When we think of gardens, we think of flowers and trees. The plants are our stars and the reasons we love our gardens.

The plants, however, are only part of what makes an exceptional garden or landscape, and they may have less impact than you think. Consider a painting without a frame, or a stage play without a set: Impressive? Dramatic?

In a garden, the frame and the set are what we call “hardscape.” Carrying the analogies further, a shabby frame or a distracting stage set can totally undermine the impact of that painting or play. Bad or absent hardscape can ruin or diminish the beauty of your plants.

Mistakes and missed opportunities: An elementary garden design class first exposed me to basic elements such as backdrop, line and focal points. We looked at pictures of a perennial garden in an open lawn, and the same garden with a fence behind it. We saw flower gardens without décor, and the same gardens containing a statue, fountain, bench or path. It became obvious how hardscape makes or breaks the effect of a garden.

Yet one of the biggest errors that gardeners or homeowners make – myself included – is to ignore structural elements. Instead, that is where we should start – considering paths, walls, arches, pergolas, raised beds or islands, with our vision of the plants in mind. Build first; plant later.

Hardscape does not have to come from a professional. Many gardeners build good beds and structures. A fine path may be made of mulch or found flagstones; an attractive garden bed can be built by stacking loose stones. But whoever does the job – skilled amateur, qualified professional or their opposites – can make a huge difference in the appearance and durability of the project.

I asked some CNLPs (certified nursery and landscape professionals) to comment on common landscaping mistakes they see. Two themes emerged.

The first: bad technical and foundation work. Steve Bakowski (CNLP, Beaver Landscaping Inc.) said he commonly sees “improper installation of sub base (stone) and drainage underneath and behind hardscape.” Done correctly, he says, means that “the structures can withstand the freezing and thawing that moves them during our changing seasons.”

But people tend to make the above-ground structure look good, in the summer, without regard to what’s happening underground.

Second, untrained gardeners or landscapers typically miss design opportunities. Joseph Han (CNLP, The English Gardeners) notices how rarely he sees hardscape elements used to create “destinations ... for people to relax in.” Consider building a deck, gazebo or pergola out in the yard, away from the house, where it’s attractive to see from your windows.

Or, he says, use hardscape elements “to create dimension in a composition, and let us see it from different views when moving through the garden.” He also suggests we look for “focal points to define the view. Garden art – urns and statuary and pergolas – deserves a place in every garden.”

At least that element has entered the Western New York gardening scene dramatically in recent years. Garden Walk Buffalo and other National Garden Festival gardens featuring art have been photographed for national magazines; our artful gardens even led to the phrase, “a Buffalo-style garden.” We’re getting it. Gardens aren’t just the plants.

Costs and choices: Professionals give different answers on how much homeowners should budget for hardscape features, compared with plants. At the basic level – say, a good walkway and some enclosed planting beds – a couple of CNLPs said the hardscape would cost nearly half of a new installation (figure $2,000 on a $5,000 job), depending on height and length of walls and walks. But if you are purchasing entertainment centers, night lighting and hand-crafted pergolas, the hardscape cost could be three times the cost of the plants and soil. For the do-it-yourselfer, allow at least double your plant budget and time for the structural work and hardscape.

Develop your vision and plant list, analyze your style and find pictures of gardens you love before hiring anyone, and then communicate what you want.

Products and taste: One of the most polarizing topics, when landscapers and homeowners talk in generalities, is the subject of hardscape materials and taste. The stereotype – gardener speaking about landscapers – is: “Those landscapers all put up the same fake-looking walls and paver sidewalks, no matter the style of the house!” The landscaper stereotype of the gardener’s job: “They make these walls that fall down, sidewalks that crack and weedy paths that they can’t keep up!” Both statements are true some of the time, and neither is necessarily true.

Landscape pavers first came to America 37 years ago and have come a long way since. Products like polymeric sand and sealers eliminated many problems such as weeds and durability. More dramatically, the concrete industry had a significant breakthrough recently.

Dave McIntyre, general manager of Unilock Corp., explains: “Pavers and walls now have 1.5 times the strength and less than half the water absorption of the older units. The increase in long-term durability and life cycle cost will truly be incredible.” Steve Bakowski added that some of the new natural-faced stones and pavers are the best new thing in many years, for attractiveness, cost, ease and speed of installation.

If you prefer natural materials, you can find bamboo, natural stone and hand-crafted wood structures – plus professionals who design with them – more readily than ever. Check out the Western New York landscape and nursery professionals at Plantasia in March and find your own hardscape style.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.