The right level of curb appeal can make neighbors do a double take—for the right reasons. Plus, it can up your property’s resale value. Improving your curb appeal often includes manicured landscaping, a fresh coat of paint, and porch lights that are in good, working condition. But for many homeowners, an appealing front yard also includes hardscaping, or the nonliving elements of your outdoor environment like a pathway, stones, or a pergola.
If you’re a DIYer who already has several landscaping projects under your belt, you may be thinking that doing your own hardscaping is no big whoop. However, it’s possible to bite off more than you can chew.
“Sometimes hardscaping experiments don’t resemble the professional portrayals in magazines and online, and well-intentioned weekend DIYers are left disappointed and defeated,” says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs at the National Association of Landscape Professionals.
To help you avoid a #HardscapingFail, we asked the design experts to weigh in on the hardscaping projects most homeowners can probably handle on their own as well as those they should probably leave to a professional landscaper or contractor instead.
DIY No. 1: Boulder placement
OK, we admit boulder placement doesn’t sound that glamorous or exciting (unless it’s the mythical boulder from which the future King Arthur pulled the sword), but this hardscaping feature can actually do a lot.
“Boulders make great focal points for landscapes or gardens, drawing your eye to natural elements and away from unsightly areas,” says Henriksen.
You can purchase these large stones in a variety of textures to ensure they blend in.
“Giant, large, and midsize boulders can be purchased from most garden centers and stone quarries,” Henriksen says. Place them individually or group them together to make a larger statement.
And the best thing about placing boulders? It’s nearly impossible to mess up.
“There are no misses in this project,” Henriksen says.
DIY No. 2: Decorative edging
Can you arrange things in a straight line? Then you can probably handle decorative edging.
“Decorative edging is a DIY-friendly hardscaping project in which you add brick, stone, or poly edging around your driveway, patio, raised garden beds, and other features,” says Joe Palumbo, president of Landscape Guys, in Forest Lake, MN. “Because edging is not structural and doesn’t require heavy or specialized machinery, usually you can install it without danger, and without undoing or undermining the look you want to achieve.”
You can use wood, brick, concrete, plastic, or metal for curved strip edging.
DIY No. 3: Short paver walkway or patio
Another cool hardscape project our experts recommend for DIYers is building a short (emphasis on “short”) paver or brick walkway on flat ground. You could make a simple pattern in a straight line or go for something more advanced like a herringbone or pinwheel design.
“If you aren’t putting your walkway on a slope, you don’t need to worry much about grading or slippage. You just need to make sure the ground is leveled and compacted before laying down your hardscape,” Palumbo says.
Most DIYers can take on a paver project no larger than 12 square feet, according to Duane Draughon, owner and lead designer at VizX Design Studios, in Lisle, IL. “Anything larger than that will leave room for a bunch of errors due to incorrect compaction, leveling, and drainage,” he says.
DIY No. 4: Dry stacked-stone wall
A dry stacked-stone wall is a stone wall without mortar, and Henriksen believes this is also a good DIY hardscape project.
“They are relatively easy to install, as perfect leveling is not required,” she says.
The basic steps involve outlining and marking the shape of the wall, and then placing stones one level at a time.
Leave these projects for the pros
Building a retaining wall right next to a sidewalk or street: Beyond the fact that it can be difficult to get a permit for this type of project, Palumbo advises against taking it on yourself because the planning itself can be challenging for anyone but a professional.
“The big risk is that any engineering flaw could result in injury to people passing by,” he says. The closer people and cars are to your wall, the greater chance the wall will get struck, and perhaps damaged in the process.
Building a patio next to a body of water: This is another unforgiving project that can prove hazardous if you make a mistake while building it.
“Erosion, ice damage, childproofing, and accessibility make the engineering of hardscaping near a body of water trickier,” Palumbo says.
Pretty much everything else: Our experts agree that large retaining walls, driveways, fireplaces, and outdoor kitchens should all be planned and built by professionals.
“These projects involve a lot of materials, need to be permitted and engineered, and require a substantial amount of expertise to execute properly,” says Joe Raboine, director of Residential Hardscapes at Belgard.
Henriksen agrees: “Patios, walkways, and anything with steps will require a bit more sophistication and experience as factors like leveling, drainage, proper placement, soil considerations, settling, and expansion come into play.”