What Is the Difference Between Hardscape and Softscape?

Landscaping projects often incorporate both hardscape and softscape elements to create functional, aesthetically pleasing outdoor spaces. Understanding the differences between these two terms can help when designing and planning landscaping projects.

What is Hardscaping?

Hardscaping refers to inorganic, man-made landscape features constructed from materials like stone, concrete, brick, tile, and wood. Hardscape elements are durable, long-lasting exterior design accents that serve various purposes in yards and gardens.

Common Examples of Hardscaping

  • Patios
  • Walkways
  • Driveways
  • Garden walls
  • Fences
  • Arbors
  • Pergolas
  • Pools
  • Fountains
  • Stone planters
  • Fire pits
  • Retaining walls
  • Decking
  • Gravel or paver driveways
  • Edging materials
  • Masonry benches and statues
  • Outdoor kitchens
  • Steps
  • Railings
  • Trellises
  • Flagstone, brick, or tile paths
  • Rock gardens
  • Fixed lighting fixtures

Hardscaping provides structure, clearly defines different zones and uses, and brings hard textures and architectural interest to the landscape. Hardscape features are installed to be permanent additions that function through all seasons.

What is Softscaping?

In contrast to hardscaping, softscaping refers to organic elements in landscaping like plants, trees, turf, mulch, and soil. Softscape materials have natural textures and qualities that provide visual interest while supporting living landscape elements.

Common Examples of Softscaping

  • Lawns
  • Flower gardens
  • Vegetable gardens
  • Trees
  • Shrubs
  • Ornamental grasses
  • Groundcovers
  • Vines
  • Mulch
  • Edging plants
  • Annuals and perennials
  • Container gardens
  • Natural stone accents
  • Water features with live plants
  • Green walls or roofs
  • Moss
  • Potted plants

Softscape choices introduce color, texture, shape, fragrance, and plant life to the landscape. Softscaping defines areas dedicated to lawns, planting beds, accent details, and living screens or borders. Unlike permanent hardscaping, softscape elements change through the seasons.

Key Differences Between Hardscaping and Softscaping

While hardscape and softscape work together to create functional, attractive landscape designs, there are some notable differences between the two approaches:

  • Permanence: Hardscaping features are fixed, long-lasting additions. Softscaping is flexible, changing with the seasons.
  • Materials: Hardscaping relies on inorganic materials like stone, concrete, and wood. Softscaping uses organic, living plant materials.
  • Function: Hardscaping provides infrastructure, definition, and architectural details. Softscaping offers natural visuals, ecosystems, and living color.
  • Feel: Hardscaping offers firm textures and structures. Softscaping has softer, more natural textures.
  • Install: Hardscaping requires construction, masonry, carpentry, or expert installation. Softscaping involves planting and tending living plants.
  • Budget: Hardscaping often costs more upfront for materials and labor. Softscaping has lower upfront costs but ongoing maintenance fees.
  • Design Flexibility: Hardscaping is fixed and permanent once installed. Softscaping can be more easily changed and modified.

Incorporating Hardscape and Softscape Elements

The ideal landscape combines hardscape and softscape elements that complement each other. For example, stone paths and patios transition well into surrounding planted garden beds. Retaining walls, fences, and trellises support and showcase vegetation. When thoughtfully integrated, hardscape and softscape features play off one another to create cohesive designs.

When planning a new landscape, consider how hardscape structures will coexist with softscape plants. Allow adequate space for plants to establish around hard features. Select durable materials that can withstand growing roots and avoid leaching chemicals. In existing landscapes, hardscape additions often inspire new softscape arrangements. Annuals can populate stone planters while pergolas invite climbing vines. With creative design, hardscape and softscape blend into harmonious, welcoming exterior environments.

Frequently Asked Questions About Hardscaping and Softscaping

What are some key hardscaping materials?

Some of the most popular hardscaping materials include stone (flagstone, granite), brick, concrete, tile, gravel, wood (decking, timbers), and metals like iron or aluminum. Hardscape materials are chosen based on aesthetics, durability, and function.

What maintenance does hardscaping require?

Hardscaping needs occasional cleaning, sealing, staining, repairs, or replacement. Properly installed hardscape features are generally low maintenance but may need periodic inspection, spot cleaning, re-grouting, patching cracks, or refinishing wood.

How can hardscaping and softscaping work together?

Hardscaping provides bones and structure that support softscape plants. For example, an arbor invites climbing vines, a trellis shows off ornamental grasses, and a stone patio surrounds container gardens. Hardscaping and softscaping elements complement each other.

What softscape elements provide seasonal interest?

Flowers, ornamental grasses, bulbs, and annual plants offer seasonal colors. Perennials, berries, and foliage also evolve through spring, summer, and fall. Evergreens and conifers supply winter interest after deciduous plants go dormant.

What are advantages of softscaping?

Softscaping adds natural beauty, plants oxygen-producing greenery, attracts pollinators and wildlife, helps manage stormwater runoff, and allows flexibility to modify plantings. It provides curb appeal without the permanence of hardscaping.

How much hardscaping vs. softscaping is ideal in landscape design?

There is no perfect formula. Simple lawn and garden designs may feature just 10-20% hardscaping. Elaborate designs with patios and architectural elements may be 70% hardscape. Most designs strike a 50/50 balance between hard structures and planted areas.

Should hardscaping or softscaping be installed first?

It depends on the project, but generally hardscaping goes in first since it takes more time and heavy equipment. This prevents damage to new plantings. Softscaping can then accent the hardscape structures without being in the construction zone.

What are pros and cons of DIY versus professional installation?

DIY provides cost savings but requires substantial labor and skill. Professionals have the tools, staffing, and expertise to efficiently install quality hardscaping and properly establish softscaping. DIY is better suited to smaller softscape projects.

Are permeable hardscape options better for the environment?

Yes, permeable paving and gravel allow stormwater to drain through, reducing runoff erosion and refilling groundwater. This is a more sustainable approach than impermeable concrete or blacktop that blocks absorption.


Hardscaping and softscaping each offer unique benefits in landscape design. Hardscaping provides permanent infrastructure and architecture with materials like stone, concrete and wood. Softscaping incorporates organic plant materials for living color and texture. Allowing adequate space for plantings to establish around hard structures helps integrate hardscape and softscape elements seamlessly. With creative planning, hardscape and softscape can work in tandem to create functional, aesthetically pleasing outdoor living environments through all seasons.