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Hardscaping and Management

Hardscaping and Space Management 

Just as well-built house needs a strong foundation, a well-designed garden needs a sound structure. In addition to trees, shrubs, and hedges, the more-or-less permanent plants in a landscape, the constructed elements in the garden—paths and walkways, walls and fences—form the garden’s underlying structure, what garden designers like to call its “bones.” These parts of the landscape are visible year-round, and they become prominent in winter, when the charming distractions of flowers and foliage of flowers and foliage are less in evidence or absent altogether except in the warmest climates. The constructed elements of the garden—the walls, fences, and paths—are called hardscape in the landscaping industry. Patios are hardscape, too, but in this chapter we are concerned with landscaping that is used to manage space and movement through the garden. Hedges are also included because they work much like walls and fences. (You can find information on decks and patios in the next chapter.) 

 Before you put a plant in the ground, you would do well to plan for the structural elements of the landscape. Use walls, fences, and hedges to define spaces, delineate boundaries, and create privacy. Set pats and walkways to get from one place to another. When these elements are laid out in a way that both enables them to serve their intended functions and makes visual sense, and when they are constructed of materials that complement the materials, colors, and style of your house, the entire property works as one, a single coordinated design. Here is where the unified landscape begins. 

On a formal property, the design usually works as a grid, with paths laid in straight lines and decks and patios in neat rectangular or geometric shapes. Informal landscapes make more use of flowing curves and undulating lines. 

The way you manage space in your landscape determines the locations of beds and borders and provides the basis for your plantings. If you have an existing landscape, study it in winter to assess where improvements and redirections might bring more logic to the underlying structure, improve the flow of traffic, and generally make it more comfortable and easy to use. 

Hardscaping and Space Management 
Hardscaping and Space Management 

In this chapter, we will look at creating good bones for your landscape, and we’ll explore options for paths and walkways, walls and fences, and hedges and screens of plants. The next chapter will go on to address structures. 

Paths and Walkways 

Paths are essential on most properties. They get you form one place to another, enable the mailman to find your front door, allow you to push cartloads of compost to the beds and borders where you need it, and show visitors how to move through your garden to enjoy its beauty without getting their feet wet or muddy.  Paths connect house and landscape into a unified property. They link the house to the street and all the outdoor spaces you use—the garage, a shed, a gazebo, a patio.  From the routes you normally take to reach these places. You can start to build a pattern with pats. 

Paths move you through the landscape both physically, as you walk on them, and mentally, as your eyes follow their lines across the land. Try to put in the fewest paths you need to get from place to place. You don’t want to carve up your property with a maze of paths running here, there, and every-where. Instead, leave the space in bigger chunks and use it for garden beds and borders, or for lawn or other plantings. Whether your landscaping plans involve renovating an existing garden or starting a new one, it pays to understand the characteristics of your property before you begin.  You will want to construct pathways and other structural features where they will serve their purpose most effectively and play a visually pleasing role in the overall design, of course, but you also need to take into account the land itself. 

You need know particularly where paths are concerned, where water collects after heavy rain, where ice is likely to form, and where snow lingers in spring.  It’s also wise to find out the path water follows when it runs off during a storm. 

It’s best to avoid putting paths or walkways in poorly drained locations.  Water will puddle up on the paths during heavy rain and freeze over in winter, making walking difficult in both cases.  If you have no alternative to making a walkway in a wet spot, you will need to either install drainage tiles or pipes underground or build a raised boardwalk to keep your feet dry. 

Where to put paths 

When you moved into your house, it probably already ready had a walkway from the street or driveway to the front door.  But there are numerous other places where paths are useful.  You will need paths to link different parts of the landscape.  You’ll also need to have access to beds and borders to maintain the plants; you’ll have put out the trash, and you’ll need to get to the garage (if it’s not attached to the house) and to wherever you park your car in the driveway.  A path can lead to a gazebo, arbor, or other outdoor structure; to a swimming pool or pond; to a bench or swing; or to a special area for children’s play or sports.  You might want a path that leads past a piece of art, a birdbath, a sundial, or some other ornament.  A path can lead past garden beds and borders (an edging of bricks lay flat and flush with the ground makes a handy mowing strip so you won’t have to edge the path).  Look for places people naturally walk, where the grass is worn from foot traffic.  There might be a shortcut you habitually take across the lawn to get to your car, for instance.  You probably need paths in these places, too.  If these tracks don’t fit well into your design, you can put in a few less noticeable stepping-stones instead of a path to save the grass.  If your garden is formal, you will want to create a grid of straight paths that are smooth and level.  If your property slopes at an angle of 30 degrees or more, you will need to build a series of terraces in which to garden, in order to maintain the straight lines and sharp edges of a formal design.  You might include a path running horizontally across the face of the hillside to enhance the controlled, contained look of the garden. 

