Hardscapes & Softscapes

Needless to say, Landscapes are important. Landscapes offer storm runoff and drainage control, add as much as fourteen percent to the resale value of your property, and drastically increase your property’s curb appeal. Sustainable landscaping also positively impacts our environment and ecosystem. 

To maximize our impact, value, and improvements, it is important to understand the hard and soft elements that define a high-quality, sustainable landscape. We like to look at these hard and soft elements as Landscaping’s Yin and Yang. Yin being Hardscapes, and Yang Softscapes. This will help us to develop a better understanding of those components as well as the artistic and technical aspects. 

Sustainable landscaping can be defined as the design, construction, and management practices of an outdoor environment that is optimized to conserve natural resources, maximize the ecological benefit, while also reducing the required labor for upkeep. The most sustainable landscapes achieve these standards by optimizing both halves of landscaping: hardscapes and softscapes.

Yin: Hardscapes 

Hardscapes can be defined as the more permanent, non-living components of landscapes. Hardscapes provide foundation and guide structure. They can include anything from walkways, stairways, decks, permeable patios, retaining walls, fences, sculptures, and trellis. Hardscapes are built with long-lasting materials. These can include anything from stone and concrete to wood and metal. The hardscape can be thought of as the non-changing means by which we interact with the landscape: walkways lead us on intended paths; walls extend or limit our sense of space; and, stairways add levels and depth to our view. Other features like fountains, gazebos, planter boxes, and fences have the potential to further enrich our interaction with the landscape. Incorporating multiple hardscape features into your landscape is well worth the often larger investment, as it provides the bones of your outdoor space and defines its designated use as additional living space.

A hardscape’s ability to increase the sustainability of your property is often overlooked. Hardscapes can support the proper flow of stormwater runoff away from your home and sustainably manage stormwater runoff. Hardscapes allow the water to permeate through and as a result, recharge the groundwater soil and ultimately, aquifers in many areas. This is possible through the use of open grade aggregate bases and wider joints between pavers.

At TLC, we follow the Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute (ICPI) Permeable Interlocking Concrete Paver (PICP) standards for our installations. We highly recommend that before hiring a professional to complete any similar permeable installation, ensure that members of their team have completed ICPI PICP training and practice those standards. 

Permeable surfaces significantly reduce the amount of water that would otherwise runoff into municipal stormwater systems. Municipal stormwater systems carry road pollution directly into our local waterways and can wreak havoc on the ecology of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. For this reason, there have been many jurisdictions that have adopted programs that encourage these types of permeable hardscape installations. Alexandrians are encouraged through the Eco-City Stormwater Utility Fee Credits. Arlington’s residents are encouraged through StormwaterWise Grants for Cost-Sharing. DC’s residents are incentivized through the RiverSmart program. Take advantage of what your city, town, or state has to offer!


Yang: Softscapes

Softscapes can be thought of as the softer, horticultural, and other floral components of a landscape. Softscapes allow for the opportunity to provide natural beauty to your landscape. Softscapes can truly emphasize structures and provide softening and vitality. Softscapes create an atmosphere and instill our sense of character into the landscape. Softscapes natural processes change seasonally as well as on a day-to-day basis. Flowers bloom and fade away. Leaves fall to the ground to join the mulch. While trees continually grow upwards and outwards into the space above us. 

Incorporating layers of different softscape features into your landscape brings a feeling of life and vitality along with each plant’s aesthetic, adding ever-changing, easily-altered interest to your home for years. In short, softscaping includes all living plant components like non-native annuals, perennials, shrubs, grasses, and trees, as well as organic ground covers such as mulch.

Softscapes can drastically alter the sustainability of your property by addressing issues related to soil management, wildlife integration, and pest control. However, the most crucial philosophy in sustainable landscaping is the concept of “right plant, right place.” This is the practice of installing a certain plant in a certain location to receive a more sustainable outcome. This requires being knowledgeable about your plant choices and selecting plants that thrive in pre-existing moisture and light conditions, as well as, being cognizant of growth rates and spacing. 

When designing your softscape to anchor your local ecology, incorporate plants native to your region to ease resource usage and attract your native wildlife populations. In comparison, much of the flora that is available through common garden centers have been cultivated for their ornamental aesthetics and require irrigation and fertilization to thrive.

Softscapes have a strong effect on the soil. The right softscapes can sequester carbon through the plant roots resulting in soil microbiology. Healthy soil often consists of fungi, microbes, worms, and an intricate web of roots. This complex web of roots helps plants process nutrients and ultimately deposit carbon into the soil. By cultivating the permaculture of complementary and companion native plants in the softscape portion of your garden, you can cultivate your carbon sink.

Unison to Create Something Novel

Yin and Yang would be incomplete without one another, the same goes for the hardscapes and softscape components of our landscape. Together they achieve the most beautiful, complete, sustainable outcome. Hardscaping offers the bones, foundation, structure, and form that is enhanced, accentuated, and beautified by the flora of the softscape. These two halves of a whole work in unison to create something novel. Choose a landscape professional that understands both halves of the whole: hardscape versus softscape, aesthetic versus sustainability, art versus science, and yin versus yang.


Patrick Moran, PMP, LSC, HIC, LEED | CEO Tactical Land Care

Patrick utilizes his passion for the outdoors along with his professional skills as a licensed Landscape and Home Improvement contractor in Virginia and Maryland, as well as a Project Management Professional (PMP) and LEED Green Associate. Patrick has a BA from Yale University, where he studied climate change and its impact on society.