Hardscape—Terraces, Paths & Walls
By Sonoma County Master Gardener Steven Hightower
Landscape Architects and others in the landscape design field use the terms “softscape” and “hardscape” to distinguish between plants and soil work and all the other “hard” elements of landscaping. A simple definition of “hardscape” is anything in the landscape that is not plantings or earth works.
Some people might say “why do you want hardscape--a lot of hard, empty bits and parts in your garden”? They might feel that it’s unnecessary—even an intrusion into the land of plants.
So what does hardscape bring to the garden, and why not have all plants? First, open areas provide contrast and interest to vegetative spaces. Second, they provide areas for human activity in the garden, such as sitting to read, gathering for parties, grilling and eating. Third, of course, we need ways to move around in the garden—paths of stone, gravel or brick provide better footing, aren’t muddy in the wet, and look good. Finally, hardscape generally requires less maintenance, and fewer consumables such as water and fertilizer. While hardscape needs to be maintained, it does not require the regular care that plants do. You can go on vacation without worrying about your hardscape!
Pebble mosaics are an ancient and beautiful form of hardscape, consisting of vari-colored pebbles and stones set in mortar in patterns.
Glen Ellen mosaic artist Anne Ziemienski has been working in both pebble and marble mosaics for many years, and provided us with insight into the ins and outs of using pebble mosaics in landscaping. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Great Gardens, and Sonoma Magazine. Her interest in this ancient artform--pebble mosaics probably date to 2000 years BC--stems from childhood years spent living in Rome, and later time spent in the Middle East. "Mosaics used in a landscape add mystery", she says, and adds "they are so harmonious when softened at the edges with low plantings".
Geometric patterns tend to dominate, due to the nature of the material, along with symbols or icons repeated on a background, or simple floral patterns. We asked her the most frequent use of pebble mosaics in hardscaping--"First and foremost as fountain surrounds" she replied. "For pathways--going from one place to another, or to create a small 'room' or a 'carpet' on a background of other hardscape, such as decomposed granite or fine gravel."
There are two methods of creating pebble mosaics, according to Ziemienski--stones directly placed, section at a time into wet mortar, or created in inverse in sections, with the sections fit together set in sand in the garden. In the former, small areas at a time are spread with a layer of wet mortar, pebbles inserted in the pattern into the mortar, and the section leveled with a tamping board.
In the inverse method, forms of the section are created, a layer of sand placed in the form, the pebble pattern placed into the sand, and mortar spread over the whole. When set, the section is removed from the form and flipped, the sand washed off, and the sections are then pieced together in a base of sand in the garden. She works in the latter method, which she learned of through the work of reknowned British pebble mosaicist Maggy Haworth--"It gives greater control, allows for finer patterns, and results in a smoother, more level finished surface."
What does it cost, we want to know. "It can be expensive in larger amounts" she replies. "Professionally done and installed, a ballpark figure is $100-150 per square foot, depending on pattern complexity and site conditions." What if a gardener wants to do it themselves, we wonder? She replies that materials--pebbles, sand and mortar--are readily available and reasonably affordable at local building supply houses. "If the gardener provides the creativity and labor, it doesn't have to be that expensive" but warned "it's heavy, back-breaking work. Still, if you start with a small area, it's doable, and can be very rewarding".
The artist closes with both a heartfelt recommendation and a warning--"pebble mosaics are the most wonderful feeling on bare feet--like the best foot massage--but they can be killer on high heels".
Anne Ziemienski's work can be seen on the website which she shares with her artist husband Dennis.
All images in sidebar © Anne Ziemienski
Paths and Steps:
Combinations of two or more materials—irregular flat stones set flush in pea
So, if you’re designing a new garden, or looking to rehabilitate a portion of one already in existence, think of the hardscape components just as carefully as you consider what trees, shrubs and plants you want to put where. In the end, you’ll have a more integrated, harmonious design, less maintenance and a more interesting garden!.