Urban Gardening

From May 2008 E-newsletter

Hardscapes in the Garden

Gardens are magical places. The shape of the landscape (or cityscape) and the plants set the mood and provide interest. But it is often the hardscapes that separate great gardens from good ones. Benches, arbors, patios, and other features define the space, frame the best views, and provide places for reflection in the garden.

For those who are handy, hardscapes can be built out of almost anything. Wood, bamboo, stone, steel, concrete, and other conventional materials are popular and readily available. However, the construction (or contracting) of outdoor features is only limited by your imagination and skill level. Be creative and match the materials with your garden environment.

Eye-catching flowers like these pink mums make a bench even more welcoming.

Have a Seat

The most important hardscape element is seating. Everyone enjoys a good sit outdoors in the garden. Benches and chairs allow gardeners to rest and revel in their own little piece of nature. Chairs are usually purchased. But benches are fairly simple to make. Anything from a log to a board to a stone slab can serve as the seat. Place benches near your favorite plantings and other elements like fountains and ponds.

Grow Up

Trellises are another hardscape feature that can enhance your enjoyment of the garden. They are ideal for screening unwanted views, such as AC units, compost bins, and unsightly neighboring structures. Trellises often consist of latticework supported on posts. Urban and small-space gardeners can make the most of vertical space by using a trellis to grow climbing vines such as black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), sweet peas (Lathyrus spp.), and moonflower (Ipomoea alba).

Arbors can stand alone or as an entranceway through a fence.

Arbors are like two sturdy trellises attached together. Although not completely closed, the tops also have latticework or cross pieces that provide some shade. Arbors can serve as entranceways to the main garden or as portals between garden rooms. Built-in seating transforms an arbor into a cozy resting spot. Gardeners who have a desire to grow larger vines like sweet autumn clematis, mandevillas, climbing roses, and Carolina Jessamine will want to make room for an arbor or two.

Pergolas are even larger structures consisting of an overhead lattice structure that rests atop posts, resembling several arbors connected together. Pergolas are often used to border or frame gardens. Their large size and sturdy nature make them suitable for massive vines, including grapes, scuppernongs (Vitis rotundifolia cultivars), bougainvillea, wisteria, and Lady Banks rose (Rosa banksiae normalis). Most urban home lots won’t have room for a pergola, but they make great additions to municipal parks, schools campuses, and other public grounds.

You may not have enough space for a gazebo, but there's always room for a trellis or two.

Like pergolas, gazebos are usually reserved for large spaces. The many-sided structure has a solid roof that provides shade and some protection from the weather. Gazebos are often the focal points of outdoor events and gatherings. If you are a social butterfly with large acreage and spectacular views, then perhaps you need a gazebo. The rest of us will have to be content to sit under one in a botanic garden or park.


Patios are a must-have for many home gardeners. They are simply level areas of the yard used for outdoor dining and recreation. They allow containers, chairs, tables, chimineas, grills, and other outdoor furnishings to stand securely. Patios can be made from concrete, crushed seashells, tiles, pavers, flagstone, decking, etc. Placed next to the house, patios often serve as outdoor extensions of the living area.

Adding hardscapes to a garden is a much more permanent decision than selecting a perennial. Study your options and make the choice that feels right. First, take care of your needs (seating, shade, vertical screens, recreation space) and the rest will fall into place. Hardscaping can be as fun and rewarding as landscaping. So make a plan, grab a hammer, drill, goggles, plus a few handy friends, and start building.

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