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Resources / Hardscape & Landscape

Designing the Hardscape and Landscape

Selecting Your Hardscape

The paving, fences, walls, and any garden ornaments used in a landscape design are often called the hardscape, while the plant materials are called the softscape. The hardscape plays an important role in any design, contributing line, pattern, form, color, and texture.

Well-designed landscapes use paving materials for driveways and walkways that have colors, textures, and patterns that complement the construction material of the house. Some materials, like concrete, brick, or stone, can be used in both driveways and walkways, but this is not always possible since the driveway needs to support more weight than a walkway. Wood, for example, is rarely used on a driveway, but works well on paths if the house is by the coast or has a naturalistic, weather-beaten look. In that type of situation, you could edge the driveway in the same wood as the path to unify the two. Bricks are available in different textures and colors and can be used on driveways, walkways, patios, and steps. Used bricks are rougher in texture and therefore more suitable for walkways. You don't need to embed bricks in mortar or concrete unless cars will be driving on them, although mortar or concrete gives them more permanence and keeps out weeds. Alternatively, lay bricks in a 2-inch base of sand; then brush more sand on top until the cracks between the bricks are filled.

Concrete is one of the most inexpensive paving materials, although not always the most attractive. It can be laid in any shape, and may be the easiest way to deal with a circular design. Be aware that smooth concrete is slippery when wet; a textured finish is safer and can be made more attractive with a sweeping circular design. Adding heavy aggregate to concrete strengthens it and makes it more attractive, as does dividing it into sections broken up with pieces of treated wood.

Concrete can also be beautified by coloring it, stamping it, or topping it with colored stones. Pre-cast interlocking concrete pavers are strong and easy to install. They come in a variety of shapes, textures, and colors, and while more expensive than concrete, they are more economical than brick, flagstone, slate, or other stones.

Quarried stones such as granite, marble, bluestone, and slate are often used as paving materials.

Dimensioned stone, since it is cut, is easy to work with because it is usually flat. You can also use fieldstone, but you'll need to take care when laying the stone to ensure that the surface is flat and easy to walk on.

Pressure-treated lumber has preservative forced deep into the wood and lasts longer than wood that has simply been dipped or painted with preservative. Pressure-treated wood is not toxic to plants and the preservatives will not leach into the soil; however, use extreme caution when sawing the wood to prevent inhaling or ingesting the dust particles.


Few climates can provide the consistent moisture on a weekly basis that most gardens require. Most plants can go for a few days without water, but many begin to go dormant, lose roots, and even die if drought lasts for a few weeks or more. Gardeners must step in and irrigate landscape plants when necessary. It's better to water infrequently but deeply - say, one good soaking a week - than to apply small amounts of water every few days. Apply enough water to penetrate the soil about 18 inches. Wetting only the soil surface weakens plants by encouraging shallow, droughtvulnerable roots to form. You can reduce the number of watering by working organic matter, such as compost or leaf mold, into the soil to improve its moisture retention. Adding organic matter is especially beneficial in the case of sandy soils, which have a low organic content and do not retain water well.

To determine if a plant needs water, the time-tested method is to stick your finger within the plant's root zone. In the case of most annuals and shallow-rooted perennials, it's probably time to water if the soil feels dry an inch below the surface.

This method works, but if your garden is large, you may want to use a stick instead of your finger. Here's another trick for telling at a glance if your garden needs watering: within each group of plants, include one or more "indicator" plants, such as phlox, that you know wilt quickly when the soil dries out. As you make the rounds in your garden, pay special attention to the indicator plants and give them - and the plants growing nearby - a drink as soon as they start to droop.

Preventing Weeds

Bare soil is at the mercy of drying sunlight and erosion caused by wind and rain, so nature protects the soil by covering it with plants. Unwanted plants, or weeds, will pop up in any garden site that you leave bare. Fight weeds effectively - before they appear - by:

  • Covering garden soil with weed-smothering mulch.
  • Planting a dense group of low-growing groundcovers beneath trees and shrubs, and even under perennials and bulbs.
  • Laying down plastic sheeting, landscape fabric, or several sheets of newspaper beneath a gravel or mulch path.

