Arbors and Pergolas, A Postscript

– Posted in: Garden Design

Pergolas, arbors, bowers – whatever you want to call them, they’re popping up all over my garden. I’ve got four, and plans to build another something or two this spring. I guess I’m a nut for structure, any kind of structure. As a certifiable plant nerd, my garden is a collector’s mishmash, and comes perilously close to being a poster child for the garden design style that Tony Avent calls “drifts of one.”

But with lots of structure, it works.  It might seem counterintuitive, but the more structure you have, the freer you are to experiment around it. Structure provides a framework capable of holding everything together, even of supporting planting schemes that otherwise may not work be because they look too busy or there are too few bold elements. Lately I’ve been tearing out cool collectibles here and there and replacing them with boring but oh-so-shapely Alberta spruce and other reliably geometric plants, boxwoods or hollies, for example. Those kinds of building blocks also boost the garden’s winter interest.

Heck almost any garden can be improved by adding structure. I see and am asked to help troubleshoot a lot of gardens and if there’s any such thing as a universal solution, it’s this: Add structure.

So, I’ve been building. Pergolas, arbors, and bowers are easy to build, basically I just dig holes for the uprights, square everything up, then connect with loads of crosspieces. How many? It depends on how much shade I want the structure to provide. I never draw plans, preferring instead to kind of invent them as I go along. I especially like pergolas connected to a house or outbuilding—they do a wonderful job of blurring the boundary between house and garden, making for more graceful transitions as I move from indoors to out. Out in the landscape, I like placing them at a path’s end, to create a destination. I also think they work well in a commanding spot, from which you can look out over the garden. Though a few of my structures make good platforms for plants, I keep the greenery to a minimum so the structure stands out more.

I built my first pergola off the back door where this concrete slab had served for several years as a patio. It doesn’t look great in this winter shot, and it was always a problem area. Then I built a pergola overhead, and the spot was instantly transformed. It went from feeling exposed and open to enclosed and intimate. Where we once passed through that space quickly, now we linger there, whiling away the evenings over outdoor dinners most spring, summer and fall nights. Our crude slab became what Julie Moir Messervy calls a garden design archetype, in this case a “cave” offering a sense of sanctuary and safety. And its sturdy structure was just the framework I needed to display a collection of potted plants. Below is another view from a nearby path.

I take inspiration from other garden structures I’ve seen . This one, at Georgia Vance’s garden in Solon, Virginia showed me that even with abundant structure already provided by the clouded boxwood, an unplanted wooden arbor could add drama to any space and create a terrific backdrop for a focal point like this container planting.


And the one above, at Wesley Rouse’s Southbury, CT garden, showed me that, in pergola planning, bigger is better.  Bigger space, bigger timbers, and more mass make pergolas even more dramatic garden features. It makes them look like they really belong there. Wesley’s place taught me not to skimp on materials. Now my rule of thumb is to plan what kind of lumber I’ll use, and then buy everything a size or two bigger. So instead of, say, a 2×6 board for crosspiece, I’ll get 2×8 or 2×10.

And I love the grandeur of this clever domed arbor at Grey Towers, a former estate that’s now a National Historic Site in Milford, PA.  The “pond” is actually a dining area, and guests would use those wooden bowls float stuff over to folks on other side of the table. How fun would that be!  The owners dubbed this nifty and unique feature the Finger Bowl. I’m still thinking about somehow adapting something like this to my own landscape.

I’m also an unabashed lover of color, and was intrigued by the wild scene above at Michael Bowell’s Malvern, PA garden.  

The woodland edge arbor above at Barbara Robinsons’s Brush Hill Garden in Washington, CT also inspired me.

But at my own house, a Colonial-looking saltbox design painted a subdued gray, such a blast of color would be too much. So I took the inspiration, applied it instead to the space enclosed by the pergola instead of the pergola itself. I then set to work painting the trim and furniture. I think it makes the space more fun and gives it a lot more eye-appeal, even in winter, when I’m starved for color. And at the same time, since all that color is kind of hidden, the scheme preserves the kind of austere look that characterizes the house.

