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Beyond Plants: From Hardscape to Synthetic Turf

Hardscape? Well, it’s just what it sounds like: the “hard” and usually manmade elements of landscaping. If the word is unfamiliar to you, don’t bemoan your ignorance; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, hardscape did not appear until 1972, when the L.A. Times first used it in an article. Only within the last decade has it achieved a wider currency, especially among landscape designers, who use it in tandem with softscape, i.e., plants.
For many of us, who flash back to the unimaginative shopping malls and concrete plazas of our youth, the word hardscape triggers an immediate negative reaction. We may find ourselves thinking affectionately of tree huggers or humming “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” But hardscape need not be dreary and uninspired. Quite the contrary. One of the recent trends in landscape design is to devote far more attention to hardscape, both for ecological and aesthetic reasons.
Landscape designers often distinguish between urban hardscape and lawn hardscape. The former refers to all deliberately positioned outdoor surfaces in city environments, including such major utilitarian installations as streets, sidewalks, and parking lots. In urban settings, hardscape is of course a much higher percentage of the environment, though increasingly city planners are working to incorporate more plant life. Chicago is a case in point: roof gardens, “growing” vertical walls, planted median strips, and myriad containers of colorful plants soften the hard surfaces, sometimes performing ecological functions as well.
Lawn hardscape refers to hard surfaces and permanent elements when they coexist with large expanses of softscape, as in public parks, golf courses, and many people’s yards. Landscape designers assert that in planning a public or private garden, hardscape is the first thing to consider, because it provides the “bones,” or the structure for the plant life of the space. Often hardscape serves one or more practical functions: it can enhance privacy, as do walls and fences; it can level topography, as do retaining walls; it can provide shelter, as do gazebos and some decks; it can reduce lawn maintenance, thereby saving time and money.
Landscape professionals stress the importance of careful planning in choosing hardscape elements. According to Samuel Salsbury of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, “Research really pays off, especially when you consider that a fixed object in the landscape is not going to move easily—and you don’t want to put in a lot of effort and then have your materials or design fail within a couple of years” (quoted by Rose Kennedy, “How to Create a Successful Hardscape,” HGTV.com).
Planning for drainage is very important, and these days the ecologically conscious like to gather the run-off for use in watering nearby plants. Landscapers also advise people to consider a total area before making any choices, and to develop a focal point, which, according to National Gardening Association blogger Nellie Neal, is “where you want people to look.  t may be the curve in a bed, the rear of a garden to offer perspective, or some other spot.”
In addition, landscape designers stress the importance of choosing the right materials for your hardscape. Concrete is inexpensive and durable, as well as versatile because it will take a stain or a texture. Brick is a classical choice with a cost comparable to most stone. Numerous kinds of stone are available these days, some very expensive. Wood is the most frequent choice for fences and decks; it can provide a warm look and a fluid transition to a wooded landscape. Pavers are usually brick or concrete and generally require no mortar for creating pathways.
Planners point out that homeowners should make choices to reflect the style, building materials and colors of their residences.    Hardscape elements do not have to be extensive or large-scale. A simple lawn ornament can be an inexpensive and effective option. So can a few well-placed rocks. Some gardens revolve around a central fountain, and this need not be a wasteful alternative. Solar-powered fountains have now caught on, popular because they minimize carbon emission and do not require electric pumps to function. Sometimes they additionally serve as birdbaths.
The past decade has also witnessed an upsurge in synthetic turf use. Increasing numbers of golf courses and school athletic fields have been moving in this direction, motivated in part by the money they can save on water, fertilizer and pesticides. Jonathan Huard, of Fieldturf, a Montreal-based company, says that since 2003, he has supervised the conversion of approximately 160 athletic fields in Northern Illinois. Made of recycled tires, Fieldturf is a more cushioned surface than actual earth, and carries the additional benefit of lowering injury rates for athletes who play on it. Although the initial cost of installation is high—$800,000 to $1,000,000 for a football field—Huard says that over ten years, the cost per use is lower than for real grass.
For centuries, landscape designers have striven to link permanence and transience. Because plants require constant care and alter with the seasons, they are transient, which often makes them, regrettably, the less ecologically sound side of the duality. A lessening of softscape may therefore be the wave of the future,  along with increasing use of indigenous plants that are self-sustaining.

Published: April 14, 2012
Issue: Spring 2012 Issue