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A landscape is nothing without plants, but professionals from Plant WNY (formerly the Western New York State Nursery and Landscape Association) will tell you that you can’t have a great landscape without the “hardscape.” The term emerged in the 1980s to mean the walls, paths, decks and patios that surround a landscape. Add to that concept the decorative elements: gazebos, pergolas, trellises and fountains. And now landscape designs often include the accoutrements of outdoor living: How about a built-in bar, fire pit, grill, sink and furniture? Or an entire outdoor room that includes it all?

Many gardeners underestimate the importance of hardscape in a landscape plan. We think first about our flowers, shrubs and trees. Until we analyze design – what makes one yard unforgettable and another one just “pretty.” The most basic design classes teach us that a garden needs a frame (a wall, fence or trellis) and a yard needs focal points, or the whole thing lacks definition. The eye likes strong lines – the path a key element – and to be pointed toward a focus.

Then there is the people factor: We want to be comfortable. Even gardeners have to sit down sometimes. And if we want other people to join us outside, they need comfortable places to rest or dine – perhaps with some shade provided. After a rain, we’d also like a hard surface to walk on. Plants do make a yard into a garden, but the hardscape attracts and keeps the humans in it.

Permeability matters

It’s not news that our streams and lakes are polluted by contaminated water run-off, as cities and suburbs continue to pave our world. Impermeable surfaces are environmental negatives. That’s why your CNLP (Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional) encourages you to use “permeable pavers” for patios, driveways and sidewalks. These filter the water directly into the soil beneath and take pressure off overloaded municipal water systems. When Unilock introduced permeable pavers 20 years ago, they were used mostly in industrial settings. Now they come in a full range of stylish options to blend with contemporary or classic architecture.

Taste and styles

Pavers and retaining walls today don’t have to look like those stamped concrete productions of a couple of decades ago. Landscapers have access to increasingly sophisticated materials that look like actual stone. Mike Frank, of Chevalier Outdoor Living, builds castle-size walls out of a lightweight cement material that he hand-forms to create stones of all sizes. (Visitors to Plantasia in March will recall the cave with fireplace he built.) You can have boulders that you can move! The newer technologies for paving and walls have made it possible for the most modest of dwellings to feature attractive walks and patios and enclosed, raised landscape beds.

A strong trend is the use of large stone slabs, laid in linear patterns, with clean lines that complement many home styles. If you can’t find, transport or afford natural stone, newer products like Unilock’s granitelike Umbriano or the textured Richcliff product offer attractive alternatives. Pavers and our industry have evolved.

Many will choose only authentic stones, however, for framing the classical architecture of historic homes. A Roycroft-style wall in Western New York calls for rocks found in this region. For any home style, dry stacked walls are a popular, classy look as surrounds for raised foundation or island beds. Weather and use can knock and heave them out of alignment if they are built casually, however. If you or professionals are dry-stacking, don’t cheat on the preparation: Dig down, and provide a level, frost-proof foundation. To increase the wall’s longevity, you might also consider a freestanding mortared fieldstone wall to blend enduring strength with the natural look of a dry stack wall. For holding back a planting bed, or giving passers-by a seat, this style may be the ticket.

Stone suppliers can help you estimate the material you need, but think before you take on the job yourself. A wall just 3 feet high, 2 feet wide and 20 feet long would require 5 tons of natural stone and possibly 1,000 medium-sized stones. How far must you move them and how many times will you lift them? Save your fingers; go to a pro.

Raising the bar on outdoor living

A bar and cooking area – and a whole outdoor kitchen to go with it – are possibly the biggest single popular trends to enhance the outdoor room concept.

“Food is a passion now. Just watch the TV shows and cookbooks that are trending. People want the setting and the equipment that help them cook well and look good doing it,” said Frank who specializes in outdoor living space design.

He added that hand in hand with the permaculture and organic/regional foods movements, he’s also seen more homeowners asking for salad and herb gardens right next to the outdoor room and near the grill.

“We’re using edible plants as ornamentals. It all works together for a better quality of family and social life right at home,” he said.

Three other trends have been noticed among Plant WNY nursery pros:

• Dave McIntyre (general manager, Unilock Inc.) has noticed that the public and regional landscapers are frequently designing front courtyard seating areas. Seating out front helps people get friendly with neighbors and watch the kids bicycling on the driveway.

• Seating walls are now popular. If you’re going to have a mini-wall to define an outdoor space, why not add extra seating capacity by making the wall level and wide enough for seating?

• Adding to the comfort of an inside-out lifestyle, even furniture is better designed today. “Outdoor furniture is now breathable and quick-drying. The water goes straight through. No more moldy cushions and wet rear ends!,” Frank said.

Pergolas, old brick and ice rinks

Hardscape can also mean artistry with wood, as in the hand-crafted pergolas, gazebos and fences designed by the English Gardener Ltd. Or it can mean a unique ice rink created by landscape design stylist Mike Pace (Pace Landscaping and Outdoor Ice Rinks). Or paths and walls made of reclaimed antique bricks by Experienced Bricks Inc.

What it doesn’t mean: The concrete slab we used to call the patio, tucked against the back of the house. Explore what hardscape can do for your yard; it’s much more than expected.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.