Expert Advice- Between a Rock and a Hardscape

Landscape professionals offer advice on choosing the right materials for outdoor living spaces


McHale Landscape Design, Inc.

The selection of materials for garden walls, walkways, paths and the like, collectively called hardscape, can make or break a successful landscape. The multitude of products available these days—pavers, cobblestone, brick, flagstone, concrete, slate and more—gives homeowners and designers many more options than they had in the past. In the examples shown here, landscape designers shed light on the reasons behind many of their hardscape decisions.

Paths of Stone

This rear garden in Calvert County (above) falls into a category called a “critical area” because it is less than 100 feet away from the Patuxent River. Landscape designer Carolyn Mullet of McHale Landscape Design, Inc., chose natural boulder steps for the garden stairway for two main reasons. First, they made “an easy transition from the driveway level to the back terrace,” she says. In addition, she explains that the weight of the steps “lets them sit right into the slope” without a concrete footing. She knew the steps would meet the requirements for a critical area review, which only allow a certain percentage of the total land area to be covered by impervious surfaces. Plantings, mostly native, were chosen from the acceptable list for critical area sites.

The front of this same property did not fall into the critical area, so Mullet was free to pursue other options for the main walkway to the stone house (left). Because the house is traditional, says Mullet, “we wanted to nod at that, but also put in something that would be more interesting.” She has always admired the Pebble Garden at Dumbarton Oaks, and has also seen gardens in Europe and Mexico that incorporate pebbles in paving. So she decided upon a combination of flagstone, which met the “traditional” standard, along with bands of pebbles set in a diagonal pattern. The result is a very stylish front walk that complements the landscape perfectly.

Design: Carolyn Mullet, McHale Landscape Design, Inc., Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Novel Hardscape Solutions

This site is typical of many in metropolitan Washington, DC: a large brick house sitting back from the street at the top of a rather steep slope. Kathleen Litchfield of Petro Design Build says people “often under-use the front yard, and sometimes that’s where everything happens, especially if you have children.” She decided to anchor this front yard by creating a courtyard, complete with seat wall, where people can congregate. She used brick to match the house and set it in a concrete base. “Regardless of what you’re putting in the front, brick or flagstone,” she says, “it should be on a solid base because it’s your primary access area.” She explains that visitors wearing high heels or walking at night can easily trip on loose bricks, pavers or flagstones, creating an unnecessary liability.

This backyard vignette includes a seat wall that can be used to accommodate guests, a rounded “shelf” that can be used as another seat or as a base for a fire and an antique fireplace panel that serves as a focal point. Underneath the “shelf” is a space to store firewood. Litchfield says contractors flamed the edge of the stone seat wall—it’s called a burnt edge—to “give it a softer look than a straight-cut edge.” The flagstone patio was originally to be set in stone dust in keeping with the client’s desire for a more natural setting, but the homeowner eventually decided to have the patio set in concrete because it would be much easier to hose down. Litchfield says either option is feasible, but a concrete base adds about $7 per square foot to the total cost.

The tall brick walls surrounding this backyard space in Old Town, Alexandria, were beginning to crumble, so Kathleen Litchfield of Petro Design Build built a stone wall in front of one of the walls to “hold it up.” She installed a small lead shell in the wall, from which a fountain cascades into a small pond below. Because she could not find brick to match the surrounding walls, Litchfield installed a flagstone patio with turf joints next to the pond and added a decorative cobblestone border. When you can’t match older brick, she advises, it’s better “to switch materials altogether.” The patio was set in stone dust with a two-inch gap between the stones to allow room for turf. Litchfield says whether you use turf or moss or another low-lying groundcover, “it looks like an Oriental carpet.”

Design: Kathleen Litchfield, Petro Design Build, Mitchellville, Maryland. Photography: Ruggeri Photography.


McHale Landscape Design, Inc.

Petro Design Build 


Petro Design Build


Petro Design Build


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