From the June/July 2013 Issue:

Hardworking Hardscaping

    Writer: Mary Vinnedge |

Non-living garden components can solve all manner of problems that keep you from using your yard to the fullest

Article Photo
enlarge | “Waterfalls help absorb elevation changes,” says Chris Cipriano of Cipriano Landscape Design. Boulders and slab-stone steps also aid the transition outside this Saddle River home. The exterior design aimed to allow views of the pools’ two waterfalls from every vantage point. Plantings add pops of color and texture. Courtesy of Cipriano Landscape Design
Hardscaping can transform a bland yard into a visual banquet of textures and forms. But the real beauty of hardscaping—the wood, paving and other nonliving hard surfaces and structures in exterior designs—lies in its ability to solve problems. Chris Cipriano, president of Cipriano Landscape Design in Mahwah, and Bob LaNeve, owner and president of Stonetown Construction in Oakland, share ways of turning common aggravations into assets.

challenge | Flooding & Wet Ground
solution | Drainage

“Drainage is one of the most important things to consider when doing hardscaping,” Cipriano says. “You don’t want to flood a patio, and you want to make sure water isn’t sitting anywhere.” Expertise in grading and in hardscaping construction can ensure proper drainage.

Permeable patios and driveways—often made of stones, pavers or concrete blocks with spaces in between—don’t count as lot coverage in some munici­palities, LaNeve says. Check with your municipality to learn whether this is a solution for additional parking or entertaining space.

Terracing or a stone streambed, or curtain drain, can be a valuable weapon in slowing water flow and erosion. “We’re wrapping an entire house with a curtain drain,” LaNeve says. “It takes a 2-foot-deep trench, a layer of fabric, followed by gravel, more fabric, stone and then decorative river stone on top.”

challenge | Slopes
solution | Create Walls or Transitions

Sometimes proper grading can take care of an elevation change. But if it’s inadequate, you can create plateaus and then turn each level into a functional area, such as a pool, outdoor kitchen or play zone. You can ease the transition between levels with the following techniques:

RETAINING WALLS Boulders are a popular material, costing about a third the price of brick, a formal alternative, Cipriano says. Veneered masonry walls (mortared stone over a substrate, usually concrete) and precast stone walls are other options. Structural engineering expertise may be required for some retaining walls, especially taller ones.

STEPS LaNeve and Cipriano often create steps from slabs of stone, including limestone, granite, Kearney stone and quartzite. In a more formal landscape, Cipriano says, veneered stone steps are popular.

WATERFALLS AND WATER WALLS Water falling over stone, tile or other hardscape surfaces provides a focal point and masks noise from traffic, neighbors, lawn mowers and other sources.

TERRACING These stepped areas can transition a grade change, even a steep one over a short distance. Water features and masonry can pair with terracing to create a private outdoor room for, say, hot tubbing or dining, Cipriano says. “If the back of the house is high,” LaNeve adds, “we do a landing and a couple of steps to get you down, and we put an outdoor kitchen and maybe a fire pit or fireplace on that level. Then we step down again—there’s a retaining wall—and maybe at the next level we have an entertaining area like a bar with a television…We’ve done 80-inch TVs!” Cipriano has even installed retractable outdoor televisions within hardscaping.

DECKS AND RAISED PATIOS Placed on plateaus within the yard, decks and raised patios provide ideal surfaces for entertaining, including outdoor kitchens, pools, spas or fireplaces. Decks may be made of a variety of materials, including composite woods, ipe, mahogany and pressure-treated pine. Cipriano recommends a light-colored stone on patios because they absorb less heat. Raised patios can be wet-laid (mortared) on footings or dry-laid (stacked and mortar-less). “Dry-laid is very labor-intensive [and costly] but is beautiful,” LaNeve says. A second-story deck, accessed from an upstairs bedroom or living area, also can provide shade for a ground-level patio. And with DrySnap (—an interconnecting layer of vinyl ceiling panels—tucked under that tall deck, even a downpour won’t chase you indoors, Cipriano says.

challenge | No Place for Entertaining
solution | Outdoor Living Areas

As mentioned, a landscape designer may mitigate a slope while creating designated functional zones. Outdoor kitchens are hugely popular today, Cipriano and LaNeve say, and can be a crucial entertaining supplement when indoor kitchen and entertaining spaces are skimpy.

“We use backsplashes to create depth and add different textures in outdoor kitchens,” Cipriano says. “We like to use custom-carved stone corbels—like the wood ones in indoor kitchens—to add depth.” Lighting is crucial for aesthetics and function, he adds. “You shouldn’t need a flashlight when you grill.”