Paths in an informal garden can wind and curve as they meander through the landscape, following the line of a bed or border and tracing gentle undulations in the terrain, where steps are not needed.  Paths that twist and tum bring a touch of mystery to the garden, and a sense of discovery you never know what you will find around the next bend.  Winding paths also make a small garden feel bigger.  Even in an informal garden, though, you will probably want to make some paths straight.  Routes to destinations you need to reach in a timely manner, such as those to the garage or the trash bin, for instance, are usually best laid straight to their goals. 

On the other hand, a path that leads to a shady bench or a secluded pool, or past a piece of sculpture or a breath taking specimen tree, can meander a bit to allow strollers to take in more of the garden along the way.  You will walk more slowly on a winding path, and you will have more time to look around you. 

The surface materials of a path also affect the speed at which you will traverse it.  Rough, uneven surfaces demand more care of the walker.  Smoother surfaces encourage a speedier pace.  You can factor ease and speed of travel into your path planning.  And you can even use surface pavements to manipulate how fast people walk in your landscape Switching from smooth, even flagstone stepping-stones to rougher fieldstone as the path approaches a garden feature will cause strollers to slow down to notice the feature.  Just don’t make the pavement so uneven that people will need to look down at their feel in order not to trip. 

You can also use different path surfaces in different parts of the landscape to call attention to transitions from one area to another, as for example, between one garden room and the next, or between a sunny flower border and a shady woodland garden.  In Japanese gardens, different pavements are often used to denote different part of the landscape and to highlight specimen plants and carefully orchestrated views. 

Paths should be wide enough to comfortably accommodate the people and accessories passing over them, but they need not all be the same width A primary path, one that leads to an important destination, such as the front door, the swimming pool, or into the garden should be 3 to 4 wide so two people can comfortably walk side by side.  You might even prefer the walk to the front door to be wider still—4 or 5 feet—to give it maximum importance and also to visually balance the volume of the house Also take into account whether you will need to push a lawn mower, garden cart, or baby stroller along the path—such needs help determine the best pavement material for the path. 

Secondary paths that allow you to get behind beds and borders to maintain the plants, fill birdfeeders, or find your way to a hidden hammock should be narrower than the primary paths; 2to3 feet is usually sufficient. 

Consider, always, the comfort and safety of those who will use the paths.  Make all paths a bit wider where they curve.  If the path will climb a slope, plan to add steps if the grade exceeds 4 or 5 present.  A path used often by young children (to reach a play area, for instance) needs a soft surface.  Where older people or others not always surf-footed will walk, avoid using surface materials—such as wood and smooth slate—that become slippery when they’re wet.  Finally, keep paths at least 2 feet away from the foundation of the house, walls, hedges, and large trees. 

Path Styles 

Paths look best when they are planned to blend in with the house and other elements of the landscape.  Lots of different materials will serve to surface a path—some formal, other informal; some hard, others soft.  Your goal is to choose a path style that will work with the house and look at home on your property. 

One way to connect paths to the look of the house is to repeat some of the same materials used on the house and elsewhere in the landscape.  If your house is brick, consider using brick for the main paths.  If you have a flagstone patio, you can also use flagstone on your paths.  If your house is sided with wood shingles, look for gravel, field-stone, or concrete pavers of a similar color.  If your house is stuccoed, you could paths with light sandstone of a similar hue.  In a woodland garden,    surface paths with shredded bark or another woodsy material to keep them unobtrusive and let the soft colors of your shade-tolerant wildflowers and bulbs shine through. 

Brick, flagstone, and concrete pavers all can work beautifully for paving paths in formal gardens.  Tile creates a Mediterranean look.  Gravel comes in variety of colors and is versatile in its applications, but it is an especially good choice for paths in a rock garden or a desert garden.  You can get creative with paths, too, and make mosaics of tile, pebbles, marbles, or even pieces of broken flowerpots or old dishes set in cement.  You can even cast your own stepping-stones (kits are available) and memorialize children’s footprints, favourite sayings, important dates, and other items with personal meanings. 

