Okay, I’ll admit it—I love a good pergola. If that pergola supports a lush leafy growth overhead, even better.
Whether you call it an arbor, a pergola or a bower, nothing beats sitting or strolling under a canopy of greenery. There’s just something magical about it, something that I guess must be rooted in our earliest ancestral memories of walking through a sylvan wooded forest.
The ancient Greeks figured this one out, and built lots of pergolas. Then they slowly went out of fashion for a while, especially in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when the idea of “natural” gardens without any manmade structures took over for a couple hundred years.
Pergolas Are Cool Again
But now pergolas are back, for good reason.
Simple to engineer and easy to build, relatively foolproof to plant, grow and maintain, they add a great deal of beauty, charm and appeal to just about any landscape. Whether next to your home (the Latin word “pergula” originally meant “under the eaves”) or in the backyard or around the pool, a pergola gives shade, fragrance and a touch of cool civility to any landscape.
Building a pergola, and then colonizing it with the right plants, does take a little planning, though. Follow along and we’ll list the five top tips to get you started.
Do Not Build a Pergola—Unless You Read These Five Facts First
1. Because the typical pergola rises to at least eight feet overhead, and because it’s usually made of wood, and because that wood has to be substantial enough to withstand wind, rain and weather, even the simplest pergola structures can be heavy. When they’re planted with woody vines, they can get even heavier. That means every pergola has to be properly anchored. If you use a posthole digger and plant your upright support beams directly into dirt, your pergola won’t last long. Get a copy of your local building codes (and a permit, if it’s required) before you head off to the home improvement store.
2. Even if backyard structures in your area don’t require a permit or need to meet building codes, anchor your uprights solidly. Concrete and steel are the preferred anchoring and foundational materials.
3. Take a look at a wide variety of designs before you build. You’ll find lots of free pergola designs and building plans available online. Many of the free designs tend to be simple rectangular porch covers, but you can also find some creative approaches if you look.
4. Once you’ve got a design in mind, go to your favorite nursery and ask the experts about the right pergola plantings. They’ll take into account your climate, soil, sun exposure and preferences. I like clematis, climbing miniature roses (what a fragrance!), passion flower and wisteria—all fairly lightweight plants that grow quickly and are hardy in most climates. Stay away from grapevines! They grow quickly and will definitely give you a verdant harvest—but they’re incredibly messy underneath, not to mention the birds and the rodents they can attract. Figure out how many plants you’ll need and incorporate their cost into your budget.
5. When it’s time to build, you’ll find that the simple vertical and horizontal structural elements of a pergola go together very quickly. One caveat--never just nail a pergola together. Use throughbolts or substantial lag bolts to fasten each beam, especially where the horizontal and vertical elements meet.
If you’re fairly handy and have the right tools, you can build a nice pergola in a few weekends—it’s a terrific project that’s guaranteed to make a big impact on the ways you can enjoy your outdoor environment.