Getting Hardscaping Right

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows' garden in Berkeley.

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows’ garden in Berkeley.

One of the many lessons I learned on the tour I took of Bay Area gardens as part of the Garden Blogger’s Fling is that you’ve got to get the hardscaping right before even thinking about plants. When I asked garden designer Keeyla Meadows about the large stones in her garden she told me that they were craned in above the house. It was clear that at some point in the evolution of her small backyard garden, she bit the bullet and got bold with the hardscaping.

While there will be no craning at our house, the point is a good one. Get the hardscaping done first, do it right and be bold. Putting plants in first and then building things like decks and seating areas is a recipe for disaster. Any construction project, even carefully done, causes a considerable amount of destruction.

Some other lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years worth of hardscaping mistakes at our house:

  • Design the hardscaping before even thinking about plants.
  • Open the wallet and get quality materials for any hardscaping project. It’s more economical to do it right the first time, rather than re-do badly done projects multiple times.
  • Go where contractors get materials not the big box stores. A recent trip to Home Depot reminded me about how ugly most of their stuff is.
  • Get materials delivered. I once dropped a very heavy load of Trex on a steep hill near our home and watched, in horror, as it slid a hundred feet down the road. Thankfully no one got hurt. But it was not fun to reload the car on a 100° day.
  • Consider long term maintenance. Choose materials that are durable and easy to maintain.
  • Every home needs a “hide the s@#t fence.” There needs to be a place to put potting soils, shovels, compost piles etc.

I’m just about to embark on a couple of building projects–extending the back patio deck, building permanent vegetable beds and the aforementioned hide the s@#t fence.

This time I’m going to get it right!

How have your hardscaping endeavors gone? What have you done right and wrong? Have you found hardscaping solutions that didn’t break the bank?

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  1. A neighbor around the corner died, and I was allowed to take all the rock I wanted. By myself, I moved about two dozen very large stone/rocks/mini-boulders. That involved walking then onto a low 6-inch high cart and pulling them uphill to my house. I should have had help. But, they greatly improved my yard.

    I did have to hire a tow truck to haul a courthouse step half a block. The guy promptly broke it, but I still had to pay to get it into the yard. Why would anyone drop a step instead of lowering it to the ground? It is on stones that convert it from junk to a bench.

    Is furniture hardscaping? I hired someone to deliver some expensive things–swing and frame, picnic table. I curb-shopped for table and got a bench and table and bistro table/chairs from neighbors who were leaving them behind. All these gave me something to plan around. Lost bricks are rehomed here.

    I actually have a fence that needs to be hidden.

    Everything I get is durable, made to outlast me. Okay, free furniture can last only ten years. It gets a pass.

  2. I also adhere to the “do it once, do it right”, especially with hardscaping where there it’s likely to involve the lugging of heavy things around. I generally will wait longer than necessary (some may see this as procrastination, I say contemplation) thinking about the particular area for a full year to make sure that I’m taking everything into consideration. I’ve learned from my mistakes that something that works great in summer, doesn’t work so well for the other three season.

  3. Our hardscaping was a huge endeavor (that’s where my blog begins, if you’re interested in the very oldest posts). We really worked on the design of the paths and raised beds first, and it has paid off. We saved money by finding a landscaper who was willing to work with us–he was excited about the creative process of the project, and did the Bobcat stuff for us, then got us off to a good start with the stone pack for the paths. We laid all the brick ourselves, and he lent us a few tools to and tips to keep us on the right track, then came back and helped us with the gravel. The sweat equity kept the price reasonable, although it was slow, hot work. We also saved money by reusing all of our old concrete bricks–not our first choice of material, but we stuck with it so the old ones wouldn’t go to waste.

    While we were scouring for design ideas, a book I loved was
    “The New Traditional Garden : A Practical Guide to Creating and Restoring Authentic American Gardens for Homes” by Michael Weishan. This might not be your cup of tea in California (where in my imagination everything is shiny and new), but it gave us lots of inspiration for old-style gardens and landscaping appropriate to historic New England houses. It’s a great look at the history of backyard landscaping (and heirloom plants), even if you don’t use the ideas for yourself.

  4. I go for functional over pretty… if something doesn’t earn its keep, then I don’t bother with it. Honestly it is nice to see photos of other people’s nice lawns, but I have other things I would rather put my time/money toward than aesthetics.

  5. I agree about the doing it right bit. We recently revamped the front yard. We took out over half of the lawn and added some flagstone and an iron fence. We spent all the money on the fence and the flagstone. We reused some ugly cement blocks (originally used to make a border) to build our “herb spiral.” It felt great to get rid of so much lawn (now I’m wondering why we left any at all), and to reuse the cement blocks.

    That said, I’m sure we could have found a nice home for the blocks via freecycle…

  6. We reworked parts of our back garden not once but twice, in an effort to get closer to our ideal. Now I’m contemplating a patio where the last of the grass remains and I realize it will wreak havoc on the existing plantings.

    I admire the scale of Keeyla Meadows’ hardscape. To imagine that huge installation in a garden the size of hers took real vision.

  7. Excellent advice. I’ve certainly made the mistake of doing it cheaply myself and later paying to have it done right. Better to have paid for what was beyond my abilities the first time!

  8. Long time reader, first time poster 🙂

    I couldn’t agree more! I once built an entire water catchment system complete with conveyance and infiltration trenches, a rain garden, and an array of whimsy.

    That was 3 years ago, and I just had to rebuild it because it was mostly destroyed when we decided to have a fence put in. I knew we would build a fence someday, but I didn’t want to spend the money 3 years ago… so I went ahead with the hardscape/catchment creek and had to spend an entire staycation rebuilding everything!

    That’s just part of permaculture though, isn’t it? I always want to add “… then adjust” to Holmgren’s first principle of “Observe & Interact.”

    Thanks for your always enlightening posts!

    • Your story sounds oh-so-familiar. The story of our life on our 1/12th acre farm!

  9. This post reminded me of the Keyline Scale Of Permanence (KSOP), often used in Holistic Management practice. The basic idea is to design in the most permanent components of a system first, then layer on the more temporary/changeable components.

    The scale is:

    1. Climate
    2. Landshape
    3. Water Supply
    4. Roads/Access
    5. Trees
    6. Structures
    7. Subdivision Fences
    8. Soil

    Hardscaping is generally landshape, water (ponds, swales, drains, etc) and access (paths, driveways) – very important to get these things right before moving on to the rest!

  10. Thanks for the tips! I’ve been trying to figure out how to design my yard so that I can get the hardscaping just right. I thought that your advice about hardscape design was very helpful. It’s good to know that I should get the hardscape done first before I start to plant anything. That way I can design how all of the plants will look around my hardscapes.

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