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The Tilly Guide To Hardscape: Patios, Pergolas, & More

Backyard with deck and pool

Once you’ve decided to renovate your yard, it’s time to think about landscape design. For any major transformation, we recommend working with a professional landscape designer to help think through your priorities. A pro can help you ask and address the many important questions that come up along the way—everything from what heartfelt details mean the most in your landscaping plan to how to choose between pavers and gravel for your patio. This article will explain the many types of hardscape ideas to consider, from decks and patios to pergolas and play structures, plus the types of professionals you’ll need to complete these projects.

What Is Hardscape?

Hardscape can be thought of as the built structures or site features that are included in a landscape, as opposed to softscape, which is made up of plants and planting materials. In the world of residential landscape design, hardscape includes anything paved or built from natural materials like stone and wood, or from manmade materials like concrete, metal, or composite. 

The balance of hardscape vs. softscape and the type of hardscape features you select will vary greatly based on who is using the space, your budget, and your environmental conditions and surroundings.

Backyard Patio under a pergola
Photo Credit: Canva

Types of Hardscape & Landscape Site Features

Whether you’re considering a minor upgrade like a new fence design or you plan to tackle one of the more ambitious backyard renovations—like building an outdoor kitchen, installing a plunge pool, or pouring a concrete patio—it’s important to understand your options. Here are some of the most popular residential backyard features to consider:

Patios

As the perfect spot for outdoor dining and entertaining, outdoor patios are included in many backyard renovations. A patio is typically a paved area that is level with the ground, as opposed to a porch or deck, which are built above ground level. When thinking about a deck vs. a patio, the materials are also quite different. Patio designs often include stone, brick, gravel, or concrete, whereas decks are typically made of wood or composite. 

Patios can come in many shapes and sizes, from a 100 square foot dining area to a sprawling, tiered space with multiple outdoor “rooms” serving a variety of functions. For more patio ideas, read about one Tilly customer’s experience designing the perfect backyard patio for her family and friends to enjoy.

Decks

Building a deck is a popular alternative to a patio. These raised platforms are built along the side of your home and create an extended outdoor living space. Pressure treated wood or composite decking materials offer a sturdy and beautiful traditional design, though some homeowners opt for aluminum decking for a more industrial aesthetic. If you’re weighing the pros and cons of decks and patios (or just trying to find the best decking material options), we have a great article on how to think through the characteristics of each.

Shade Structures: Awnings, Pergolas, Gazebos, & Pavilions 

Shade structures can be a great way to provide outdoor shade and protection against the elements, allowing you to maximize your time in your yard. These specific types of site features can include pergolas, gazebos, and even pavilions that stand alone or extend from the house. Shade sails and tensile structures are other great options. They are often used to help define outdoor spaces and create a zone for dining, an outdoor entertainment center, poolside lounging, and more—the only limit is your imagination and your lawn space. Fixed and retractable awnings built off the side of the home are another great solution to that hot summer sun, coming in a variety of materials and models to suit your needs.

Walkways & Driveways

Walkways and driveways are often overlooked for their decorative impact on a landscape, but when done well, they can significantly enhance the style and aesthetic of any front or backyard. A perfectly straight paver walkway shouts modern landscape style and is sure to complement a contemporary house, while a more rustic brick or flagstone walkway leans toward naturalistic and cottage style landscapes. A landscape designer can also walk you through various edgings and aprons that can help complete the style you are going for. For more guidance, take a look at our article on the various types of walkways and their costs.

Incorporating your driveway design into your landscaping plan is a way to elevate a necessity into a beautiful welcome home. We love pairing herringbone brick driveway pavers with a classic or formal landscape to create immediate curb appeal and a lasting impression. No matter your garden style or desire, your driveway can help define your look and make an impact. 

Outdoor Fire Pit

An outdoor fire pit is the perfect addition to any backyard that has the space to accommodate it and the people to enjoy it! With more families focused on outdoor living and quality time together, spending time around the fire can help accomplish both—plus, who doesn’t like s’mores? Fire pits can range in cost and complexity from very simple fire bowls and portable fires to fully custom structures with their own gas lines and built-in seating. We compiled some of our favorite outdoor fire pit ideas as well as a guide to fire pit costs to help work through the many options available from fire pit tables to fully installed in ground fire pits.

Outdoor Kitchen

Like most other landscape features, outdoor kitchens can range dramatically in cost and complexity. At its most basic level, an outdoor kitchen could include a simple charcoal grill on a deck or even right on the lawn. Pizza ovens and smokers are also very popular stand-alone hardscape elements our homeowner’s are looking to add.

Typically though, an outdoor kitchen is built atop a more solid structure like a patio and includes a built-in grill with some form of counter space. More sophisticated outdoor kitchen designs may include a bar seating area, built-in refrigerator, and/or sink. Who knew landscape design could include stainless steel?

