Hardscape vs Softscape: What Are The Differences?
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
The two primary aspects that make up a landscape are hardscapes and softscapes. Everything from plant material to mulching to paver patios falls into one of these two categories. And while hardscape elements and softscape elements are complete opposites, they are both necessary for creating a beautiful and cohesive outdoor living space.
What Is a Hardscape?
A hardscape, in essence, is an aspect of a landscape that is more or less permanent and does not change. Hardscapes are inanimate, always the same, and often bring definition to your space. Such aspects of a landscape require little maintenance, though they are not easy to change and often have the most thought and planning put into them due to the permanence of their nature. Hardscapes generally come in two different styles: formal and natural. Hardscape elements that are formal take on very linear and symmetrical designs, while natural hardscape elements take on more asymmetrical and 'random' designs that aim to mimic nature.
Here are some examples of hardscape features that are common to see incorporated into landscape designs. While not all landscape designs contain all of these elements, it is almost guaranteed that two or more of these will be present in every outdoor living space.
Cement patios and paver patios are both considered to be hardscape elements and are by far the most common hardscape. Every backyard or front porch incorporates a patio of some kind. These patios are the starting point of every design, with the rest of the landscape elements planned to incorporate seamlessly with and complement the patio.
Retaining walls are often short walls of brick or some other material used in landscapes to hold back or contain large amounts of earth. This is most commonly seen in yards that are sloped or on a hill. The retaining wall helps level out the yard, making the space more useable and also helping prevent any erosion that may occur due to the slope. Retaining walls have many purposes and are quite common in many landscape designs.
Fire features include anything from a wood-burning firepit to a gas firepit to an outdoor fireplace and more! They are often seen incorporated into the patio if they are gas-burning or constructed some ways away from the home if they are wood-burning. In both cases, fire features incorporated into a landscape are considered permanent structures and are difficult to modify or change after their installation.
Similar to fire features, a water feature is a permanent structure that is incorporated into a landscape and is not easy to modify after installation. It is especially easy to see how water features fall into either the formal or the natural hardscape category. As can be seen below, the water feature on the left takes on a very symmetrical, formal design, while the water feature on the right has a very natural form with water bubbling out the top and flowing down the boulder freely.
Other Hardscape Features
Other hardscape features include things like decorative boulders, stairs, pathways, pergolas, lighting features, pools, irrigation systems, and the like. All of these aspects of a landscape are quite permanent and unchanging.
What Is a Softscape?
A softscape is quite literally the opposite of a hardscape. They are animate, not (as) permanent, are easily modified, and change constantly. A softscape can be moved, changed, replaced, or adjusted from year to year depending on the desires of the homeowner. They could even be removed entirely on a whim. Softscapes require more intentional care and maintenance than a hardscape. They are also the aspect of landscaping that gives an outdoor living space its character and creates a comfortable and inviting atmosphere.
Here are some examples of softscapes that are commonly seen in most landscapes and outdoor living spaces. While not all landscapes have to contain all of these elements, it is not uncommon to see each of these aspects incorporated in one way or another.
Annual Plants & Flowers
As can be derived from the nature of annual plant material, they only last one season and therefore need to be replanted every year. This leaves room for change every single season. Even if you were to plant the same type of annual flowers every year, this still requires throwing away the dead plants from last year and replacing them with new plants to tend to for the season.
Perennial Plants & Flowers
Perennial plant material is the same way. Even though perennial plants last longer than just one season, they grow and change every year, require continual maintenance, and can easily be dug up and replaced with something else in the event that the plant dies or the property owner desires to change the style, color theme, or location.
Trees & Shrubs
Trees and shrubs are perhaps the most permanent softscape. Even though they are rather permanent, they can be changed or removed at any point. It is less common to remove or replace trees and shrubs, as it is usually the more economical choice to let them grow on the property. But in the event that a tree outgrows its space, becomes sickly and dies, or simply is not desirable anymore, it can be removed and replaced. Trees and shrubs do change on their own in terms of growth from year to year, and they also require consistent care and maintenance, which includes them in the softscape category.
Lawns are another aspect of a landscape that requires care and maintenance, goes through seasonal changes of its own, and can be removed or replaced at any point. While some people may consider a lawn a rather permanent feature, it is not unheard of and is even becoming increasingly more common for homeowners to choose to remove entire lawns or portions of their lawns and replace them with more sustainable, xeric, low-maintenance landscape features.
Mulching in the form of bark chips or rock beds are both technically considered softscapes. Even though these are not elements that are living or constantly changing, they are elements that require consistent maintenance and can be quite easily changed or replaced. They are much less permanent than a patio or retaining wall and are frequently changed and updated to keep a landscape looking fresh and clean.
Benefits of Hardscapes
Due to the nature of hardscapes, they have many benefits that are related to their low-maintenance, easy-care nature. While they may cost more initially, hardscape features will often outlast many other aspects of your home and its landscape and will end up costing you less long-term.
With hardscapes, there is little to no maintenance since they are inanimate.
Hardscapes are more sustainable because they do not require excessive watering, fertilizing, etc.
They also cost less since they do not require watering, fertilizing, pest management, or any other care that is common for softscapes.
Since hardscapes are usually made of rock or stone, they will easily last longer than many other features of your landscaping.
Benefits of Softscapes
Softscapes have more benefits in terms of the comfort and ambiance of your outdoor living space. Plants may cost less initially, though they can end up costing you more overall, as they are a constant task to keep up with. In the end though, we can assure you that softscapes are quite worth the commitment.
Incorporating plants in your landscape attracts bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and all sorts of other wildlife that is beneficial to the environment
Creates A Comfortable and Inviting Environment
Hardscapes alone are rather cold and stony. Adding plant material softens up the area and makes it more inviting and enjoyable.
Adds Value to Your Property
Plants add a lot to your curb appeal, and good curb appeal can increase your property value. Trees in particular are a wonderful way to add value to your home.
Gives Your Outdoor Living Space Character
Filling your landscaping with your favorite plants, trees, shrubs, and flowers literally brings it to life.
When To Hardscape vs. Softscape
This isn't necessarily an 'either or' question. Hardscapes and softscapes work best together and are rarely (if not never) seen without each other. However, even though hardscapes and softscapes usually come as a packaged deal, the amount of one or the other can be entirely up to you. It simply depends on your wants, needs, lifestyle, hobbies, etc. If you enjoy gardening, love spending your time tending to plants, have kids who love to play in the yard, or love the look of a landscape full of flourishing plants, consider a landscape that has a lot of softscape elements. If you are a person that likes to enjoy your outdoor space but doesn't necessarily have a green thumb or a desire to tend to lots of plants, a landscape that has more hardscape elements than softscape elements may be more up your alley. It completely depends on you, your lifestyle, and your preferences!
Contact Bath Landscape Today!
If you are considering any changes to your landscaping or are in need of a complete landscape renovation, reach out to Bath Landscape & Irrigation today! We specialize in full landscape design and installation services and provide the best residential landscaping services in Fort Collins and Northern Colorado. Learn more about our residential landscaping services, fill out a contact form today, or give us a call any time!