Build a Cozy Spot With a Pergola

A wooden pergola with hanging flowerpots.

Pergolas have been around for centuries, and were used in Italian gardens during the Renaissance period. These elaborate pergolas offered shade to delicate plants, while giving a sense of openness to the gardens, eliminating deep shadows which were though to lead to melancholy.

A pergola can be attached to a house, sit adjacent to a house, or used as a free standing focal point for a
garden. They offer a sense of place and privacy, and are much more definitive than an arbor. The beamed roof of a pergola offers shade, yet allows sunlight to enter. They can be a real comfort and focal point of any landscape design.

TIP: Our Expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, "If you have a small garden that needs a focal point, a pergola could be perfect for you! Structures like gazebos, garden walls, or fences may make a smaller garden seem too cluttered. The open nature of the pergola adds a simple structure that blends well with any garden size."

Types of Pergolas

There are two basic types--attached to the home and free standing. You will often see pergolas on decks and patios, as a means to screen users from the sun, and to add ambiance to the area. Pergolas offer the opportunity to have hanging plants or potted vines on the decks which will climb the standards and intertwine with the joists, making a beautiful and relaxing setting and providing shade. Free standing pergolas make a nice outdoor "room" to sit and enjoy your landscaping, or simply read a book. Pergolas can be beautifully incorporated to cover a section of a garden path, create a shady space near a pool, or join two garden sections like the vegetable garden with the herb plot.

Pergolas are usually made from wood. Ipe, a hardwood, is very durable, but can be expensive. Cypress and cedar are are both medium hardness and work well also. Pergolas can be made from metal and frames or kits can be bought online or at garden supply stores.

TIP: Rachel recommends, "If your house is made of brick or stone, you may want to consider building the support for the pergola out of columns of brick or stone and simply attaching lattice to the sides and roof."

Building a Pergola

Building a pergola is easy for anyone with average do-it-yourself skills and access to normal woodworking tools. First, plan out your pergola. If it is going to be attached to the house, make sure that it does not block any windows. If it is an unattached structure, make sure that the view of the pergola from your home will not obstruct any yard features that you want to be visible. Make sure that the ground of your proposed spot is mostly level. If you want the pergola to be a completely shady area, do not place it in the full sun. Although pergolas do offer shade, remember that they are open air structures and can get hot regardless. If you live in an area with common hurricanes or high winds, placing the pergola near another structure will protect it from the wind.

A pergola attached to a house that covers a patio or deck is usually a simple matter of setting the corner posts and attaching the rafters. Use post anchors that can be attached to either a cement or wood surface. If you're building directly on the ground, clear all vegetation from the site and level the ground if need be. Install the corner posts in cement pads in holes in the ground 2 feet deep, again use post anchors. As a rule of thumb, pergolas should be supported by posts every 6 feet. If you plan on growing a heavy vine such as wisteria, this distance should be reduced to 4 feet. Make sure all posts are level and then let the cement dry completely, about 2 days. Rafters should be installed with framing anchors.

Finishing Touches

Pergolas can be easily personalized, limited only by your imagination. People often put battens on top of the rafters to secure a sun shade. Vary the distances and intersections of battens to provide interesting
shade patterns on your deck or patio. Decorate with treated pine lattice to provide privacy and a place for climbing plants and vines to run. Your pergola can be left natural colored, or painted. The wood should be treated and sealed for rain. It can also be stained to enhance the natural color. If you are planning on using your pergola as a vertical garden, stringing wire from the rafters on the roof allows the vines to fully carpet the top and offer maximum shade. Popular vines for pergolas include climbing roses, climbing hydrangeas, trumpet vine, garden clematis, or honeysuckle. Heavy vines such as wisteria or grapes grow quickly and look beautiful but need extra support. Attaching sturdy metal bars to the top section of your pergola allows you to hang flower baskets from the ceiling, expanding your garden space.

TIP: Rachel suggests, "If your pergola is being used as an outdoor entertaining space, consider putting simple furniture inside such as a small table, bench, or love seat. Hanging sheer curtains for walls adds maximum protection from wind and sun and looks classy and simple."

Some Considerations

When building a pergola attached to the home, consult with your local building codes official to determine any local regulations that may interfere with your building plan. Do so before starting your project to insure that everything is up to code. It may mean that you have to have it unattached to the home, but can be as close as 6 inches away. Don't make the mistake of building without knowing the rules and city or local regulations. Some gated communities may even have regulations against any permanent structure attached to a home. Better safe than sorry.