room enough for entertaining.”
Landscape planners love walkways, claiming they make all the difference, both in front gardens and backyards. “A curved pathway, particularly one that wraps behind a border, a clump of grasses or some other focal point, will entice you to follow to discover what lies at its end,” explains Bongiovanni. “You may not end up with a pot of gold, but a relaxing seating area is good, too.”
Hardwearing paths can be created from brick, pavers or gravel. The latter are the most economical, but don’t let them cross a lawn where mower blades might send the gravel flying.
For curb appeal, there’s nothing quite like a driveway and front walk featuring pavers or brick, and, of course, a gorgeous swimming pool cries out for a high-end hardscaping treatment, either using natural stone or a particularly artistic paver design.
Masonry to house a fireplace or outdoor kitchen elements are also part of the hardscaping repertoire, as are terraces and garden walls. Finally, there are the outcroppings of boulders and rocks that make waterfalls and ponds the garden’s star performers.
There’s a stone for every garden situation, ranging from irregularly shaped flagstones that are perfect for an informal country garden to
precision-cut blocks of luxury stones for a formal terrace. However, Mark Borst, president of Borst Landscape & Design, Allendale, feels that the most exciting trend involves using indoor stone products outdoors. He particularly likes granite used as pavers. “It doesn’t get slippery when wet,” he says, “and it has a wonderful polished look.”
Ehrich, who often uses historic and very grand references in his design work, also likes granite, which he imports from many parts of the world. “It is a luxurious product that provides lasting value,” he comments. “It also comes in more colors than any other stone. They range from light and dark grays, tan and brown to honey yellow, green, orange, pink and red.
Precisely because stone lasts forever, it’s smart to make sure you love a design and color before you order it from the quarry. Look at it wet, recommends Butler. A light golden granite could show up as a garish orangey hue when it rains, and the neutral veining in a sandstone slab could turn bolder than you’d like when exposed to moisture.
Slate is often used as a flagstone and it’s soft texture and muted colors are beautiful. But it’s not as durable as you might like. Heavy rain, snow and freeze/thaw cycles often causes it to flake and chip, so it’s a good idea to limit it to areas that are somewhat sheltered, such as a
Limestone is fine-textured with a velvety finish. It’s not only beautiful for walks and paved areas, but also cuts well, so it often shows up as stunning garden ornaments, such as the ten-foot Napoleonic urns Ehrich recently had carved for the gardens of a Rumson estate.
Concrete And Brick
Landscape designers no longer hold concrete pavers in contempt. That’s because their quality has improved so dramatically that they can strut their stuff, announcing their true origins via interesting aggregate textures and great colors. They no longer have to pretend to be stone or brick, and when they do adopt those looks, that’s OK, too.
The fact is that pre-cast concrete pavers offer incredible flexibility. They can take on any shape, color and texture, and poured concrete can be sculpted, textured and adorned with all sorts of materials, including river stones, tumbled glass or marble chips, ceramic mosaics and so forth.
Brick is a time-honored paving material and wonderfully adaptable. It’s warm colors and textures suit any garden, from informal to formal. It can be installed in straight lines, herringbone and basket-weave patterns and goes well with other paving and building materials. After stone, it’s the most expensive hardscaping material, and even used, recycled bricks have become expensive.
Be open to ideas, say the state’s many award-winning landscape designers. Whoever said that a patio, terrace or walk always has to be straight-lined, square and all-of-one material? It’s so easy to mix materials, shapes, colors and textures for one-of-a-kind looks.
For example, it’s simple to dress up a poured concrete surface with a border of brick or cobblestones, redwood insets are effective in a brick walkway, and why not give the patio a curved outline and then pave it in a pattern? A gravel walkway with insets of flagstones or wood rounds was a favorite in colonial days and is just as charming today as when Thomas Jefferson was a law student in Williamsburg.
Finally, boulders and rocks should be part of the hardscape. Line them along the edge of a lily pond, stack them artistically to function as a base for a fountain or a tiny waterfall, or simply group them and plant some ferns or irises around them.
As any good landscape designer knows, stone in the garden can be dramatic or tranquil, logical or surprising, somber or whimsical.
On a simple level, it is beautiful, but it imparts much more than color, texture and line. It simply belongs, wherever it is placed.