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Arches, Arbors & Pergolas

Arches, arbors and pergolas add character to the landscape. They are permanent presences, not just seasonal performers. They interact with plants throughout the growing season and stand through the winter, too, when all the non-woody plants have died back and the deciduous trees have lost their leaves. Arches, arbors and pergolas become part of the landscape’s bone structure.

These structures are all a bit different from one another, but they are used in similar ways. Arches are the simplest of the three, and they have simple curved tops and straight sides. Arbors are supported by four or more legs, and their tops may be curved, peaked or flat. Pergolas are much the same, but a pergola implies more of a tunnel. A pergola is longer than an arbor, is meant to be walked under, and may be attached to the wall of a house or outbuilding.

All three structures are basically open. They suggest a sense of shelter, but they don’t really offer protection from the elements. You can use arches, arbors and pergolas purely for their architectural value and leave them free of plantings. In some landscapes, this kind of clean line is just what is needed to fit a minimalist design, or to offer visual relief in an intensively planted garden. But these structures all make excellent supports for vines, and they are entirely charming when covered in foliage and flowers. You can buy these structures in kit form, build them yourself, have them custom-built, or purchase them as finished pieces.

There are lots of ways to use arches, arbors and pergolas to create special effects in the landscape. Their vertical lines contrast with the horizontal lines of lawns, paths, and garden beds, and they can make interesting accents. Training vines on them enhances the vertical effect; the vines draw the eye upward and can help a small garden to feel bigger.

Place an arch or arbor over a path to mark its beginning or to define the entrance to a special part of the garden or another “room” in the landscape. You can use an arch to frame a view to which you want to call attention—perhaps a piece of statuary or a prized specimen plant across the lawn, or maybe a spectacular nearby or distant water view.

Arbors and pergolas are perfect for creating shady little bowers or for roofing outdoor dining or sitting areas. Put an arbor over a patio or part of a deck to create an outdoor activity (or inactivity) center with a dining table and chairs, a hammock or swing and lounge chairs, benches with comfy pillows, and a children’s play area.

Another bonus of an arbor or pergola is that when you cover the sides and top with vines, you gain privacy, blocking the view from upstairs windows and your neighbor’s yard. Back up a pergola against a fence or wall, or attach it to the back of the house, for a shady, relaxing, self-contained seating gallery.

However you plan to use arches, arbors or pergolas in your landscape, choose their locations with care. For these structures to really work, they need to make sense where you put them. Just plopping one in the middle of the lawn won’t take advantage of its old-fashioned charm. Get the most from arches, arbors and pergolas by making them part of the total landscape design. Make sure there is a path leading to the structure, if not through it.

Consider style, too. Your outdoor structures should be compatible with the style of your home and the rest of your landscape. With a formal house you could use classically styled columns of fiberglass or concrete, or veneer your columns with cultured stone. If you have a wrought iron fence or gate, you can repeat the iron supports in an arbor or arch. With a modern home, sleek aluminum or steel supports can work. In an informal setting such as a shingled saltbox, use wood.

Make your arch, arbor or pergola high enough to comfortably walk or stand underneath. A pergola should be at least 5 feet wide, which will allow two people to stroll alongside one another with room to spare. When planning size and location, consider whether you will need to move a lawn mower or other equipment through the structure and allow enough space. Add some chairs and a table in your arbor or pergola and spend more time enjoying your landscape this summer.