If you’re looking to include all of these elements while saving some of the costs, we recommend looking into a modular outdoor kitchen.

Pool & Spa

Building a pool in your backyard used to be a much bigger investment than it is today. With the advent of the cocktail pool, stock tank pool, plunge pool, and other small pool ideas, having a pool has suddenly become much more attainable to the average homeowner. There are so many types of pools to consider, such as custom concrete, prefabricated fiberglass, pools with splash pads and more. For more ideas on how to design an in-ground pool, visit our roundup of Tilly pool designs.

Similar to a stock tank pool, a hot tub in your backyard is a relatively simple (but luxurious) installation. A hot tub is a feature that can stick out like a sore thumb, but there are many landscape ideas – including some budget friendly landscape ideas to prepare for and integrate a new hot tub into your yard.

Fencing 

A front yard fence or backyard enclosure can be a practical choice for many homeowners, offering privacy, safety, and keeping certain pests at bay. But it can also serve a more decorative purpose with modern wood fence panels or traditional white picket fences bringing an added dimension to your landscape. It’s important to consider the height, materials, and placement of your fence ideas to find that perfect balance that suits all your needs—whether that’s providing a place for Fido to run free, stopping your nosy neighbor (you know the one) from peering into your windows, or just creating curb appeal.

Built-In Seating

Outdoor seating is essential, and you’ve got options beyond a simple patio set. Built-in seating areas are meant to be a functional part of your hardscape, flowing organically with your landscaping plan. Options include stone benches, seats built along garden walls, and raised wooden benches wrapping around the edge of your deck—there’s something for every landscape design aesthetic. Built-in seating increases your outdoor living (and lounging) space through thoughtful hardscape design.

Retaining Walls

Building backyard retaining walls is one of the simplest ways to add levels and visual interest to your landscaping and help shape it into a more functional space. Retaining walls are meant to hold back soil behind a barrier constructed from stone, timber, brick, metal, or concrete. Whether you’re looking to build a multi-tiered garden bed, carve out a nook for a firepit, or just make that steep hill in your sloped yard a more beautiful feature, there’s a retaining wall option for you.

You can also consider a gabion retaining wall for a more industrial look. This type of retaining wall uses a metal cage to contain loose stones. With this technique, you can skip mortar or careful stone laying and get an incredibly durable stone wall constructed out of a wide range of fill options with less skilled labor. This makes gabion landscaping a great project for a determined DIY landscaper.

Kids’ Play Areas

While you might be head over heels for a tastefully designed pergola, the kids in your family might be hoping for something a little different. Kids’ play structures are an amazing addition to your landscape design if you really want to make your backyard a fun and functional family area. Options range from a simple hanging swing to a full rock wall or obstacle course! Check out our list of some of our favorite family-friendly landscaping ideas. And before you think there’s nothing for you there, an outdoor movie theater might just be the perfect side yard idea…

Games & Recreation

Whether you’re an avid golfer who wishes you could live right on the green or you’ve got kids who constantly turn your driveway into a makeshift basketball court, there’s a way to incorporate those passions into your backyard design. A backyard tennis court can become a beautiful part of your landscaping and a sunken trampoline can look at home next to your flower bushes with a little bit of good planning. Take inspiration from some of our favorite recreation space landscape designs we’ve created and think about what game you’d love to play in your backyard.

Water Features

There’s a whole world of beautiful water features out there beyond a swimming pool. The sound of trickling water and the soothing ambiance of a water feature can fit into almost any landscape design, and there are possibilities for every space and budget. Options like ponds, small streams, and waterfalls can become features that flow across your space, whereas choices like a fountain can be a localized showpiece in your design. Landscape fountains come in a wide range of designs from classic stone fountains to quirky sculptural pieces to fully installed water walls—but if you’re looking to keep things simple, you can’t go wrong with a good ol’ bird bath.

Exterior Lighting

Exterior lighting is an important element of landscape design for both safety and beauty, if you want to make your backyard a functional living area at night. First things first, make sure all the most common paths you follow are well lit with lighting on doors, paths, and stairs. A well-lit walk means fewer stumbles and scrapes!

After the basics are covered, you can start thinking about how to light the landscape features you love, making them look just as beautiful at night as they do in the sunlight. Uplighting is a common lighting technique where small spotlights placed at ground level aim upward and light key features of your hardscape and softscape. If you have tall trees in your yard, you can consider moonlighting—the practice of hanging light fixtures from above to provide a soft, natural glow on your landscaping. When it comes to lighting a patio or seating area, mood lighting is where it’s at, and you have a whole range of options from hanging overhead lighting to table lamps to string lights draped over your deck. Get the ideas flowing with our favorite ways to use exterior lighting and get creative.

