The Best Ways To Soften Hard Landscaping

When it comes to landscape design, you cannot go without hard landscaping. Any garden designer will begin their planning with hard landscaping first, as this is the backbone of your outdoor space.

Hard landscape design provides you with solid surfaces which you can work around. It ensures an easy-to-maintain outdoor area and is great if you want a surface free from grass and mud for entertaining.

Hard landscaping may be essential, but the straight lines and hard materials can create a harsh environment with sharp edges and no cosy atmosphere. Fortunately, you can soften your outdoor space relatively easily, without the help of a garden designer.

In this article, we will look at what hard and soft landscaping is, and how you can soften your outdoor space by incorporating certain soft features that will help you to create your dream space outside.

What is Hard Landscaping?

Hard landscaping includes any man-made features that are incorporated into your landscape design. It is the constructed elements in your landscape, the parts that are not designed. This includes retaining walls, walkways, patios, fences, decks, pools, drainage, driveways and outdoor surfaces.

Hard landscaping is also called hardscaping and is basically any materials designed by humans that are included in the yard to protect or enhance it.

Hardscape elements make life a little bit easier.

For example, a raised composite decking walkway allows you to move around your garden without getting stuck in the mud. A retaining wall is used to create a vertical structure and prevent slopes from collapsing. Constructed drainage systems help your garden from becoming waterlogged.

Groundworks are also included under the umbrella of hardscape elements.

Hard landscaping materials

A variety of materials can be used in hard landscape design. These materials are usually specifically selected for their properties and are also used to increase your property value.

Materials typically included in hard landscaping are:

  • Concrete
  • Wood
  • Brick
  • Stone
  • Glass
  • Asphalt
  • Metal
  • Gravel

These materials can be used to create decorative yet functional elements in your garden. For example, a composite balustrade can be combined with a wooden deck and gravel walkway. A rock-filled drainage channel can be used to divert water while looking pretty.

These materials are used by garden designers to create structure in your garden, ensure a functional space, and allow for a level area that can be utilised by you and your guests.

What is Soft Landscaping?

Soft landscaping is also called softscaping. Softscape is defined as the living elements of a garden. This includes any horticulture, such as grasses, plants, shrubs, flowers, trees and soil.

Although hardscape elements are required to provide easy access to your garden, softscape elements bring in natural beauty and can create a warmer atmosphere.

Plants are not only aesthetic, but they also provide shade, a microclimate, help with water flow, and can provide food.

Softscape elements must be maintained through cutting, pruning, trimming, weeding, digging and spraying. These elements are fluid and change throughout the year, creating an ever-changing garden as the seasons change.

Which plants work best for soft landscaping?

No matter the size of your outdoor space, you can play around with vegetation to transform the area. Having a variety of plants, flowers and trees will keep your garden looking amazing throughout the year.

If you want to ensure privacy, then opt for larger trees, hedging and shrubs. If you want colour in your garden, then plant beautiful flowers and bulbs in your flowerbeds. Research different herbs and edible plants that you can incorporate into your garden.

If you have a small or paved outdoor area or courtyard, you can dot plants around in a variety of pots and planters of different sizes.

It doesn’t matter which plants you go for, just make sure you understand how to take care of them in terms of the amount of sunlight and water they require. Also, ensure that your plants always have proper drainage to prevent the roots from rotting.

Differences Between Hard And Soft Landscaping

Now that you know the definitions of hard and soft landscaping, what exactly are the differences?

The easiest way to remember which is this: hardscaping refers to non-living man-made objects, while softscaping refers to living plants.

That said, there is still some crossover between the two types of landscape design. Digging and building a pond or water feature is considered hard landscaping, but the water and ponds living in the ponds are softscaping. The water feature is considered hardscaping as it is constructed to hold water.

Garden designers are realising the importance of soft landscaping and are using softscaping to battle climate change, create eco-friendly sustainable spaces, and also create functional areas where people can unwind.

Landscape design is all about combining different landscape elements and finding the perfect balance. Where hardscaping creates a functional area, softscaping brings in nature to soften hard lines.

Softening Your Landscaping

Let’s look at how you can soften your hard landscaping elements with just a few small changes.

Play with organic shapes

Most hardscaping elements consist of straight lines: think of a square patio, rectangular walkway, or vertical wall.

If you are designing the landscaping at your own house, you do not have to follow these rules. You can soften your garden by introducing curves and organic lines. For example, instead of using rectangular flower boxes, consider using a D-shaped or circular planter instead. This will break up any straight lines and also provide you with more planting space.

Organic lines are more harmonious and can create a flow in the garden that leads your eyes around to the different landscape elements.

