How to Design Arches and Pergolas
Keep these principles in mind when designing an arch or pergola for your garden space.
Vertical interest is an important element in any garden, especially one with no existing mature trees. This is where arches and pergolas come into their own; they offer instant height, which can be softened quickly by fast-growing climbers. Do take care, however, that there is a strong purpose for the inclusion of such a feature, whether to frame or hide a view or to provide welcome shade.
Division and Screening
A pergola, linked with trellis panels or slatted lumber if you wish, can provide a successful physical and visual barrier from one part of the garden to another. This may be an ideal way to screen the vegetable garden, sheds, or utility areas.
Well-positioned archways are good for access, but avoid a central arch in a narrow garden, since this tends to split the garden down the middle and draw the eye through to the rear boundary. In this case, site the opening to one side of the garden and lead a path across to it. This will give greater movement in the garden and prevent a straight view from one end to the other. Carefully sited pergolas can also obscure unsightly views beyond the garden, while overhead beams may offer privacy from neighboring windows, providing greater comfort when sitting outdoors.
Simplicity and Scale
The construction of arches and pergolas should be bold and strong: where possible, avoid flimsy arches, which will collapse under the weight of mature climbers or, at best, take on a drunken gait. Simple wooden post-and-beam constructions usually work best, with little need for elaborate detail unless you are aiming to match an existing structure. Although new structures may look stark and heavy initially, they will be softened in time as climbing plants mature.
Try to match the scale of your structure to the size of your house and garden. For example, a large pergola with stone pillars and massive oak beams will almost certainly look out of place in the garden of a small, simple house.
Movement and Focal Points
A garden with movement allows you to experience it from different views and perspectives, offering maximum enjoyment of the whole. Arches and pergolas can help introduce a sense of movement around even small gardens. An archway will allow access, inviting you to walk from one area to another, while a pergola over a pathway leads you on to another part of the garden.
All gardens should include at least one area for relaxation; aside from its primary function as somewhere to sit, it is itself a place of interest and reason for movement. Plan a lean-to or freestanding pergola to provide shade and screening over a sitting area, or build an arbor in the cool shade of overhanging tree branches.
Focal points are important to attract attention and give visual movement within a garden, but take care not to have too many: this can look fussy and be tiring on the eye. Arches are obvious points of focus and are often used to good effect in leading the eye to the front gate or other access points, for example, thus giving clear directions to visitors. Arbors, too, are often seen as focal points, enticing you to a cool seat on a hot day. The effect is far more appealing, however, if the arbor is softened and half-hidden by plants growing nearby, rather than placed squarely in the middle of a lawn.
Mystery and Tension
Tree tunnels in centuries past were designed to create a feeling of mystery and tension. Today's shaded pergola walks aim to do the same, fostering a sense of intrigue as you pass through the dappled half-light formed by overhead beams and climbers. The longer the walk, the greater the underlying sense of tension, which is broken only when you emerge, inevitably, into full light.
On a long pergola run it is a good idea to create a break — an arch or open doorway — possibly with a bench on which to rest and look out into the garden. These pauses themselves form tension points, creating a tantalizing sense of imminent discovery, inviting you into the open space beyond.
It is essential that the planting is linked, too. At ground level, plants disguise the posts and fill the gaps, while bare beams standing alone, with none of the nearby space hidden, mean that all sense of mystery is lost.
- Avoid central arches in narrow gardens.
- Pergolas of simple design and strong construction are best.
- Arbors and arches make good focal points, but one is enough in a small garden.
- Introduce movement with walkways, which should always lead somewhere.
- Enclose arches on either side to maintain the mystery of the space beyond.
- Use overhead beams to help create privacy from neighboring windows.
- Treat flimsy structures as temporary features.
- Ensure the scale of the structure is in keeping with its surroundings.