Landscaping Faux Pas #4: Designing with Concrete: Think Outside the Block

By October 20, 2009November 22nd, 20113 Comments
by Val Khislavsky

Our Landscaping Faux pas series continues with a hard look at concrete and design-savvy ways to use this inexpensive hardscape material.


L: A “cracked ice” patterned concrete driveway; R: A terrace of concrete and grass. Photos: Grey Crawford. From p. 121 & 72 of Outside The Not So Big House, The Taunton Press.

It can be a concrete jungle out there—concrete is everywhere due to its inexpensiveness and wide availability—but we’ve all seen where it falls short. Take a look at any concrete sidewalk or driveway and you’ll find lots of cracks caused by expanding tree roots, concrete’s sensitivity to temperature change, or poor subsurface preparation. Shortcomings aside, concrete is fireproof and weatherproof, can be poured to create any shape, and can be an inexpensive part of your hardscape when used well—check out our tips below.

Break It Up—Literally:
You can take an existing concrete driveway, and break up and rearrange the pieces to form a more interesting composition, as in the photo above. The pieces are still large enough to function as a surface for parking and walking on, but infuse an ordinary concrete parking area with a sense of design and intention. There’s also a green benefit to breaking up a large piece of concrete: reducing the impervious surface area improves drainage and allows precipitation to return to the water table. In your back yard, you can use concrete to create a playful grid to sit or walk on—using multiple small squares of concrete in lieu of one large square gives you the flexibility to create your own artistic composition.


L: Plant forms bring softness and color to a cast concrete wall; R: Cotoneaster shrub and creeping Jenny soften the edge of a concrete retaining wall. Photos: Grey Crawford. From p. 88 & 170 of Outside The Not So Big House, The Taunton Press.

Add Plants to Soften:
Concrete is a rigid material, both physically and aesthetically, and can come off as harsh in a landscape design. Use plants to soften the concrete elements of your landscape design—billowy plants will provide great contrast to concrete’s harder forms.


L: Tinted concrete with Mexican beach pebbles; R: A concrete retaining wall integrated into a backyard retreat. Photos: Grey Crawford. From p. 26 & 166 of Outside The Not So Big House, The Taunton Press.

Mix it In:
Concrete integrates well with many other materials, from Mexican beach pebbles to brick and red gravel. The key is using each material sparingly, and making sure there is a dialogue between the materials you choose based on form, color, or both. The angular nature of the concrete front stoop above is mitigated by the soft forms of the pebbles framing it. The concrete used has also been customized to fit the needs of the landscape: it has been given a warm tint and is an aggregate mixture of concrete and smaller stones that create visual interest. In the backyard getaway, what could be seen as a harsh retaining wall feels balanced in the hardscape through repetition of form and the use of red brick and gravel.


The new Venice Beach Skatepark designed by RRM Design Group. Photos: L: Chiropractic Blogs; R: Skateboarding Magazine.

Make it Your Own:
Concrete is becoming a versatile material, and there are increasingly more ways to modify it to make it your own. Remember that concrete can be poured into any shape: Julie is traveling on the west coast right now and just saw the new skate park in Venice Beach—a series of bowls and canyons all made out of concrete!


Concrete brushing and stone setting at Shore Country Day School. Photos: Julie Messervy.

You can also brush concrete to create texture, or set stones or other objects into it to add your personal stamp, as JMMDS did for a recent project at Shore Country Day School in Beverly. MA.
Concrete is even moving indoors: polished concrete is now commonly used as an inexpensive but stylish interior design option for floors and countertops, available in a variety of colors and tints.

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