There are lots of ways to transform an uninspiring piece of ground into a gorgeous, multiuse garden, but one of the most dramatic and enduring is hardscaping. Hardscape includes everything that's not plant material -- from gravel paths, patios and pergolas to retaining walls, decks, fences and sheds.
"Hardscape is a way to delineate and shape space," says Kevin Campion, an associate at Graham Landscape Architecture in Annapolis. "It [often] evolves as a function of problem solving."
The best hardscaping not only solves problems -- grading issues, organizing movement from the house or one part of the garden to another -- it adds beauty and expands use of the space.
"The rule of thumb is form and functionality," says Rick Pencek, owner of Green Side Up Landscaping Inc. in Baltimore who teaches landscape construction at the Community College of Baltimore County.
Sheds can store tools and equipment while offering support for vines and blocking an unsightly view with something attractive. Fences can mark boundaries as well as edge beds and display garden art. Walls can shield yards from neighbors or roads while creating a microclimate for tender perennials. They can also, in the form of terraces, shore up precipitous slopes.
"Terraces are a great way to control erosion," Pencek says. "It's expensive, but it's aesthetically pleasing."
Terraces also help create plantable ground. Before Leslie Goldsmith's husband, Blake, terraced their 100-year-old Roland Park house's backyard, the ground dropped off from the house like a four-story ski-jump with a no-win landing onto the road behind.
"There was no way to have gardens before he made the terraces," Goldsmith says.
The broad, stepped terraces are planted with a collection of azalea, rhododendron, hosta, lily, Arisaema, pachysandra and more. Above this lovely view, the Goldsmiths' decks, softened with vines and potted geraniums, offer an inviting place to eat, read and entertain -- another potential benefit of hardscape.
"Hardscape allows you to create outdoor 'rooms,'" Campion says.
Outdoor rooms can take many forms -- decks, enclosed secret gardens, semi-private spaces banked by trellised vines. Donna and George Gozik built a stone patio shaded by a large, lamp-lit pergola that acts as a welcome and welcoming addition to their small house in Marriottsville. Backed with a terrace garden and surrounded by lush bloom and foliage, it's a "room" that the Goziks use in a variety of ways.
"I have my coffee out here almost every day and we entertain here," says Donna Gozik, sitting at the long dining table on the patio. "It was great when we had the family reunion here. We entertain a lot more since we've built it."
Carefully chosen materials are one key to effective hardscape. Costs, longevity, ease of installation and use all figure in the choices, but the considerations often begin with aesthetics.
"Hardscape materials are a reflection of the architectural style of the house," says Campion. "For instance, a Colonial revival usually calls for brick or bluestone. If it's contemporary, you use gravel or wood."
Although some handy folks can safely do their own hardscaping, it often pays to get a licensed contractor.
"Hardscape has to be installed correctly so it works" and lasts, Pencek says.
TIPS FOR 'HARDSCAPING'
First, consider goals. Is hardscape meant to solve a drainage or grading problem? Frame favorite views? Block others? Create more living space? Will it be used for large gatherings, a personal retreat or both? "Once you get a program set up, then hardscape falls into place," says Kevin Campion of Graham Landscape Architecture.
Consider sun and shade patterns. "If you want to be out in afternoon or early evening, you may want to design in some shade structures that allow you to enjoy it," Campion says. Light -- electric, solar-charged or candle -- lets you enjoy the garden at night.
Consider sizes, colors and textures of materials. All interact with plant materials as well as the colors and style of the house. "Native gardens call for regional materials. For one thing, it cuts down on transportation costs," Campion says. "For instance, Jerusalem limestone, which comes from the Middle East, is more expensive than local brick or stone." Also consider how much heat colors and types of materials can generate, or divert. Light-colored stone or concrete makes sense for pools. Study the soil before you start -- get soil samples. Use licensed and certified contractors for structural things such as retaining walls. Doing them wrong could cause damage to people or property. "And always check references," Pencek says. "Referrals are the best thing."
1444 I St. N.W., Suite 700
Washington, D.C. 20005-2210
202-712-9036 or icpi.org.
229 Prince George St.
410-269-5886, 301-858-5330 or grahamlandarch.com.
Green Side Up Landscaping Inc. P.O. Box 44061
Stone Cellar Nursery
4512 Ridge Road
Mount Airy 21771
410-875-2012 or stonecellar nursery.com.