Hardscape Design Ideas

To Give Your Garden Style, Add a Trellis

Made of metal or wood, a trellis can add an ancient, artistic element to your garden.

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A simple willow and grapevine trellis on a backyard fence becomes an artistic element that need not support vines. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

Go to the house of Maecenas in Rome or the House of the Wedding of Alexander in Pompeii, Italy, and you will see them in frescoes.

"They" are little trellis-work fences painted in garden scenes on 2,000-year-old Roman walls. Although the fences have long vanished, we have these visual records to prove lattice as we know it comes to us from ancient Rome.

An unpainted square lattice can become a darker, more sedate background for foliage plants. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

The lattice work of Pompeii was composed of a giant reed, Arundo dondax, which closely resembles bamboo. The assembly yielded an open square or more often the diamond pattern to create little planter edging within gardens. Then as now, these keep children, pets and wayward feet from crushing the flowers. Lattice was also used on the sides of larger arbors and pavilions for privacy and shade without sacrificing air circulation.

In Latin, this kind of Roman work was known as trichila, and later in French treille, and in English it is trellis. The art surged again in the Middle ages when woven wattle fencing was used decorative in castle and monastic gardens. The French took this old Roman art to new heights with the elaborate 17th century treillage structures at Chantilly and Versailles. These enormous constructions of fine wood lath featured columns, domes and even temples with unbelievably intricate designs and patterns.

In modern times the trellis has become a valuable element for city gardens. In towns there are always extensive building walls and fences that offer nothing much to look at. But play a trellis against this wall and it becomes artistic expression. Espalier a vine to that trellis and it is a beautiful focal point.

French treillage painted in dark hunter green stands out strikingly on a pale wall to background a hanging fountain. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

The traditional lattice remains one of the most popular trellis patterns. It's constructed out of thin wood slats that you can buy by the sheet at home improvement stores. You can choose from square or diamond patterns. You cut the sheet to the size and shape you want and simply surround it with a solid wood frame. These can be hung on walls as background for fountains and garden art. They also make good surfaces for attaching attractive flowering vines.

Prefabricated trellises will cost more but they come already assembled. All you need to do is stand them up or attach to a vertical surface. You'll find these designed in rectangles, with arched tops and the less common, fan shape. The white trellises are constructed out of painted wood or high quality UV light resistant plastics. Unpainted trellises can be stained to match your house or left to weather for a natural patina.

A metal diamond lattice with a faux verdigris finish is a far more long-lasting screen than wood. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

Metal trellises are very long lasting and offer a more creative character. Wrought iron doesn't rot out like wood does with time, and it is a strong material capable of holding a very heavy vine. The ability to work iron into curlicues and add motifs such as leaves or other decoration offers a wide range of styles.

Popularity of reproduction cast iron panels derived from patterns from Victorian England or balconies of New Orleans are the best way to lend an aged look to newer gardens. Copper trellises are expensive but they are particularly beautiful when naturally tarnished by the elements into verdigris.

To many gardeners, rustic bent willow or twig arbors are the most appealing. These are easy to make yourself or you can buy them prefabricated. To make your own just save twigs, whips and thinner branches from tree and shrub pruning. Materials from willows, grape vines, honeysuckle and birch are first class. Make your trellis while the cuttings still green and flexible. If you allow twigs to dry they will be hard to drill or bend into appealing shapes.

If you're tired of looking at bare walls and dull fences, consider adding creative trellises to your garden. It's as easy as hanging pictures and mirrors on walls indoors. So think of trellises as artistic elements themselves that are beautiful, whether or not they act as functional support for vines.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or : www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)


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