What is hardscaping?

The simplest way to think about this kind of yard construction is anything which involves covering the upper layer of soil.

This kind of work is especially common in urban areas where grass and plants are not abundant or do not grow well -- as a result, professional contractors offer man-made ways to help improve the look of your home's front or backyard.

Some of the most common small hardscape projects include patio stones, sidewalks and retaining walls. Patio stones are the simplest form and can vary from a single line of stones to interlocking courses in multiple colors or patterns.

READ MORE: Angie's List Guide to Outdoor Kitchens

Sidewalks, meanwhile, may be hand-placed stones or poured asphalt or concrete. Retaining walls typically involve courses of brick or stone laid on top of one another to form a barrier between hardscapes and "softscapes" such as gardens, trees or lawns.

Constructed correctly, these walls allow water to drain properly, keeping as much as possible on the softscape while preventing it from running under (and therefore eroding) hardscaped features. Larger hardscape projects can include concrete or wooden decks or large vertical features which wouldn't be possible if placed directly on soil.

Water is an important concern for any hardscape project, because in areas with little available bare earth, drainage must be a focus. If water pools on wooden or stone features it can erode them over time or may cause backups in local sewer systems.

Reputable hardscapers should design a specific plan to drain your deck, walkway or patio.

Hardscaping vs. softscaping

Many landscaping companies will do some softscaping and some hardscaping, but you'll also be able to find businesses which specialize in stone and wood features only. Expect to pay more for their expertise but also have access to a wider variety of material options and design ideas.

Combination hard/softscapers, meanwhile, will often strive to create balance between any natural areas in your yard and those which are created from stone or wood. Part of this is a functional necessity -- hardscaped features need to drain correctly into soil - and part is aesthetic.

Massive stone walls or an oversize deck may overpower a small patch or grass or manicured garden. Balance is crucial for effective hardscapes.

Hardscaped features are also an effective way to beautify yards which don't have large amounts of grass.

In some climates, grass growing isn't viable; in others, the amount of water required to manage lawns and plants is prohibitively expensive. By creating stone or wood features, it's possible to create contrast between any existing plants and man-made structures, in turn improving overall appeal.

In addition, stonework or decks created with drainage in mind can provide free water to any greenery on your property, rather than letting it run into sewers.

circular paver patio

Pavers and stepping stones can be used to create a specific area for relaxing or entertaining in your yard. (Photo by Erin Dersom)

Hardscaping costs

Often, hardscaped features will cost more than comparable square footage which has been softscaped, in large part due to the weight and cost of materials.

Bringing in stone - especially if it is not native to your area - comes with a cost for both transportation and the material itself. In addition, the labor involved in moving and placing these items can be substantial.

When you hire a hardscaper, the first thing she should do is visit your yard and discuss what you'd like the finished product to look like. Your contractor should then take measurements of the yard, talk about what kinds of materials are available, and give you a rough estimate for time and cost.

In addition, she should be able to advise you if an idea you have just won't work. For example, in some cases your soil will be too soft to support a stone structure or two-story deck, and your hardscaper should be upfront about her concerns.

Also, expect that the final cost for your project will be at least 10 percent more than you were originally quoted, since this allows for the resolution of unexpected problems -- a sinkhole, for example -- and provides a contingency in case you decide to add extra features.

Hiring a hardscaper

Hardscapers don't require any special certification to do their work. Much like general handymen, they succeed or fail based on the work they do and their reputation in the community -- so before hiring any company, make sure to ask for references.

Call the numbers provided, and also ask to see completed work. Ideally, see if you can find work which was completed several years ago, as this will provide insight into how the hardscaped features were designed and how well they've stood up to the rigors of weather and time.

It's also worth asking where your hardscaper sources materials. Not all stone, for example, is of the same quality, and you don't want to pay a premium price for a patio that won't last the season.

Don't be afraid to ask hard questions of your hardscaper -- what happens if the work can't endure local weather, or if deck boards come loose after a month? Verbal assurances about warranty work are good start, but make sure you get any promises in writing.

Hardscapes offer a balance between the natural and artificial; when designed by the right contractor, they can provide years of use.

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