By Marilyn Pribus
While “landscaping” is a familiar concept, “hardscaping” may be a new term for some people. What does it mean exactly?
Hardscaping uses hard building materials and it’s generally permanent. These materials can involve natural stone, gravel, or boulders as well as manufactured products including pavers, bricks, retaining wall blocks, stepping stones, and edging stone. In some cases, treated timber or even metal is employed.
Many yards have one or more problem landscaping situations such as steep areas vulnerable to soil erosion, low spots where water collects, areas where heavy foot traffic makes it difficult to maintain a lawn, or poor soil making it next to impossible to have a garden.
Here’s where hardscaping can be a great solution. On a steep property, for instance, a retaining wall can level off the slope to provide more useable space because you can develop the level area for a garden or patio. The most popular product for retaining walls is pre-cast segmented wall block which comes in a variety of colors and surfaces.
Retaining walls can be complicated and in many localities homeowners must use a certified installer or get a permit depending on the wall’s design. The permit is less about color or materials and more about how much of the property is involved, how drainage will be managed and how the wall will be reinforced and backfilled.
Another way to deal with slopes is to create a series of terraces from treated wood or wall block. These terraces can then be planted with low-maintenance shrubbery and sturdy, native greenery.
Still another yard problem can be an area where the lawn is defeated by foot traffic or poor soil. In this case, walkways or patio areas can be the answer. Bricks, flagstones, or interlocking pavers are frequently used in these cases. For a more rustic look, some people use horizontal slices of a durable wood.
While level hardscape areas may be installed by a landscaper, a reasonably handy homeowner can create these areas with a few tools like a level, tamper, wheelbarrow, and shovel. The subsoil must be replaced by compactable aggregate such as crushed stone, brick, concrete, or other materials.
These products are available from most hardware stores and gardening centers and are sometimes commingled with a variety of recycled materials. They should be tamped down well, then covered with a layer of sand before installing the paving materials.
A more ambitious and permanent installation would be to embed the walkway materials in cement.
Mowing strips around gardens can be made of poured concrete, bricks, or pavers making lawn maintenance easier. If discharge from downspouts is eroding the yard, a bed of stones can deflect the flow. Pavers or stones can also be used to widen an existing driveway or walkway.
Drainage is often a problem and hardscaped areas like driveways or large patios can lead to problems with flooding. A good answer for this is the use of permeable materials. These can be part of a green system to capture and direct storm water back into the ground by allowing it to drain right through the material.
Permeable pavers, natural stone, and gravel are environmentally friendly, especially in areas where paving isn’t desirable like a particularly large driveway. In these cases, permeable materials let drainage recharge ground water rather than ending up as runoff into storm drains and eventually waterways.
Permeable materials can also reduce property fees related to Charlottesville’s Water Resources Protection Program which is a response to federal and state mandated regulations to control stormwater runoff and comply with environmental regulations.
The program’s funding mechanism is a stormwater utility fee based on the impervious area of each property including rooftops, driveways, parking lots, tennis courts and similar areas. Albemarle County and other localities are also considering such fees.
Just Plain Pretty
Water features are another popular form of hardscape and can be well-suited for solving landscaping problems. For example, a low-lying area in a yard could be converted to a fishpond or fountain. Waterfalls with recirculating pumps add a pleasant ambiance to a yard and the sound of splashing water attracts songbirds.
Hardscaping can also make a home’s entry more inviting with a curving walkway and handsome brick or stone steps leading to the front door.
In areas with poor soil, hardscaping can be used to create raised beds that can be filled with a good gardening medium for flowers, vegetables, and herbs. Solid, level pathways make it easier for persons with disabilities to move around a yard and to use a raised garden.
Or how about a fire pit? One family created one starting with an inexpensive stand-alone fire unit on a base of rocks they gathered when they dug up an area for a garden. The fire pit proved so popular, they laid a sand base and replaced the miscellaneous rocks with sturdy manufactured pavers around a much heavier sunken fire ring. Additional pavers delineate the edges of this outdoor “room.”
Extra living areas such as an outdoor kitchen with a built-in fireplace, barbecue, and counter area are also popular as are outdoor patios with built-in seating and a fireplace.
The bottom line is there are almost endless possibilities for enhancing a property with hardscaping that address problem areas, increase livability, and add yard appeal.
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County. A flight of timber-and-flagstone steps runs from the street to their flagstone entryway.