Hardscapes: Architectural Jewelry for Your Backyard Master Plan

What’s the best combination of vertical and horizontal elements for your backyard?


Wood pergolas offer a time-honored way to add an architectural element to a yard, while also  offering a much-needed respite from the sun.

What is your ideal outdoor environment? Whether you envision a Monet-inspired water feature teeming with wildflowers or lush shade gardens reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest, a key facet of any well-designed landscape is the inclusion of hardscapes. From towering arbors to welcoming gazebos to cascading waterfalls, vertical and horizontal hardscape additions complete the look of any outdoor space.


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“Hardscape elements can be great destination points, focal points, and add interest and dimension to the garden,” says Blythe Yost, co-founder and chief landscape architect at Tilly. “They can let your personality shine through in your space and help make a space feel intimate and inviting.”

The best combination of vertical and horizontal elements for a backyard depends on the space, but it’s important to incorporate design elements that are counter to the existing condition of the yard. “For example, if it is a very long linear space, try to establish a walkway or focal point going across it. If there are some very tall building elements, use similarly tall accents to bring down the scale,” Yost says.

Joe Raboine, vice president of design at Oldcastle APG, says hardscapes offer versatility as you can use various colors, structures and forms to define a space.


Multi-colored manufactured stone accent walls add a distinctive flair to a hillside, while highlighting garden displays.

“Most complete outdoor living spaces will have some type of kitchen island or full kitchen, a fire pit and a shade structure, such as a pergola. Other nice built-ins can feature free-standing sitting walls, columns, raised planters and fireplaces,” Raboine says. “The sky is the limit, and the vertical features really help define the space, and bring them to life.”

There are many key factors to consider when incorporating hardscapes into an outdoor living space. First, Raboine says to consider the scale of the home and yard size. As a rule of thumb, it’s generally a good idea to try and create an outdoor living space that’s 20 to 25% the size of the interior.

“So, for a 2,400-square-foot home, a 600-square-foot outdoor living space is typically a good size. While you can certainly go larger or smaller, this size fits the scale of the home,” Raboine says. Next, consider what you want to try and achieve with the space.


Water features do not need to be elaborate or expensive. Using simple rock formations on a low-lying hillside can provide a unique statement to any yard.

Most outdoor living spaces feature three core zones – a living, dining, and cooking space. Be sure to scale each space to accommodate the hardscape features that you’d like to see.

Also consider where the sun will be throughout the day. If you will be out there during the day, and the space has no shade and a southern exposure, consider a shade structure, such as a pergola or pavilion, to help make your space usable at all times of day.

Last, look into local ordinances to ensure that proper setbacks are being considered, especially with features like firepits and fireplaces.


A stark-white natural wood trellis offsets the beauty of the flowering shrubs and climbing plants and is visually appealing and inviting.

When selecting hardscapes for your established outdoor living space, also consider the following:

  • Color: Consider your home’s color and landscaping elements. If you have a more modern and clean backyard space, select hardscapes and elements with clean, linear lines to match. A Victorian-style trellis may look out of place in a clean, well-defined garden. Likewise, a stone cascading waterfall and cobbled pavers complement a lush shady Hosta and fern garden.
  • Shape: An arching bridge over a large or small water feature can add a subtle, yet defined focal point to an outdoor space.
  • Textures and Patterns: Complementary finishes such as those found on a rough stone half wall or column can offer defined texture among lush greenery. Depending on the stone pattern you choose, the layout created can be simple or more eye-catching.

“Be careful when adding site features – quantity does not often equate to quality. Too many or poorly sited features can actually detract and crowd a space,” Yost says. “Think about views from both the backyard and from inside the house. When considering features, it’s really important to think about the flow of your space. You want to make sure your space is designed in a functional way, with entrances and exits to different outdoor rooms easily accessible.”


A modern take on a traditional gazebo. Composite decking holds its rich color and holds up for years under adverse weather.


Bridging the Gap

When it comes to bridges over small streams and water features, there are several options. For longer spans, straight and arched wood bridges are typical and come in a variety of finishes and styles. For shorter spans, large slabs of stone are often used. 

“For something more interesting through a pond or formal feature, stepping stones can be used, which will give the space a sense of fun and exploration,” says Joe Raboine, vice president of design at Oldcastle APG. “If money is no object, there’s nothing better than an arched stone bridge. These bridges, if constructed properly, will last for centuries, and have a sense of permanence that can’t be matched.”

Bridge designs can be as unique as landscapes in which they are placed. The following are some classic bridge designs. The cost of each are dependent on the materials used and the length of the span of the bridge. Natural stone bridges will be more expensive than standard decking bridges.


Streamlined and refined, a simple stone slab “bridge” adds a unique dimension to any backyard water feature.


Whimsical, yet dramatic, a small arched bridge can be custom fabricated off site, and installed in your backyard.


Simple doesn’t mean less impactful. Using wood or composite decking on a bridge creates a historic and pastoral mood, at a reasonable cost.


Adding a coat of dynamic color makes a powerful statement amongst traditional greenery. Colors may be painted or stained with natural wood, or embedded in composite deck and rails.

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