He suggests a warming drawer as a key amenity. They’re a plus when you want to serve everyone at once, he says. But what clients really love is using the drawers to warm beach towels that you can wrap up in once you exit the pool or spa in chilly weather.

You might also opt for an outdoor bar or other type of living area—fully furnished, of course. LaNeve recommends seat walls so you don’t need as much furniture for parties.

challenge | Too Open
solution | Fencing

Homeowners who opt for fences usually do so to keep their kids and pets in the yard, to safeguard their pools and to discourage uninvited guests (four- and two-legged). LaNeve recommends low-to-no-maintenance aluminum fencing that looks like wrought iron in high-visibility areas. In rural areas, wood or black chain-link fence is a suitable option, he says.

Fences that are eight or more feet tall can block deer, but some municipalities restrict fence heights; certain plants may be a better option (search for “UnDEERing Qualities” in the articles archive at for advice on thwarting deer). It’s difficult to keep out small animals, although mesh at the bottom of the fence is a deterrent.

challenge | Unwanted Views & Glare
solution | Go Tall with Hardscaping

Plants are usually the first line of defense against an unsavory view of a sign, utility equipment and the like, but sometimes hardscaping gets the call. Walls and fencing may be used in combination with plants as visual screens. To block a neighbor’s view of your property (perhaps from second-story windows), you might want to strategically place your cabana, garden shed or gazebo for privacy. Even grills and outdoor fireplaces, carefully sited, can block something unappealing, Cipriano says.

Trellises also can hide unsightly structures—HVAC units and garbage cans, for example.

A pergola filters sun (particularly helpful when adjacent to the house). Grow a deciduous vine on the pergola or an arbor for dappled shade in summer without giving up more intense sun and warmth in cool seasons. For more sunscreen, team a retractable fabric cover with a pergola: “To operate it, you just press a button,” La Neve says. (Hudson Awning & Sign in Bayonne is one source for retractable covers).

Trellises and pergolas usually are made of wood such as ipe, mahogany, cedar, composite lumber and cypress.

challenge | Confusing Facade
solution | Direct Traffic with Paths

Larger homes may have multiple front doors that confuse guests about where they should enter. “You want a main walkway to say ‘come in,’” LaNeve says, “and you want a 4-to-5-foot-wide path so two people can walk side by side easily. At the second door, you can use steppingstones.”

Besides leading to that secondary entrance, steppingstones minimize mud and plant debris tracked inside your home. Stepping­stones are typically placed about 4 inches apart, LaNeve says. They’re also great in wide planting beds, where you may need to step in to prune, plant or operate a faucet.

challenge | Too Dark
solution | Mood & Functional Lighting

Lighting can set a mood, it can safely guide you (some exterior fixtures are installed inside steps) and it can illuminate outdoor kitchen countertops to ease mixing and chopping, LaNeve says. To accommodate switches, wiring and placement of fixtures, plan ahead.

Cipriano considers lighting a must for maximum landscape enjoyment. “You leave work at 5 or 6 p.m. and, except in summer, it’s already dark when you come home. Proper lighting lengthens the amount of time you can enjoy your garden each day. LED bulbs are low-cost to operate—about a tenth the cost of standard fixtures.”

The Takeaways
LaNeve and Cipriano say hardscaping design and materials offer endless possibilities for solving garden challenges. It’s all a matter of what homeowners want and what their budgets permit.

Freelance writer Mary Vinnedge enjoys the pergola and wet-laid stone paths and walls in her garden. Contact her at and

Stumped on Stone Choices?
If you have stone accents on your home’s exterior, you probably should use matching stone in your hardscaping, says Bob LaNeve of Stonetown Construction in Oakland. And within that constraint, you have many options.

Dolomitic limestone is a favorite of Chris Cipriano of Cipriano Landscape Design in Mahwah. “In 100-degree weather, you can walk barefoot on it comfortably,” he says. It’s pale in color, which makes it terrific in Mediterranean-influenced exterior designs. Quartzite, imported from China, offers a wide color range and is less expensive. Both stones are low-maintenance because they expand and contract very little with temperature changes, he says, so the less-stressed mortar stays intact even after many winters and summers.

Cipriano assesses the best and worst stones for New Jersey exterior designs at (click on blogs and search for “worst stones”).

Easing Accessibility
If your household includes a person with limited mobility—perhaps he or she uses a wheelchair, walker or cane—hardscaping can provide a passport to garden enjoyment. Paved paths, wooden ramps at doorways (check local ordinances to determine the allowable grade for ramps), light switches and gate latches at an appropriate level are considerations for accessible exterior design.