As their names imply, hardscape refers to the hard, non-horticultural elements that are incorporated into a landscape—that is, the paving, planters, walkways, retaining walls, stairs, and even reflecting pools and smaller-scale items like doghouses and sundials. On the flip side, the plantings and botanic elements are called softscape. Together, the two make up the major components that you can find in a designed outdoor space.
Typically, hardscape elements must be installed, built, or completed before the softscape elements can be put in. This is because hardscape materials are usually incorporated into the ground, and often physically alter the landscape—whether it’s the removal of dirt for a pool or cutting and filling soil in order to install a retaining wall or terracing.
Once the main elements of the hardscape are in place, the softscape elements can be planted, and the overall landscape design can be fleshed out. Hardscape features are usually the focal points of a landscape design. Outdoor fireplaces, reflecting or swimming pools, or other water features like fountains can act as a visual and physical gathering place for visitors. However, at times, softscape elements—like a particularly elegant tree or flower bed arrangement—may steal the show.
In contemporary hardscape and softscape design, man-made elements are often treated as extensions of the nearby buildings, with materials, motifs, geometry, or general proportions of elements linking the outdoors back to the indoor spaces to create a cohesive composition.
When designing landscapes, drainage of hardscapes is a major factor to consider, and one that's not immediately visible. Because hardscape materials tend to be ones that don't readily absorb water, a lack of proper drainage can lead to issues like flooding or the collapsing of terracing or retaining walls.
As a solution to these problems, concrete paving is often broken up into individual pieces with crushed stone in-between the pavers to allow for drainage. Softscape elements, like grass and other plantings, are also effective vehicles for balancing out the low absorption rates of hardscape materials.
Ideally, you want the relationship between hardscape and softscape to mimic what might be found locally in nature, where the greenery doesn’t require irrigation and additional watering. Depending on the local climate, the proportion between softscape and hardscape varies. In dryer climates like the southwest, less greenery is better because it requires additional watering, and there's probably only minimal drainage from hardscape elements.
In wetter climates, though, you’ll want to pay attention to the amount of seasonal rainfall. You'll also want to make sure the selected softscape can handle the rainwater runoff from the various hardscape elements. If not, make sure you add additional drainage features in critical areas, like at the bottom of a hill or at the edges of a paved area.