Good bones make good gardens.
Whether one is aware or not, when a gardener plans and plants a garden he is undertaking to compose a picture, in other words, a work of art; and a work of art is always enhanced by a frame, which focuses and presents it to best advantage. This is usually not initially considered, and the result may be a rapid bleeding of the planting scheme into surrounding areas, diminishing and scattering its beauty. This is where the sometimes misunderstood term, hardscape or “bones” of the garden, comes in. “Bones” is merely an expression of a framework to enhance the plantings, to provide access to movement among them with ease and pleasure, and to connect the house with its grounds.
Paths, edgings and walls are the main elements to lend definition and pattern, while also providing a sense of place and focus. Since walls of any sort are generally discouraged on Hilton Head Island, the hardscape most frequently considered will be that of paths and edgings. It is much easier to plan and plant a space that has dedicated limitations, thus clearly revealing what, where and how much you have to work with and furnish. Furthermore, permanent edgings prevent grass and the inevitable drift of pine straw and/ or oak leaves from blurring the lines.
However, beware of overdoing it. Too much concrete or any hard material is both overpowering and ecologically unacceptable because of drainage concerns. So use hardscape with care and restraint – as with many things, a little goes a long way. But that “little” ought to be achieved with the best possible design and quality of material.
Remember that excessive use of stone is inappropriate because it is not indigenous to the Lowcountry, and fitness of material should always be considered in garden or any other design. Too often we have seen photos, or perhaps the real thing, of grossly inappropriate structures or objects that jar because of being so blatantly at odds with their environment. (One can only imagine the horror and disbelief when the grotesque girders of the Eiffel Tower were first perceived rising above the sober and traditional mansard roofs and chimney pots of Paris. However, upon reflection, Paris can not only absorb, but glorify what a more modest property could not.)
Paths should be constructed meticulously, unless you just plan to lay stepping stones on grass or pine straw, where they will eventually sink unevenly and be partially invisible and unstable. A functional path must be well laid and well drained, starting with firm edges and an excavation of 5-6 inches of soil. Overlay with a length of landscape fabric to prevent weeds; then fill with 2-3 inches of small stones, top with gravel and level. If slabs or bricks are to be used as surface, a layer of smooth raked sand is required, leveled with a spirit level. It should be slightly higher in the center to facilitate drainage away to the sides. This can be arduous and time consuming and, unless you are very handy and experienced, might better be left to a professional. But you can definitely participate in the design.
Bricks, cobbles, landscape pavers and natural stones of many sizes and varieties of earth colors can be combined in a variety of interesting patterns, as opposed to simply laying one stone after another. Bricks can be laid in many ways, from simple flat edging, or set on their long edge, or on end, or slanted on end. You can infill with pebbles of contrasting color in subtle hues. Experiment on paper first and/or consult books such as the Sunset series if inspiration fails. This is a creative and satisfying task when worked out by the owner.
The contrast between hardscape and softscape makes for good design, because it points up the difference between garden elements and intensifies the visual impact. The eye appreciates some sort of order and harmony, and this combination of garden elements helps to organize and once again, focus the view.
Several stone and hardscape outlets exist in the Hilton Head and Bluffton area. Seek them out in the Yellow Pages, and visit for ideas and specific information. Your garden will expand exponentially with the right selection and use of hardscape to complement the softscape that you have so lovingly and willfully furnished.