Although you can still use decking to construct a walkway (something that is considered hardscaping), you can curve the walkway around the garden instead of using straight lines and angles. Ecoscape’s Ash Decking Boards are perfect for this design as they have a soothing ash-grey colour that will match any vegetation and existing hardscaping in your garden.

You can also opt for a darker decking board, such as the Charcoal Decking Board, as the dark colouring will stand out against the greens in your garden.

Blur the boundaries between hardscaping and softscaping

If you wish to combine soft and hard landscaping, then you need to blur the lines between these design elements.

For example, if you had your fencing redone with Ecoscape’s Charcoal Composite Fencing Boards, then you want bright colours to contrast the dark fencing. You can achieve this by planting flowers along the fence or using colourful outdoor furniture.

You can also soften hard lines of decks, patios or pathways by placing a flowerbed along the edges, where the lawn meets the hardscaping. Or instead of building a walkway, use stepping stones interspersed with gravel or ground cover plants to soften the walkway and incorporate nature.

Include plants strategically

Consider strategically placing plants around your hardscape elements. This will break the straight lines and create a much softer outdoor space.

Of course, it makes sense to have a square patio or pool installed, as it is functional and affordable, but these harsh edges can make your backyard seem unwelcome. Place some plants on the patio corners or along the edge of the pool deck to soften the edges.

Mix and match materials

Even hardscaping elements can be combined to soften a landscape design. This can be achieved by mixing and matching hard landscaping materials.

You can combine composite cladding with a timber deck, or use a composite deck with a gravel walkway interspersed with wooden stepping stones.

By combining different materials, you are also introducing different textures, which will work wonders to soften your garden.

Use colours found in the natural world

If you love bright colours and pops of pink – go for it! But, that does not mean you have to go all out when it comes to colour.

You can soften hard design elements by incorporating a variety of colours. Muted, natural colours work very well to soften an outdoor space.

That is why Ecoscape’s composite products come in natural colours, such as Spiced Oak, Silver Birch, Charcoal and Walnut. These soft colours found in nature work well with the other softscape elements in your garden, like the bark of the trees, the green of the lawn, and brown soil.

You can combine a variety of natural colours to create a soft collage in your garden, and then add smaller pops of bright colours, like colourful pillows, an outdoor rug, or flowers throughout.

We associate a single colour with harsh industrial buildings, while a mixture of soft colours is associated with nature. By including a variety of colours found in the natural world, your garden will be a warm and inviting space.

Build different levels

You can combine hard and soft landscaping on different levels to break up a clunky, straight-edged garden.

For example, you can construct a sunken fire pit and conversation area, raised flower beds, a deck that leads onto a gravel walkway, or different grass tiers.

You can also create different levels with trees and plants. Plant trees in large pots, have hanging planters against a wall, have hedges of different heights, or use a pergola or wrought-iron arch and allow vines to grow up the supports.

Incorporating bushes and flowering plants of different heights and sizes will also soften your garden space and make it visually appealing.

Using raised flowerbeds, hedges or pot plants can also help you to create different zones in your garden, which is useful if you have guests or want your garden to be uncluttered.

Play with scale

Different scales are especially useful in smaller gardens. Large containers in a small space will help to break up the space, and also allows for planting trees and shrubs at different levels.

In larger gardens, scale is also important. Large trees can dominate the sky, and you can plant ferns or shade-loving plants around the stem.

Decorate your garden

Decorative elements can really help to soften your hard landscaping. Even though decorative elements are considered non-living and can therefore perhaps be perceived as hard landscaping, they can still help to soften an uninviting outdoor space.

Although planting trees and incorporating bushes are great to introduce soft elements, this is not always possible.

Benches, rugs, sculptures, planters or even incorporating seating are all ways in which you can soften your backyard.

These elements also allow you to bring in a bit of personality and fun. Decorative elements can be functional as well – seating or a picnic table will help in creating a more inviting space. while enhancing the aesthetics of your hardscape. Even more so if you add a few blankets or colourful patterned pillows to your outdoor furniture.

A beautiful garden is one that is soft yet functional. Non-living objects go a long way in making a garden feel comfortable, so don’t hesitate to incorporate functional objects like chairs or tables. If you want to soften the space even more, opt for furniture with curved lines and natural colours.

The three C’s of plants

Creep, climb or cascade.

These are the three C’s of plants, and you would do well to keep them in mind when considering your design ideas.

Plants with any of these elements will instantly soften your hard garden.

Climbing plants can be placed on trellises in corners or against walls and fences to break up the sharp edges. These plants also help lead the eye around the garden and can make small gardens feel much larger. Some great plants include Jasmine, White Potato Vine, and Dutch Honeysuckle.

Cascading plants look great on low walls or retaining walls. These plants can also be used in hanging baskets for a contemporary look. Our favourite cascading plants include Trailing Aubrieta, Lobelia, Ivy Geranium and Fuschias.

