Hardscapes Made Easy

Contrary to what many landscapers believe, planting trees, shrubs and flowers is the final step — not the only step — in creating an outdoor living space. To the designer, plants are only one of many elements in a landscape. These plants are intended to complement the hardscapes only after the patio, walkways and arrival sequences are carefully designed to fit an individual design.

Plants are to landscape what pictures are to the room or, for that matter, what wallpaper is to walls. You must have the walls or the structure of a project thoroughly designed before considering putting the final touches on.

The most beautiful plants in the world won't correct a poorly planned space. Pay attention to your surroundings and you will find narrow sidewalks, cramped outdoor patios and difficult turning radiuses in driveways as just some examples of hardscapes designed incorrectly that contribute to uncomfortable, uninviting spaces.


The very first impression of a home is often measured sooner than you think — from the street or the driveway. What is the home's arrival sequence? Consider the guests' initial experience: Do they have to “hop” to a stepping stone as they exit their cars? What happens when a couple walks side by side on a front walkway? Do they enjoy a pleasant stroll, or are they forced to walk single file?

No matter how simple or sophisticated your methods, careful assessment and planning are the keys to a strong landscape design.

There are 15 characteristics of good landscape design. A good design:

  1. Employs scale, color and harmony.

  2. Extends our living space outdoors.

  3. Comes from a personalized plan.

  4. Achieves specific goals.

  5. Merges function and beauty.

  6. Is valued in proportion to our enjoyment.

  7. Can be inspired by art, literature, and everyday life.

  8. Fits details into an overall puzzle.

  9. Is a result of research and planning.

  10. Provides “experiences.”

  11. Makes lasting impressions.

  12. Complements the site and architectural style of home or buildings.

  13. Affects all of our senses.

  14. Is achievable within any budget.

  15. Adds value to a home.

All of these characteristics are outlined in detail in the following paragraphs to offer you a better understanding of each.


Hardscape is the skeleton of your outdoor design, and also serves as the key to the initial conceptual plan and the success of the completed project. Proper scale, color and harmony are also critical decisions. Scale should relate to the existing structure's architecture. A successful design will extend the details found in the architecture, such as the classic Palladian window being used commonly in new construction today. The front porch stoop could mirror this Palladian window, but the scale has to work here. Don't make your porch smaller; it must the same or bigger than the window to be in scale. The color and brick pattern must be in harmony with the architecture. You can use even the roofing material as an inspiration for selecting the porch and front walk material to create harmony. Yes, the roof is part of the architecture!


Extend the architecture of the home to create extended living spaces. If there are French doors off the back dinning area, make the back stoop bigger than the French doors to extend your inward view outward. The perspective from inside will be translated to the outside.


Let the client share with you what past outdoor spaces appealed to them and what materials were used. Consider the psychological relationship they have with the materials. Are there any similar tastes seen throughout the house, too? But don't be afraid to help direct their choices to create continuity based on their personal preferences.


Function and beauty are the only successful marriages in design. If your client is delighted to mix contemporary styled patios when they have a French county house, you must, as a professional, put these ideas through the test: Does the contemporary provide function despite the conflict with the beauty of the French Country? Will it disrupt the total creation? Is it affirmed in past art examples, literature or everyday life to justify this design decision? Don't make a design without a reason behind it.


As you design the space and select materials (see “Material Selection,” above), remember to also consider smaller details such as wall, step and sitting area lighting needs. Does the irrigation overthrow water to these hardscape areas unnecessarily? Fit the details into the overall puzzle. The right decisions will come as a result of research and planning. Make time for planning and charge for time to plan.


These spaces are intended to provide an experience to the users. If the user finds the outdoor space or room you created calming, stimulating or therapeutic, then you have done your job. You have made a lasting impression on those entering this created space.


Walls also should pull upon the architecture's material. Do not be pressured by suppliers to use their “in stock” inventory in your design simply because it can be delivered fast. You owe it to your client and to the project to choose what is right for the home. Complementing the site and architectural style of the home or building is critical, and will pass the test of time. Making the poor decision to use the inventory special will live on to haunt you long after the sweetness of the quick buck has passed. Your reputation demands that you educate your clients of all the materials available to them. As you educate your client, you both can work together to insure that the proper decisions will be made based on function, beauty and extension of the home or buildings architecture. Everybody will win, and for years there will be witnesses visiting the space you create evaluating your decisions. Don't rush in material selections. Your client will pressure you to make the decision; recognize this phenomenon, but by making them wait and think it through, they will respect your professionalism more in the end.