Sheds, Studios, & ADUs

Sheds have traditionally been little more than storage units shoved out of the way of more elegant landscaping, but the increasing trend in beautiful and functional outbuildings has turned the simple shed into an asset to your outdoor living space. Whether you’re trying to add an in-law apartment, a separate studio area, or simply more storage, there’s an outbuilding option for you. Terminology varies, but these accessory dwelling units (or ADUs) are only increasing in popularity, which means more design options for you. Just be sure to check local zoning regulations before jumping into any outbuilding construction.

Backyard deck with lounge furniture
Photo Credit: Canva

Hardscaping Materials

Many different materials can play a role in your hardscape designs both for important foundational elements like a patio and for more ornamental features. Read on to discover the pros and cons of some of the most common hardscaping materials. (And if you’re primarily interested in the cost of patio materials, make sure to check out our pricing guide here!)

Stone

When it comes to building with stone, you have a huge variety of options. Natural stone ranges dramatically in color, appearance, and price. Flat sheets of flagstone are amazing for paving or a flagstone patio. Bluestone has a cool tone, while sandstone creates a warm toned ground cover. Granite provides a textured look for large stone benches. Many more exotic stones make exceptional ornamental hardscape pieces. The possibilities are endless! Manufactured stone tends to be a little cheaper, more on par with the price of bricks, but can lose some of its color over time. Both natural and manufactured stone are incredibly durable and can last lifetimes with proper care.

Brick

Bricks are a manufactured alternative to stone most commonly made from clay. They can easily create a homey, traditional feel in your landscaping. They are perfectly shaped for construction and are a convenient building material for paths, retaining walls, and brick patios. Bricks are an affordable building material (generally a little cheaper than natural stone) and are almost as durable as stone is, making them an excellent landscaping option.

Concrete

Concrete is one of the most common and affordable material options for patios, but concrete can be much more than a surface to walk on. For homeowners who appreciate a more industrial feel, concrete benches, planters, and other furniture pieces are a great option. Concrete can also be stamped, dyed, and stained for a variety of different looks beyond plain, smooth gray. Different aggregates make a huge difference in the look and feel. For example, it can be cast-in-place or precast and delivered to your home. 

Concrete is a very durable material but is vulnerable to cracking since it lacks flexibility as one large sheet, meaning that you have to be cautious about frost heaves and large tree roots growing under a concrete patio. Most concrete has low permeability, so consider opting for a specially made permeable concrete if you’re using it in an area with a great deal of rain or runoff.

Pavers

Pavers are specifically made to be an easy-to-use material for patios, paths, and driveways. Typically made from concrete or manufactured stone, pavers can last for over 50 years with proper care. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors and are designed to easily fit together into a perfect path—no fitting together irregular stones like puzzle pieces. Individual pavers are easy to replace, which is another benefit. Pavers can bring pattern into the landscape, making them a great option for design. There are also many permeable paver options available now which can help with water mitigation and drainage. Concrete patio pavers are particularly economical and a good option for people looking for high visual impact on a budget.

Gravel

If you’re looking for the most inexpensive, most DIY-friendly ground cover option, gravel is your best bet. Gravel is easy to apply over almost any surface and comes in a range of sizes, shapes, and colors. Crushed stone makes a great finish for a driveway, while petite pea gravel is an on-trend option for a patio.

Gravel is entirely water permeable, making it suitable for many areas, but it can be messier than larger pieces of stone or concrete. To keep gravel in place (and reduce how many pieces you find accidentally kicked into the lawn), make sure to use a solid edging on the side of gravel areas, or opt for permeable plastic pavers under your gravel for even more security. If your gravel areas do begin to wear down, it’s easy to pour a little more on top and your path or patio will be good as new.

Decomposed Granite

Decomposed granite—or “DG”—is one of the unsung heroes of hardscaping. DG is just finely crushed granite, but it’s an incredibly versatile material. Finer than gravel but more stable (and mud-free) than dirt, DG makes an ideal material for patios, driveways, paths, mulch, and anywhere you want groundcover. It’s inexpensive, provides excellent permeability, and is easy to top up if needed.

It’s slightly trickier to DIY a DG path than a plain gravel path because it’s recommended to use a compactor to create a solid base of DG for the looser top layer to sit on, but it’s not difficult with the proper equipment. DG has been known to stick to shoes and track indoors, however now they’re able to add a stabilizing agent to it, making it far less messy and allowing for traffic and things like snow removal, while keeping the feel of gravel. 

Wood

Wood is a beautiful, traditional, and versatile option for decks, furniture, pergolas, and a wide range of constructed hardscape pieces. A range of natural hues combined with stains, varnishes, and paints means that you have a rainbow of hues to choose from when you build with wood. Wood requires more careful upkeep than materials like stone and brick and is best used for raised platforms and areas where it will not be in consistent contact with moisture if you want to prevent rot.

