A Guide to Choosing the Best Landscape Materials

pea gravel patio

Patio with sand and pea gravel.  Andreas von Einsiedel / Getty Images

How to Choose the Right Hardscape Material

mixed hardscape

Tile, pebbles and wood hardscape materials.  Michael Wells/Getty Images

Hardscape is as essential to a residential outdoor living space as softscape, which is that living, green growing stuff (plants) in your yard. Heavy or light, formal or informal, big or small, natural or man-made (faux), hardscaping helps a garden by adding balance and focus. It serves as a focal point, delineates, adds dimensionality, and helps to decorate a landscape.

A garden without hardscape is missing something. Imagine a landscape without gravel, rocks, arbors, gazebos, walls, brick, or wood. The plants and trees would be a never-ending forest of wild, growing things.

Among the landscaping elements that are considered hardscaping:

Discover what types of hardscape materials are the easiest to use and most popular.


laying brick path

Man applying edging to newly constructed brick path.  Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Look around: brick has been around for centuries, as a material for buildings, roads, pathways, walls and all types of structures. Bricks have specific patterns, which can make a surface appear more formal or informal. Used brick is currently a popular, environmental, re-use type of material for outdoor projects.

Composite Decking

azek arbor

AZEK arbor decking.  AZEK

Decking that isn’t made of real wood or aluminum is considered composite or synthetic decking. It’s made to last, won’t splinter, is insect repellent, resists mold and rotting, provides excellent traction (meaning you are not likely to slip) and it doesn’t need to be sanded and resealed.

Sounds perfect, except it can be costly for those on a budget. Composite decking is an eco-conscious hardscaping material since most brands are made from wood fibers and recycled plastics.

Wood or Composite Decking: Pros and Cons.


pouring concrete driveway

Concrete (cement) truck and construction crew pouring concrete in a residential driveway. Concrete is placed in the forms with a concrete.  Bob Pool/Getty Images

Concrete doesn’t have to be a plain, cold slab: it can be stained, stamped, texturized and embedded with other materials, like pebbles and sea glass. In fact, you might want to keep this in mind for your concrete patio or pathway project; texturized or decorative concrete is less slippery than the smooth, plain finish.

While do-it-yourselfers can certainly pour a concrete patio, it isn’t always easy and is something you want to approach with at least some concrete know-how. Otherwise, call in a professional who knows what he/she is doing.

Loose Materials

black and white pebbles

Black and white pebbles on path.  Cláudio Policarpo / EyeEm / Getty Images

Pea gravel, Mexican river rock, small stones, gravel, recycled rubber mulch and recycled glass are all considered loose-material hardscaping. Think about it this way: if a material is used as a landscaping surface and is not green, living, growing landscaping, then it probably would be considered hardscaping.


paver patio

Man lays pavers for patio.  Chris Henderson/Getty Images

Pavers  can be made of a variety of materials—the most popular pavers are concrete, brick, and flagstone. Placing pavers can be a fairly simple project on the DIY scale, provided you construct a permanent border to avoid shifting and sliding. Pavers are usually installed over pea gravel and bedding sand but can be placed on DE (diatomaceous earth), dirt or grass., dirt or grass.


notting hill garden

Stone patio and steps in Notting Hill, London, garden.  Pedro Silmon/Getty Images

Natural stone or flagstone is a popular and attractive choice for outdoor patios, courtyards and other areas that require hardscaping. If using natural stone, you will be dealing with bumps, ridges and varying heights and weights. Irregular flagstone pieces have a more rustic look, while cut, geometric shapes are more formal.

Stone or flagstone can be placed over a sand or pea gravel base, or mortared into a concrete slab


saltillo tile steps

Saltillo tile steps with ceramic risers.  Lisa Hallett Taylor

Like brick, tile has been around for a long time, and isn’t just for indoor applications. When choosing ceramic or any type of tile for an outdoor patio or courtyard, keep in mind that glazed tile can get slippery when wet. Outdoor tile is rated for various climates, so be sure to choose one that complies with your zone, especially if you are ordering online.

Ceramic tile should be set in a bed of mortar on top of a concrete slab. Tiles made of recycled materials are an environmental choice.


building a deck

Carpenter building an outdoor wood deck.  Claes Torstensson/Getty Images

Wood is the real thing and has long been the material of choice for outdoor decks. Availability varies by location—local woods will be less expensive than imported exotic hardwoods. While maintenance can be an issue—yes, you have to keep on top of it—many people prefer the warm, rich look and natural feel of wood.


By Lisa Hallett Taylor