Whether anyone realizes it or not, what you create will intensely affect the viewers' senses. If it is too small they will feel claustrophobic; if too big, too exposed. If too plain, it will be boring. If too much detail, it will be confusing. All of this lends to the human experience every time we enter any space. There is magic when a space's scale and color are right, the senses register its rightness. Everyone can expertly recognize something that feels right. Not many can explain what it is, but their senses tell them it is right.


The space should never be restrained by budget. Of course, this in no way means that you'll have an unlimited budget. It means that the concept of the plan, the scale and the sensitivity to the existing architecture of the home or building should not become cost prohibitive because you have in mind only one material that will make it work. For example, you decide that you must have a circular driveway. This driveway, if made in granite, will cost mega dollars. This design should be just as complementary and right if a cheaper material is used, such as compacted crushed pebbles or tarmac. If it is proportionate, in scale and complements the style of the existing architecture, the final material selection should be versatile to still be successful to implement the design.


Ultimately, any work done and money the homeowner invests into the project should add value to the home. Value is typically associated with a dollar figure (see “Landscaping Enhances Home Value,” page 10). However, value also can be defined by how much it is appreciated and used. Value can be reflected in the homeowner getting many years of enjoyment from the project, or use out of it. If the user appreciates the result of the project, they will use it more; if it is used more, it becomes more valuable and is maintained more. If it is maintained more, it retains its value over time.


Many landscape design sales people feel that money is what creates the biggest hurdle for the homeowners reluctant to move forward with a project or its installation. Once you make the client aware that a problem exists, and propose to formulate a solution, then they are receptive to discover the design solution that can come through you. It is through this self-discovery event that the phenomenon is created that reverses you from selling something as opposed to the client now wanting to buy something.

Gary and Cynthia Kinman teach these concepts at The Kinman Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Contact them at Kinman1@ aol.Com, or visit their Web page at www.KinmanInstitute.com


You can use almost any material in a dry-laid application; however, the material must be practical for the patio or sidewalk's end use. For example, a natural stone with an uneven characteristic is not appropriate if you need a smooth uniform surface. A concrete paving stone may provide a more durable surface than a natural brick product, but the charm and unique character of a natural brick or stone patio or sidewalk is hard to resist. Many choices are available. Remember to keep the end user in mind when selecting the paving material.


  1. Employs scale, color and harmony
  2. Extends our living space outdoors
  3. Comes from a personalized plan
  4. Achieves specific goals
  5. Merges function and beauty
  6. Is valued in proportion to our enjoyment
  7. Can be inspired by art, literature, and everyday life.
  8. Fits details into an overall puzzle
  9. Is a result of research and planning
  10. Provides “experiences”
  11. Makes lasting impressions
  12. Complements the site and architectural style of home or buildings
  13. Affects all of our senses
  14. Is achievable within any budget
  15. Adds value to a home


  1. Designate an area 6 to 8 inches larger than the finished area. This is the area you'll excavate. Remember, before you dig, contact utility companies and ask them to locate and mark underground wires. Excavate the area to a 6-inch depth plus the thickness of your selected paving material. The excavated area should mirror or parallel the slope of the finished surface and should be consistent.

  2. Rake up and remove any dry, loose fill left over following excavation. Run a plate vibrator over the area to compact the subgrade. At this point, think about the potential of future irrigation or lighting wire installation. If there is potential for it, now is the time to install PVC pipes to accommodate for it.

  3. Add the base material (crushed gravel) to a depth of no more than 4 inches at a time. Grade off the base to a flat, smooth surface and then pound the base with the plate vibrator. Add more base and repeat until you achieve the finished height. The finished height of the base will sit below finished grade at the depth of the paving material's thickness plus about 1.25 inches.

  4. The next layer will be concrete sand and will serve as a leveling course to compensate for irregularities in the paving material. This will help ensure that is compacts at the same level. Spread and level the sane by dragging a 2×4 over the area.

  5. Begin layering the bricks or pavers. You should have already determined the pattern during your planning process. Leave 0.125-inch joints between the pavers. Leave larger joints in natural flagstone or slate surfaces. You will later fill the joints with sand.

  6. Sweep the paved area and compact the pavers with the plate vibrator. Some surfaces may not be able to withstand this direct contact, and you should place a rubber plate over the face of the vibrator or place plywood over the brick. Go over the area several times.

  7. Sweep sand into the joints. The sand should be dry and clean. If possible, leave the remaining sand on the pavers and then dampen the area with hand watering to help settle the sand.

For information on walkway installation, see “How to: Build a Brick Walkway” in the July 2004 issue of Grounds Maintenance.

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