If a few weeds poke up through the mulch or groundcover, they will be easy to hand-pull when the soil is moist from rain or watering. If stubborn perennial weeds keep coming back from underground runners, try pouring boiling water on their roots. Weeds can be killed with the systemic herbicide glyphosate, which is sold under various trade names. This herbicide remains in the plant's tissues and does not move through the soil. It also breaks down quickly, so it is relatively safe to use. When using any herbicide, follow the label directions carefully. Use only on wind-free days, and take care not to splash it on desirable plants, because most herbicides kill plants indiscriminately.


Mulching is probably the easiest of all garden chores, and possibly the best thing you can do for your garden. Mulch is a layer of organic or inorganic material placed on the soil beneath plants. Mulch smothers weeds, thus reducing the need for weeding, and it helps keep the soil moist, which saves on watering. A 2- to 4-inch layer of loose material insulates the soil, protecting surface roots from heat during the summer and from frost damage and heaving during the winter. Mulch also protects plants from diseases by keeping soil-bourne pathogens from splashing onto leaves. Organic mulches, such as compost, wood chips, shredded leaves, and aged manure, slowly release valuable nutrients into the soil, reducing the need for fertilizing. Compost also adds beneficial, disease-fighting organisms to the soil. When using fresh organic mulches, add nitrogen-rich fertilizers to the area to replenish the nutrients these mulches use as they decompose.

Because organic mulches break down, you'll need to refresh the mulch every year or so. Add a layer of new mulch in the spring or early summer to maintain a depth between 2 and 4 inches. Inorganic mulches include synthetic landscape fabrics, crushed rock, or gravel. These mulches suppress weeds, but offer little insulation and no nutrients for plant roots - they can also cook some plants. Crushed rock and gravel look best when used to cover paths or large, unplanted areas, or placed around plants in rock gardens and arid landscapes.

Landscape fabrics are not meant to be used alone, but can be placed under loose mulches for added weed suppression. Use landscape fabric under trees and shrubs only where you intend the covering to be permanent. If you try to remove fabric under trees or shrubs you may damage surface roots - they sometimes weave themselves into the fabric.

Managing Pests And Diseases

Selecting disease- and insect-resistant plants and keeping them healthy can help you avoid trouble with pests and diseases. Healthy plants are less likely to suffer these problems, since pests and diseases naturally seek out weaker victims. By simply providing plants with the type of soil, drainage, nutrients, and moisture they require, you'll help strengthen them so they can survive an occasional attack.

It's also helpful to keep your garden clean by removing dead leaves and other plant debris. This not only keeps the garden tidy, but also eliminates a favorite breeding ground for all sorts of pests and diseases - and gives you the makings for great compost.

Even well-maintained gardens with healthy plants have occasional problems.

If a few leaves are spotted with fuzzy, white, or sooty, black fungal spots, simply pick and destroy them to keep the problem from spreading. Pick off large leaf-chewing pests with gloved hands and drop them into a jar of soapy water.

If the damage threatens your plants' health, identify the culprits and take appropriate action. Check with your local garden center for remedies to specific problems, or snip off an affected leaf and take it to your local cooperative extension agent to identify the critters and get treatment options.

Caring For Plants, Trees, & Shrubs

Once you've installed your landscape, take care of its plants. Generally, you'll need to pay a bit more attention to herbaceous plants than woody plants, since the former require deadheading and fertilizing. You'll also want to prune woody plants to keep them looking their best for years to come. Some general plant care guidelines follow; for care of specific plants, consult your local nursery.

Once established, trees and shrubs require minimal attention to thrive. Generally, all you'll need to do is prune them from time to time to maintain their shape and health. Trees and shrubs usually don't require nutrients beyond what the soil supplies, but any organic mulch or fertilizer you add to your garden will help.

Winter is the best time to prune most trees and shrubs. In the late winter, your landscape may look like it's still asleep, but it's on the verge of bursting into buds, flowers, and leaves. It's much easier to prune deciduous trees before this new growth begins, since you can see where you're cutting more clearly.

You can prune summer-flowering shrubs and trees in late winter or early spring without sacrificing flowers, because the flower buds form during the present growing season. Wait to prune spring bloomers, such as forsythias, quinces, and lilacs, until after they bloom so you won't lose the flowers, which develop from over wintering buds. Don't wait too long, though; if you prune in the late summer or fall, you may cut off next year's flower buds.

