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What’s the difference between softscape and hardscape?

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Landscape design is all about balancing different elements. To fully understand how to design a space using these elements, it’s important to understand the difference between the big two – hardscape and softscape.

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While both are necessary to create a lovely, welcoming outdoor space, the key thing to remember is that they’re polar opposites, much like their names suggest. 

Generally speaking, hardscape is the hard stuff in the yard – concrete, bricks, stone – while softscape is the growing element – plants, flowers, shrubs and trees. In many areas, hardscape defines the space, whereas softscape beautifies it.

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What is hardscape design?

Defined as design that is constructed using natural, man-made and non-living materials, hardscape includes elements such as stone or concrete walkways, decks, walls, planter boxes and anything else that uses ‘hard’ materials.

Of course, you can successfully landscape an area using only hardscape materials, especially as there is so much variety in the materials themselves. Mixing stone with timber, for example, is a lovely way to create a textured, simple and beautiful garden without a drop of greenery. 

While it’s possible to create a hardscape garden without the greenery, the same cannot be said for creating a softscape garden without the hardscape elements. In most cases, there needs to be some hardscaping, especially when it comes to preventing erosion and assisting water runoff. 

The hardscape is typically designed and fitted prior to the softscape. This is because it’s generally the structure in which the softscape will fit into.

Another way to think about hardscape design is that the results are usually permanent and immediate. There’s no waiting for something to grow. As soon as the materials are laid, the design is present. Hardscape becomes the architectural side of the garden.

Finally, hardscape can actually be used for indoor gardens by utilising the unique textures of pots, planters, jars or troughs. Using these elements correctly can bring vibrancy and intrigue into any room. Even using pebbles and timber shelving can make a huge difference.


5 elements of hardscape design


1. Patios or decks

Whether paved with stone or using timber, decks are a lovely addition to a backyard and serve to split the area into two defined spaces. Decks can either be an extension of the inside of the house, sitting adjacent to the back door, or elevated off the ground in a different area of the garden.


2. Structures

Gazebos, sheds, pergolas. These are all hardscape elements and are great additions to any landscape. They can even be used to support the growth of vines or other climbing plants.


3. Driveways

Sometimes difficult to design and they don’t necessarily look pretty but they are essential elements. Size matters when it comes to curb appeal and the material you choose can also make a big difference.


4. Pathways

Again, there are a multitude of surface choices when it comes to paths, from pebbles, bricks or pavers through to stone or even terrazzo.


5. Fences

Giving you privacy and security, fences don’t need to be boring or bland. Picket fences, timber slatting or even a solid wall can be used creatively to give your garden a little bit of flair.

What is softscape design?

Softscape design can be defined as the living elements in your garden – the trees, plants, grass, vines and shrubbery. While some elements may be permanent, such as trees or evergreen shrubs, other plants will come and go, depending on the season and whether you choose to redo the space.

When deciding what to include in the softscape elements, a professional landscaper will generally consider the soil condition, the natural lay of the land, the amount of sunlight the area gets and the style of landscaping you wish to achieve. 

As noted before, it’s generally difficult for softscape elements to thrive without the hardscape materials. While for some plants, the hardscape elements provide a container or barrier for their growth, for others, it all comes down to erosion, water run-off and the physical structure.

Most of the time, softscape is used simply because greenery is a lovely feature to the garden, however, at times, it can also be used to soften the hardscape elements. Hedges or plants can really make a space ‘pop’ and the softscape elements really complement the harder edges of the physical materials.

5 elements of softscape design


1. Trees

The most permanent softscape element, sometimes you don’t really have a choice when it comes to trees. Either way, they’re a great feature in any backyard.


2. Shrubs and ground cover

Various types of ground cover can be used, it doesn’t just have to be grass. Shrubs can also add a lovely lower visual element.


3. Flower beds or gardens

These can be planted directly into the soil or, if that’s not an option, planter boxes are a great way to combine the soft and hard elements. Using flower beds is also a beautiful way to bring some colour into the space and can create some variety through the year, especially if you plant particular flowers that grow in specific seasons.


4. Mulch

This can be used for low-maintenance or unused areas of the backyard. Mulch is great because it helps prevent weed growth and helps to hold moisture in the soil.


5. Screens

Privacy doesn’t just have to come from physical fences. There are some unique ways to use softscape to create screens or barriers, for example, tall hedges or bamboo.

Combining the two with Artisan Exterior

If you’ve got the space, it’s a great idea to combine hardscape and softscape elements together. While many people will automatically think of greenery, grass and trees when talking about landscaping, the paths, decks and driveways are just as important in the design and layout of the area.

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Get in touch with the experts at Artisan Exterior to find the best natural stone products to bring your hardscape landscape design to life. Our friendly team are on hand to assist you to find the perfect natural stone material that will suit your landscaping project.

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