Surface Materials 

Path materials are either hard and solid or soft and yielding underfoot.  Hard surfaces—brick, flagstone, and concrete (poured or in the form of individual paving blocks)—work well in formal gardens.  They, along with less-formal fieldstone, are expensive and time-consuming to install, but they are durable, hold up well under traffic, are reasonably permanent, and don’t require a lot of maintenance.  Soft surfaces—grave, pebbles.  Wood chips, shredded bark, pine needles, and grass or groundcovers—are inherently informal, for the most part.  They are inexpensive and quick and easy to install, but they need periodic maintenance and replenishment.  Gravel and pebbles scatter and work their way down into the ground over time.  Mulches, wood chips, and pine needles decompose.  Grass has to be mowed and ground-covers weeded, at least once in a while.  It’s also difficult to push a wheelbarrow over a soft-surface path.  Stepping-stones have a hard surface, but they are set into the laws or a base of loose stones; they are really a category of their own. 

Consider your site as well as your house when choosing path materials such practical considerations as the terrain and the amount of traffic the path will bear need to be taken into account.  If you live in a rainy climate, a hard-surfaced path in a low spot is an invitation to standing puddles after rain.  A porous, loose surface of gravel or mulch will allow rainwater to soak into the ground rather than run off and is a better choice.  But on a slope.  A loose surface such as wood chips or pebbles will be likely to wash downhill during heavy rains.  A much-travelled path between the house and garage will provide the surest, safest footing if it is paved with a smooth, hard material. 

Any path needs to be well prepared before the surface is laid if it’s to function well over time.  Hard surfaces are best laid on a base of gravel and sand to ensure good drainage and stability the last thing you need is a large, lingering puddle or a sheet of ice in the middle of the walkway.  Stepping-stones need to be set into the ground so that their faces are even with the surface.  When just set on top of the ground, they can tip over if you step on their edges.  Even a simple path of shredded bark will stay in place better if you prepare the ground first and install an edging.  No matter what kind of surface you use, try to make the path very slightly higher in the center (about ¼ inch) and slightly lower at the edges.  So water will not collect on the path. 

Here is a rundown of possible path materials and their applications.

Paths and Walkways 
Paths and Walkways 
Path Styles 
Path Styles 

Brick 

A traditional and popular paving material, brick makes an attractive, durable path with an even surface.  A brick path looks formal, especially when set in mortar; unmortared paths can also work in informal settings.  The classic brownish red color of brick is warm and appealing, but bricks come in a range of tones, including beige, tan, pale orangey pink, and deep red-brown.  Brick is readily available and comes in range of sizes.  It’s expensive, but a well-laid brick path will last a lifetime.  You might be able to find used brick, or odds and ends left over from patios or paths installed by professional contractors that you can purchase for less.  But find out what kind of brick it is before you buy. 

Wherever the ground freezes (in much of the United States, in other words), you will need to use paving brick, which is sometimes called water-struck brick.  Severe-weather brick is toughest but most expensive.  Moderate-weather bricks are less expensive but are not as uniform in size.  They are also more porous, and they will weather over time.  Moss will grow on moderate weather bricks in shady, moist locations, which creates a beautifully antique look but can make for slippery walking when wet. Antique and old salvaged brick looks wonderful, but it will not hold up well in winter weather.  Moisture will get into the bricks and freeze, repeated freezing and thawing will crack them, and eventually the bricks will break apart.  Facing brick is also available, but like old brick, it is liable to crack under winter conditions.  Glazed brick, too, is problematic.  The glaze can be damaged by salts contained in sidewalk de-ices of fertilizers, and moisture may penetrate the damaged surface, causing cracking and eventual crumbling over time. 

Lay your brick path on a base of sand and gravel, as described in “How to Lay a Path” on You can lay brick in any of a variety of patterns, from a simple running bond laid in sand to more formal and elaborate basket weave and herringbone patterns set in mortar.  See the illustration above for a selection. 

The best way to keep a brick path free of weeds is to lay it in mortar.  Another way to minimize weed growth is to use plastic brick-laying guides; you position these atop the gravel and sand base, and simply set the bricks into the spaces.  If an un-mortared path is what you want, you will just have to resign yourself to doing some occasional weeding.  If the path is well edged, you can pour a concentrated vinegar solution over the bricks to eliminate weeds. 

Flagstone 

Flagstones are not made of any particular mineral—they’re simply pieces of quarried stone that are split into fairly thin sections and used for paving.  Flagstone makes a beautiful path; smooth and even to walk on, extremely durable, long-lasting, and relatively easy to install.  It is also the most costly paving material commonly used for surfacing walkways. 

The quarried stone is cut into various-size rectangles for very formal, elegant pavement, or into irregular shapes for less-formal pavements (some-times called random paving or crazy paving).  To make a flagstone path, you can use all cut or all irregular flags, or you can mix the two types.  You can also mix colors, if you wish. 