Perennial Care

When caring for perennials, you will need to fertilize, divide, deadhead, and possibly stake or support them - each at different times during their life span. Fertilizers have varying proportions of the three major elements that plants need for healthy growth: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (abbreviated as N-P-K). The proportion of N-P-K is noted on the label as a series of numbers, such as 5-10-5, which is a good formula for perennials.

Apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer in late spring by scattering the pellets on the surface of the soil and scratching it in lightly. Rain and irrigation water will slowly leach nutrients from the pellets into the soil. Your perennials won't need more fertilizer until they bloom later in the summer, and this one application will be enough for foliage plants.

Weak-stemmed plants - or those in windy sites - may need to be staked as the season progresses to support their growth. Anticipate the problem in the spring and stick stakes or metal grids into the soil where floppy perennials, such as peonies, are emerging. If you install the support early in the growing season, the plant's leaves will grow up and around to camouflage the support.

Another easy way to provide support is to plant vines or floppy plants, like clematis or balloon flowers, with stiff plants, like shrub roses. By allowing the vines or floppy plants to wind through or lean on the stronger plants, you can save yourself the work of staking and enjoy handsome combinations of flower colors at the same time.

When flowers begin to fade, keep the plants looking tidy and encourage more flowers by deadheading, or removing old blossoms. Use pruning shears or scissors to remove individual faded flowers near the main stem. You can remove tall, leafless flower stems, such as those of iris, at the base.

While you wait for most of your plants to awaken in early spring, spring-flowering bulbs are in their glory. Apply nitrogenrich fertilizer just as the new foliage pokes though the ground, and you will fuel their growth, and help bulbs store food for strong blooming performance next spring. In the fall, apply bulb booster fertilizer, a balanced slow-release plant food, to help the bulbs grow a good root system.

If you've done all you can to keep your bulbs and perennials healthy, they will thrive. New plants will form around the original clumps. Typically, after three to five years, the clumps become crowded, the centers begin to die out, and flower production decreases. When this happens, you'll need to dig the clumps up in spring or fall and divide them into individual plants. Discard the spent, old plants at the center and replant the new ones.

Putting Gardens To Bed

Fall, like spring, is a busy time in the garden. Dusting the soil above spring-flowering bulbs with fertilizer again in autumn will give them an energy boost when they revive in the spring. And, of course, you'll want to plant new bulbs in the fall as well.

If you have precious tender plants that you'd like to save for next summer, now's the time to dig them up and put them in pots to bring indoors. Find a bright, sunny windowsill for the winter and they'll be ready to go back outside in the spring. Autumn is the time to protect plants from frost damage. Applying a 4-inch thick layer of fresh mulch after the ground freezes will keep plants from being heaved from the soil. If you have shrubs that are exposed to drying winds, you can protect them by wrapping them in burlap or spraying the leaves or needles with an anti-desiccant, available at garden centers. Wait to apply this product until temperatures fall below freezing so that you're sure that plants are dormant before you treat them.

If you are growing herbs, vegetables, or late-flowering annuals and want to keep them going as long as possible, cover them with old bed sheets or synthetic floating row covers in the evening when frost threatens. Pull the coverings off in the morning.

Late winter is the time to cut back ornamental grasses and any perennials that you left in the garden for winter interest. Using a pair of hand shears, cut back grasses and perennials to an inch or two above the base of each plant. If the dried foliage you've removed is free of insects and disease, you can compost the clippings.

The Right Tools

No matter what time of year you're doing landscape chores, you'll save time and effort if you are equipped with quality tools. Whenever possible, shop for hand tools in a store, rather than by mail. That way, you can try them on, much as you would try on a pair of shoes.

If you're buying a shovel, for example, take one off the rack and see how it fits. If it's too heavy or too tall, chances are you'll never use it. For smaller adults, look for lightweight tools designed for women - often they can be a better choice. Good tools last a lifetime or two, and you can often find high-quality, hand-forged garden tools at bargain prices. Keep an eye out at thrift shops and yard sales for the best deals.

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