Around the house and on the computer the term hardware refers to the equipment and attachments that pull everything together. In the world of gardening, it's referred to as "hardscape."
When you see a stone wall, a paved walkway, a fountain or fish pond or even a stepping stones creating a winding garden path, you are seeing hardscape, the stationary fixtures that pull everything together. Hardscaping is probably the fastest rising design feature in the past 30 years. Although the concept is not new, the popularity of fixed features in the garden has exploded since the 1980s. Gone are the days of simple flower gardens with plants placed strategically, tall in the back and small in the front.
Today's gardens would not be complete without some type of hardscape whether its an elaborate outdoor living space or a simple pondless fountain. Hardscape is where the eye rests between the activity of the plants. Without hardscaping, we don't have a focal point where our eyes should start or a place to stop and rest when we view a garden. It's that important.
Hardscaping should be carefully decided upon because it's usually permanent. We can easily move plants around, changing our color scheme or even our microclimates, but we can't easily move a cement patio or stone staircase.
If possible, hardscaping should be the first thing installed when creating a garden, although this isn't always possible. When we bought our house more than 40 years ago, the word hardscape wasn't part of our vocabulary. We only knew we wanted plants around our house and immediately began putting in whatever we could afford or acquire as passalong plants from friends and relatives. It wasn't long before we realized some sort of organization had to occur or we would end up with a huge mess. We tried working around hardscape that was already in place; a sidewalk that led to the front door, our long driveway and even a few trees left by the construction crew who cleared the land. When we discovered hardscaping, it was too late to start again from scratch, so we began working things into the landscape, including a patio and a 12-foot tall rose arbor.
When planning these permanent structures, the most important thing to remember is drainage. Changing the lay of the land can consequently change the way water moves across the ground. We learned this lesson when we built a new garage and changed the slope of our back yard. Areas that once drained easily now accumulated standing water. It was necessary to create an artificial swale in the form of a dry creek bed to divert the water in another direction. Instead of the creek bed, we could have planted a rain garden featuring water loving plants or a boggy area, also for water plants, but chose the creek bed because the drainage wasn't bad, it was just slow. Even with last season's heavy rains, we only had standing water for about an hour after the rain stopped, but the creek bed enabled us to decide where we wanted that water to go.
Hardscaping can be a style. You can be rustic or modern, traditional or country. Just as you would decorate your house, you can decorate your garden. Hardscaping styles can soften the straight angles of the house as well as add to the flow of the landscape. Rustic and country gardens prefer curves in their walkways and garden paths, while stating "there are no straight lines in nature." But many modern gardens maintain geometric shapes, formal borders and monochromatic colors.
Hardscaping doesn't have to be expensive. Consider gravel or mulched walkways instead of stone or bricks. Or cut back on the amount of paving stones needed by leaving larger gaps and filling in with steppable plants such as woolly thyme or creeping sedum. Mixing textures is okay too, flat stones with gravel, for example, or flagstone walkways leading to large block walls.
When it doubt, contact a professional for advice, to help with the basic plan or even to contract the entire job if it's too much for you to handle.