A How-To on Pergolas and Arbours (or Arbors)

A How-To on Pergolas and Arbours (or Arbors)

I’ve been trying to get the definitive answer to “What’s the difference between a arbour and a pergola?”

There is no definitive answer. The moment you think you’ve found one, some other word-police will dispute it.

So here’s MY definition: an arbour is a small archway supporting some kind of vining or rambling plant. It may or may not be over a path (mine isn’t), or an entrance to a garden room (mine sort of is), and it may or may not have enough space to fit a seat for one or two (mine doesn’t).

you can't actually walk through this arbour, it's got a Westerland rose growing underneath. But it gives a sense of definition to the garden bed, and there's a path now on the other side.
You can’t actually walk through this arbour, it’s got a Westerland climbing rose growing underneath. But it gives a sense of definition to the garden bed, and there’s a path now on the other side.

A pergola is larger garden structure, more for the sake of people underneath it, providing some degree of shade either along a walkway, or over a patio/seating/entertaining area.

Thanks to Lori Scott Landscape Design
Thanks to Lori Scott Landscape Design

Why have one?

There are a lot of reasons to have a tall man-made element in the garden. First of all, just its very presence draws the eye upward, increasing the dimensions of the space. It also gives a sense of “ceiling” to your garden “room”–even if you’re not sitting underneath it. Trees do that as well, usually on a much larger scale, so the arbor/pergola will lend a layered look. It can give definition to the edges of the garden, or a direction to move to or through. These are design features. There are of course also practical features: some degree of shade, a structure to facilitate vining plants, a place to locate a bench.

Front yard, back yard

Depends on what you want your structure to do. Here’s a house that I think would look really cool with a pergola across the front, above the retaining wall (won’t discuss the gravel “hellstrip” beneath):

Pergola across the front above the retaining wall??
Pergola across the front above the retaining wall??

There are a lot of houses in my neighbourhood with this kind of format, some with higher retaining walls, some with lower. I live in the “South Slope”, so kind of goes with the territory. And I’d love to suggest some ideas to this owner–except there isn’t an owner yet.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a seating area, but if instead of the little sad boxwoods (and what’s with the solitary Thuja occidentalis in the corner?) there were tallish ornamental grasses along the edge, a small patio with facing benches and a fire pit would work, taking advantage of the view downhill toward the river. Semi-private while still featuring the view, mostly open “ceiling”, so the upper balcony wouldn’t be looking down on a roof.

Anyway, an idea for a front pergola; here’s another: Photo CreditHCRBL210_house-front-yard-after_s4x3_lg

Vines Overhead or Not

If you are going to be sitting underneath this structure, I would highly recommend you confine any plant material to non-messy, restrained growers. Grape vines? VERY messy. Hops? Kiwi?  Anything that doesn’t get harvested will fall and make a mess, which also includes whatever the raccoons have a go at. Or wind: last year I lost half my ready-to-pick grape harvest to what I thought were racoons, then realized the night before there was a howling gale. Then the racoons got at them.

Then there are the really vigorous vines that need to be frequently pruned, or they attempt to strangle you as you’re sitting there. Campsis (trumpet vine), honeysuckle, some rambling roses. If it grows REALLY fast in one season, it’s not the best choice for your overhead structure (under which you are sitting). Ditto for wisteria; lovely, but unless your structure is made of steel, Wisteria japonica (the commonest one) will eat it for lunch.

Campsis radicans
Campsis radicans

Heavy-duty or Lightweight

This has to do with aesthetics and whatever may or may not be growing on the structure.

A small house, or one with fine features or a modern vibe, will be better complimented with a structure that is lightweight, not bulky, not rustic. Your home’s personality (which hopefully will also be your own personality) should be reflected in most of your garden design. If your home has big features, bulky pillars, dramatic angles, giant trees, your pergola/arbour should do likewise.

There are lots more decisions to be made about your overhead structure–freestanding or attached? vinyl, wood, steel? big or little? open or enclosed? You get the idea. Have a look at pictures–Google images has a lot of options, and my Houzz Ideabook might spark your creativity. There are lots of kits available, construction information for the DIY-er on Youtube,  or you might prefer to actually hire a professional for that custom look.

If you like the idea, get started now thinking, planning, locating, designing. And let me/us all  know what you think and what you’re planning and designing. And of course, click the “Follow” button.

Would love to hear your comments. Go to Client Site Analysis page for design help.

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