I think the paint job even looks like fun in winter, especially when red cardinal swoop in toward the bird feeders. The feeders have seen a lot more activity since the pergola went up. Even birds seem to recognize the sanctuary pergolas provide.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Dave January 31, 2008, 3:49 pm

I can see why you were inspired by those other garden arbors. Your looks good. It definitely finishes up the back of your house. About how long did it take you to construct it? The potted plants do add a finishing touch.

Thanks. It took about 3 days to build, but was simple. For tools all I needed were a circular saw, hammer, level, and drill outfitted with a screwdriver blade. It helps to have assistance getting the uprights up and tied together with a few crosspieces, but once that’s done it’s a breeze. The hardest part is cutting decorative ends on all the rafters.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 31, 2008, 4:02 pm

I am left breathless at that photo from Brush Hill Garden. That is what my arbor/arch & garden want to be when they grow up. The pergola made such a difference to you patio area – really inviting.

Brush Hill is a wonderful garden, and that pergola is the entry to the waterworks, a interwoven collection of pools, ponds, runnels, canals and cascades. The whole garden is filled with inventive fun.

Pam/Digging January 31, 2008, 5:24 pm

There’s a lot of inspiration here, including your own transformative pergola over the slab patio.

I am in the same place as you—adding “boring,” evergreen plants for structure, even formerly snubbed boxwood, after years of relying heavily on billowy, colorful native perennials. They make a huge difference. If I had more room, I’d definitely add an arbor or pergola, but I’ve had to content myself with everyone else’s this month.

Yes, and the amazing thing is how very much those staid old standbys improve the garden scene, and how much more they free youto use all that billowy airy stuff. It all looks so much better with heightened contrast. Don’t know about you, but I plan to keep digging. And Pam, you can always had a pegola or some kind of shade structure to a wall of the house. We have one over some french doors that only about 4 feet wide-it still has dramatic impact on its space.

Frances January 31, 2008, 8:00 pm

Truly inspirational, all those lovely photos of lovely places, but the high spot for me was your blue doors! That is a fantastic color, especially with the gray house. Love it.

Frances at Faire Garden

Thanks I like the doors too. I’m enthusuastic about using colorful paint as a garden accent, something I hope to touch on more during the color design workshop this month.

Lisa at Greenbow January 31, 2008, 8:17 pm

Is that a girl cave?? tee hee… I do like the way it makes you feel enveloped in a comfortable area. Love the winter color.

It’s a very friendly cave. My wife likes it even more than I do–does that qualify it as a she-cave? It’s cozy in there.

kate January 31, 2008, 9:39 pm

What a contrast between your ‘before’ and ‘after’ the pergola. The addition of colour along with the lush greenery also create a welcoming and relaxing environment.

Structure does have a big impact on a garden. You’ve proven that here.

Structure makes a difference alright. That spot has gone from being an eyesore to a haven, and it’s all thanks to the arbor. Seeing it happpen gave me the impetus to really seek out other parts of the garden to improve by adding structure. Actual building and design time is not much, very little when you consider you’re getting a long-lasting garden feature that looks good 365 days a year.

Elly Phillips January 31, 2008, 10:17 pm

Something about Barbara Robinson’s arbor reminds me of those wooden dinosaur skeletons you can buy from natural history gift shops. (Speaking of “good bones”!) It would be fun to create a “dinosaur arbor” as an entryway to a children’s garden. Thanks for the inspiration!

Elly–Barbara’s husband Charlie is an incredibly ingenious woodworker, and he has made all sorts of amazing things for Barbara’s garden. You should see his tuteur/irrigation tower. And yes, you could buy a cool wood stegosaurus model, then copy the pieces in a larger (much larger) scale in wood and create a super dinosaur arbor. Great idea! Hmmm, I might use that…

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