10 Things To Consider When Planning A Pergola

By Andy McIndoe

Arches and pergolas are popular garden features. We love the idea of this arbour feature draped in roses and honeysuckle or hanging in purple wisteria.

Sadly the reality is often unlike the vision because the wrong structure is chosen, or it’s put in the wrong place.

In a way a pergola or arch is an alternative to a tree, it can add essential height making the garden picture three dimensional. Its effect is immediate and its scale can be tailored to suit the size of garden.

Climbers grow quickly and the effect can be achieved in a year or so; a tree takes time to grow. As most gardens are too flat an arch or pergola can be a really useful feature, especially in a new garden.

Many arches and pergolas are sold in kits either by mail order or in garden centres and DIY stores. The pictures often give little idea of scale and are difficult to relate to your own situation. So here are a few tips to help you achieve the desired effect.

2 Leading to nowhere

1. Positioning your pergola

The most important thing to remember when positioning an arch or pergola is that there has to be a reason for it. An archway or pergola can be used over a pathway to lead you on to explore; but to what?

Nothing looks worse than an archway over a path that leads nowhere. A feature at the end, a gateway, a large pot or a sculpture could complete the picture and make sense of it.

3 Wide garden archway

2. Pergola height & width

If using an archway over a path make sure you choose one that is high enough and wide enough. Many of the small metal or timber archways that are sold in boxes in garden centres and home depots are just too narrow when climbers have grown and reduced the space between the uprights.

Also do remember that when the climbers have grown the archway will put up more wind resistance; make sure it is anchored into the ground securely and will not fall over in the first strong breeze.

4 Wisteria

3. Choosing the right climbing plants

Choosing the right climbers is really important for the scale of structure. Also do remember that few climbers grow and then stop. Vigorous climbers such as wisteria will need pruning, so make sure you can manage them in the future.

Do not overplant with vigorous climbers, or, on the other hand expect one little clematis to cover a large pergola.

5 Aspidistras under a pergola

4. Planting at the base of a pergola

The planting at the base of a pergola or archway is even more important than what you plant to grow over it. Most structures look awkward if they rise out of the ground with all the growth on top and nothing beneath.

The picture of a pergola is transformed with good low planting of subjects such as hostas, ferns and low evergreen shrubs which will anchor the structure into the garden.

A pretty rose arch rising out of cottage garden perennials will need a shrub or something more permanent at the base to maintain the effect in winter.

6 Archway in winter

5. Winter pergola

Consider what the structure will look like at other times of the year. Your garden archway may look lovely for a few weeks in summer, but what will it look like smothered in a mass of dead twigs in winter?

Maybe an evergreen climber such as Trachelospermum jasminoides is the answer? Or a large leaved hedera in a shady situation. For lightweight arches annual climbers such as sweet peas or Cobaea scandens are a possibility.

7 Jekyll Pergola - Hestercombe

6. Uprights and rafters

Large pergolas look so much better with substantial uprights and rafters. Often flimsy timber pergolas look too lightweight, especially when that rambler rose gets going and covers the top in a mass of twiggy growth.

Gertrude Jekyll used brick pillars and heavy oak rafters balanced by a brick path bordered by heavy shade loving planting.

8 Pergola agaist a wall

7. Pergola uses - shade or focus point

A pergola can be used over a terrace to provide shade, either adjoining the house, or over a paved area elsewhere in the garden, perhaps with a seat and pots of shade-loving plants.

This can be a focal point or it can be a clever way of breaking up an expanse of wall or fence. Large leaved climbers such as Vitis coignettiae work well on pergolas positioned to give shade.

9 Secreening with a pergola

8. Multiple pergola

A single rafter or narrow double pergola, in other words a series of uprights with rafters between them is often a good idea along a boundary, to provide shelter or screening from a building beyond. It can take less space than a tall hedge or trees planted to hide the horrors behind it.

10 ornate archway

9. Pergola maintenance

Do consider the life of a pergola or archway and any maintenance required. Once climbers grow to cover a structure it is virtually impossible to maintain it. Painted timber will just have to peel and age.

Painted metal may have to rust. If using a timber structure posts in the ground may rot; how quickly they do this depends on the wood, how it is treated and how it is installed.

11 Quality arches

10. Pergola quality

Never buy on price: always buy on quality and appearance and appropriateness for your garden. Your pergola or archway will be a very visible feature and a major part of the structure of your garden.

Choose wisely and be prepared to pay for the best.

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