Ground-creeping plants are great to create a carpet of vegetation. These plants spread naturally across the soil and can be used on cinderblock retaining walls or in between stepping stones.

Evergreen ground creepers would be best as they will remain lush throughout the year. Consider Paleleaf Barberry, Spindle “Silver Queen”, Tamarisk-Leaved Savin, Rose of Sharon or Barrenwort.

You can also make use of herbs, such as thyme, chamomile or mint in shady spots to cover the soil.

Hard landscaping is able to provide the structure of a garden, but fortunately, it can also be used to benefit soft landscaping such as explained here by including the three C’s of plants.

Create a green roof

Green roofs, or living roofs, are flat roofs that have been planted with vegetation. These can include any kind of plants, like grasses or flowers (best to not plant a tree on the roof though!).

Green roofs are perfect to break up hardscaping – especially if the plants cascade over the roof edge – and also enhance the biodiversity of your garden. You do not have to have your whole house covered in plants, your garden shed or pool house can be home to a living roof. Any flat roof can be transformed, even bin storage areas or bike sheds.

Plant trees

Lastly, planting trees is probably one of the most time-consuming methods available to you to soften your garden, but trees are an instant solution if you want to improve your hardscaping.

You can go to a local nursery and pick out some adult trees, or opt for some saplings if you want to watch the trees grow.

If you are uncertain about which trees to go for, consult your landscaping company or the nursery staff. After all, you do not want to get trees whose roots will end up tearing your pavement or cracking your walls.

Balanced Landscape Design Is Important

As you can see, both soft and hard landscaping is required to create a cosy, beautiful garden that is functional yet aesthetically pleasing.

It is critical that you create a balance in your garden by combining elements from each of these landscape designs.

Through the combination of softscape, hardscape, lighting and your own personal taste, you can create an outdoor area that feels balanced and elegant.

Do I Need Planning Permissions To Landscape My Garden?

In the UK, planning restrictions differ amongst areas.

That said, usually, you will require planning permission, especially if you are considering hard landscaping designs.

You will require permission for walls higher than 1 meter constructed next to a road or higher than 2 meters constructed anywhere else. You will also require planning permission for impermeable paving or any work you do on listed buildings.

If you do not have a listed building or reside in a conservation area, you can construct outbuildings up to 2.5 meters tall right next to the house. Any other buildings taller than 4 meters must be at least 2 meters away from the main house.

Decks, or any outbuildings, must occupy less than 50% of your garden.

If you are uncertain about the planning permissions required for your hardscaping, consult your garden designer or the local council – especially if you are near a Conservation Area or reside in a listed building.


How can I soften the wall in my garden?

Sometimes straight, blank walls cannot be avoided when it comes to your outdoor entertainment space. Fortunately, there are some ways in which you can soften a blank wall, whether in a courtyard or your garden.

  • Paint the wall a bright colour, or paint a mural.
  • If the wall is attached to a room, consider adding a window.
  • Use a trellis and allow vines to grow against the wall, or use hanging baskets for cascading plants.
  • Create a focal point through an outdoor art gallery.
  • Use wall sconces or floor lights to create a light pattern on the wall.
  • Install a water feature against the wall.

How can I soften hard patio lines?

Most patios are square, with hard edges. The best way to soften these lines is through the use of plants. Plant a shrub along the ground next to the patio, or place potted plants on the corners and along the patio edge.

How can I make a concrete retaining wall look better?

You can transform a low concrete retaining wall into a bench by adding some outdoor cushions to literally soften it.

You can also purchase precast concrete slabs that come with beautiful engravings or mosaics which will add an artsy flare to your garden. Paint a mural on the concrete with outdoor paint, or use lights to light up the wall at night.

Use plants that will overgrow the wall from the top for a gorgeous cascading effect.

Final Thoughts

Finding a balance between hardscaping and softscaping is key to a beautiful landscape.

There are plenty of ways in which you can soften your gardens, such as by using natural lines, soft colours, including plants and trees, using decorative elements, and playing around with scale and levels.

To really make the most out of your garden, make sure you incorporate your own personal taste. The pictures you see of gardens in magazines may look amazing, but you are the one who will enjoy your garden the most – so make sure to include elements you adore!

Contact our customer service team at Ecoscape if you wish to receive further inspiration or guidance on how you can incorporate our composite materials to soften your outdoor spaces.

Gary is the founder and CEO of Ecoscape UK. Gary graduated from Liverpool JM University in 2007 with a 2:1 in Economics. A passion for innovation, design and sustainability, Gary has put to market numerous wpc products/systems, some of which have UK and European registered designs. Outside of work Gary enjoys spending time with his family, the great outdoors and watching Manchester United.