Flagstones are made from various types of rock and come in several colors.  Sandstone flags are shades of tan, buff, pink, or red; bluestone (which is actually a kind of sandstone) is Gray, deep slate blue or, alternatively, tans or brown; and limestone is white or pinkish to Gray.  Slate (a metamorphosed form of shale) is dark Gray to black or shades of red.  It is sometimes used for paving, although unless the surface is rough it becomes very slippery when wet.  Some slates also may be prone to flaking and chipping in cold-winter climates.  Slabs of marble also become slick when wet and are not recommended for paving (they’re also prohibitively expensive). 

Limestone is a soft, porous rock that you might consider using for paths if you live in an area with a dry climate, limestone comes in a range of light colors and is attractive, but it stains readily.  Because of its porosity, limestone is not a good choice for humid and wet climates unless it is coated with a sealant after installation. 

Granite is sometimes used for flagstones, but it is more often used as cobbles.  Belgian block, or other thick paving and building stones. 

When you select flagstones for a path, don’t choose the thinnest ones you can find.  To bear the weight of people and equipment, paving flags should be at least 2 inches thick.  Thinner stones are more likely to crack. 

Fieldstone 

Fieldstone is dug from the ground of fields and prairies, not quarried from solid rock like flagstone.  It is sturdy and durable, and it is expensive, though a bit less so than flagstone.  Fieldstone comes in many shapes and sizes and in a range of colors that varies from one region of the country to another, depending on the kind of rock, it is.  Fieldstones are irregularly shaped and have a rough, rustic look that works quite well in informal gardens.  For use in a path, look for relatively flat pieces of fieldstone.  You can use fieldstones as stepping-stones or fit them together to make a continuous path.  Because the stones are irregular, plan on burying them partially to create a reasonably level surface that will be even enough to walk on. 

Poured Concrete 

Concrete sidewalks are ubiquitous in American towns and cities.  More sidewalks are made of concrete than of any other material.  There are reasons why concrete is so popular; it’s inexpensive and durable, making an even, long-lasting walkway.  On the downside, though, concrete absorbs heat and often becomes too hot to walk barefoot on in summer.  It can crack if it is not properly installed, and it’s boring and looks intrusive in the landscape. 

There are ways to make concrete look better, so that you can have a sturdy path that’s not a glaring ribbon of white.  Instead of just pouring a procession of white slabs.  You can tint the concrete to a darker, less unnatural color.  You can brush or rake out the wet surface to expose the rough-textured pebbled aggregate beneath.  Or you can have concrete that is stamped or otherwise textured to resemble stone.  Textured concrete is less expensive than real stone, but it costs more than poured concrete. 

Concrete pavers 

Concrete paving blocks are available in an ever-expanding selection of sizes, styles, and colors.  They come in beige or tan, brick red, various shades of Gray and blue-gray, and brown.  Some are made to look like bricks or cobblestones.  Others look decidedly unnatural.  Some pavers interlock and some do not.  

Concrete pavers make a durable, permanent walkway, and they are easy to install.  You can lay them in any number of different patterns and even combine two or more colors, although a multi-coloured design would work better in a larger area such as a driveway, parking area, or patio.  Pavers are sold by the piece, and they produce a path with a finished look and an even surface. 

Pavers are not inexpensive.  They cost less than brick or flagstone, but more that gravel and other loose surfaces.  One caveat where pavers are concerned is that weeds can squeeze up between them.  It can be difficult to pull weeds from the tiny spaces between the blocks; a dousing with concentrated vinegar solution might be a better way to get rid of any weeds that pop up.   Also, you will need to shop around to find the best variety of styles; not all local retailers carry a big selection. 

Gravel, pebbles, and Crushed Rock 

Loose stone is versatile and easy to install, if you lay a gravel path on a good base (see “How to Lay a Path”) and install an edging to hold the stones in place, a gravel path will last reasonably well.  Without an edging, the stones will spread and scatter, and some will work their way down into the soil.  Some of your path will end up in the garden, where it will be nearly impossible to remove without a soil sieve.  In a year or two, you will have to put down more stone. Still, if your soil is dense enough and you don’t mind replenishing the stone on a regular basis, it’s possible to lay a crushed stone path right on top of the ground.  It’s better to create a base, though. 

Gravel and crushed stone come in a range of colors from white to black.  There are cool grays and blue-grays, and warm buffs, tans, browns, brick reds, and beiges.

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