Certain sturdy natural options like redwood and pressure treated timbers are more durable than a plain pine board and will have a longer lifespan as a deck or furniture. For the most durability, you can opt for a composite wood that’s manufactured with plastic and natural wood fiber—but that durability does come with a notable price hike. Construction quality wood is typically more expensive than stone and other hardscape options.

Boulders

We love incorporating natural features into our landscape designs, and including large stones is a simple and dramatic way to do just that. Boulders are an easy way to add levels and visual appeal to a landscape design, particularly when arranged with plants. The sheer variety of stone options available means you can select a stone with an interesting color or shine, or you can opt for a rustic finish by allowing moss and lichens to grow over your boulder.

A single large boulder or an arrangement of smaller stones is an instant natural statement piece, and those rocks won’t be going anywhere soon—there are few things more durable than a boulder, after all. Bringing in and installing a boulder from elsewhere can be more expensive than you might think because it will likely require special equipment depending on the size and weight of the stone you select.

Backyard deck with furniture
Photo Credit: Canva

Cost and Return on Investment

Alright, there’s a whole range of hardscaping options out there, but which ones really give you the best bang for your buck? We tend to choose our landscape renovations based on what brings us joy (thanks Marie Kondo), but there’s something to be said for how those renovations might boost the price of your home if you decide to sell a few years down the line.

In general, landscaping increases your home value by 1.22%, which adds up on more expensive properties. But when you look at individual projects, there are some that stand out. The deck is a classic favorite for real estate agents to show off on a listing, and data shows that you do recoup 170.75% of their cost when you sell. That means that the average deck costs about $6,000 but adds over $10,000 to the selling price of your home.

It turns out the best investment you can make in landscaping is installing a fire pit! Those cozy features recoup a whopping 226.53% of their cost. An average fire pit costs around $3,000 but adds almost $7,000 to your sale price—anything that is over double its original value and gives you a cozy gathering place in the meantime sounds like a pretty good deal to us.

If you want all the numbers and stats on potential landscaping investments, you can find the data and our breakdown in our article on landscaping costs and ROI. And if that fire pit is starting to sound more and more appealing, check out our full guide on fire pits for inspiration!

One last important factor to consider when thinking about the ROI on your landscaping is durability and upkeep. Some hardscape features are set-it-and-forget-it projects that require minimal maintenance after installation, like an ornamental boulder which will last forever. Other projects, like a beautiful wood deck, should be stained and resealed every two years and will last only 10-15 years before it likely needs to be replaced, even with proper maintenance.

When making your calculations, think about continuing costs of upkeep and which investments will stand the test of time. If you’re selling this year and want a quick ROI on a renovation, a deck is a great option. If you’re not planning on selling for another ten years, that same deck isn’t going to be in great shape when you’re trying to sell. Plan ahead if ROI matters to you—but also don’t forget to prioritize the landscaping features that you know you’ll love while you still live there.

Types of Professionals You Might Need

Alright, you’ve decided that you’re ready to launch into your dream landscape renovation. Whose help do you need to turn those dreams into a reality? Here are some of the essential professionals you might need for your landscape design:

  • Masons: These experts will help you anywhere you need to build with stone—think walkways, patios, retaining walls, fire pits, stone seating, and more.
  • Carpenters: They’ll help you build any wood projects like decks, pergolas, arbors, trellises, treehouses, and even patio furniture.
  • Plumbers: If there’s water or gas involved in an install, you’ll need a plumber. They handle gas lines to grills, outdoor kitchens, fire pits, and water features requiring plumbing.
  • Electricians: Anything electrical should be done by an expert, and electricians can help you with landscape lighting and outdoor appliances.
  • Irrigation specialists: If you want a new sprinkler or irrigation system installed, they’re the ones for the job.
  • Landscape architects: When you have serious structural issues to work out, a landscape architect is the person you need. They can help with steep slopes, structurally significant retaining walls, planning irrigation and drainage systems, designing outdoor structures, and more.
  • Landscape contractors: These are the people that make the magic happen! Landscape contractors are experts in getting their hands dirty in hardscape and softscape and they’re the muscle for most landscaping projects.
  • Tilly install support: If you want a helping hand from an expert as you plan allllllll of the above, that’s where we come in. We can help with landscape installation support all the way from the planning phase through installation and into care and maintenance once it’s installed. We’ll be by your side every step of the way.

There’s a lot to cover in the wide world of hardscaping, but this provides a foundation to inspire and inform your landscape design. Is there anything you’re still wondering about when it comes to hardscape? Let us know which topics we should cover next on our blog.

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