garden structures

Garden Structures: pergolas, arbours and gazebos

Garden structures outside your house can enhance the look of the garden by making it more appealing and professionally finished. Here are some ideas for adding vertical height to the landscape design and growing some plants for a soft, enticing effect.


The dictionary describes a pergola as an arched garden structure consisting of a framework covered with climbing or trailing plants. Pergolas are typically large structure with beams and posts, no walls and no roof. Garden designers often include pergolas in their designs because they can serve several purposes. Attached to the house they become another room or shaded walkway, which is often decorated as one would a room in the home and used for relaxing or entertaining.

Shade is provided by leafy green climbers with a burst of colour and often fragrance as the plants flower. Around a pool they define an area as the place to be when the sun is at its highest in the sky, and the coolness under the pergola is so alluring that no one can resist lounging under it. At the end of the garden they define a spot that is calm, peaceful, and just right for listening to garden sounds and relaxing with a good book. A pergola can be a simple structure and is easy enough to build. It can be designed to connect areas of the garden, to provide architectural vertical elements, to add textures with light and shade, and to add colour to the garden.

A pergola is a garden structure that has the power to change an otherwise plain area into something spectacular.


While similar to a pergola by definition, an arbour has some subtle differences. They are relatively simple, smaller garden structures that are often freestanding or attached to a fence. They are often curved at the top (but this is not set in stone). The medieval function, to provide cool passageways, has today evolved to provide gateways, anchor pathways and provide height in the garden. Designers are fond of using arbours in small, narrow gardens to add structural elements, frame an opening or entrance, provide privacy and have a framework to grow vertically where otherwise there may be limited space for plants.


Traditional gazebos are freestanding garden structures with a peaked roof, an open framework, and a proper roof. They often have a raised floor or a round shape. There are several untraditional gazebos available nowadays that have none of that, but rather an open framework, usually made of metal, that defines an area in the garden and adds some glamour

Things To Know

When designing a large garden structure take note of the following:

  • Choose the right material. Wood beams and posts are great to look at, but wood needs to be regularly treated to look good. Make sure the wood you use is resistant to rot and insects, or it may also need to be replaced after some years. Metals that are not coated or galvanised will rust. That may be just the look you are going for but it also means deterioration over time.
  • Select a style that is based on the architectural style of your home and materials that will hold up the weight of plants you wish to plant, if any. Select plants that will suit your structure. Wisterias, for example, have an aggressive growth pattern unlike most other climbers, like clematis for example. (Turn over for our favourite choices.)
  • Garden structures may not need approval from the municipality as they are not designed as attachments to the house. However, if you want a pergola attached to your house you should check with your local municipal office if you need planning permission before spending time and money building one.


Vigorous vines can cover a pergola in a relatively short space of time, creating the much sought-after green, shaded and cool area we all so enjoy. Choosing the best creeper for your garden structures can be a challenge, but it’s a case of weighing up what the ideal green covering would be for the area in which you live. Do you want flowers, fragrance, green or variegated foliage, and how fast do you want the plant to cover the pergola?

Use the following guide to help you choose:

Grapevines: grapes prefer cold, wet winters and hot, dry summers, but they grow in most parts of the country. They can grow in a wide variety of soils, from clay-loams to granitic and sandy soils, but it must drain well and planted in a sheltered sunny position. They have deep roots, which make them extremely drought resistant. They are a favourite to train up pergolas or arbours, providing a green leafy canopy and bonus bunches of fruit.

Wisteria: this pretty, vigorous climber with bunches of hanging lilac-mauve flowers in spring is a winner as a showy plant. It is a hardy plant and best planted in an area with a cold winter to bring out the best flowers. Plant in sun to semi-shade.

Bougainvillea: these showy climbers are highly drought resistant, require little feeding and grow in just about any soil, in sun to shade. They are trained onto pergolas easily and can be pruned to keep their shape as they just continue to grow. The colourful bracts come in a variety of colours including white, yellow, pink, red, orange and purple, and there are also variegated leaf options. To avoid them dying off, only water when absolutely necessary

Jasmines: known for their sweet scent, jasmines are a good choice to trail over garden structures. The local variety, Jasminum multipartitum, is a rapidly growing evergreen climber flowering from November with pretty white flowers flushed with pink and red. They like a sunny position. The Chinese jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) is also a favourite for planting on structures for its masses of scented white (touched with pink) flowers in winter and spring. In colder parts it is semi-deciduous. It can be planted in sun or shade.

Roses: available in many colour variations, climbing roses make a distinctive impact and become a focal point trained over pergolas and arbours. Climbing roses don’t really require pruning, just a tidy up if needed. When tied up, the leaves will turn within a week into the best position to catch light and produce food. This will benefit the flower-bud development, apart from creating the desired neat look. The more you are able to spiral the canes (around a pillar) or spread them horizontally (on a fence or wall), the more flowers will be produced.

Clematis: clematis climbers prefer cooler conditions, but they are worth a try because of their large, spectacular flowers in many shades. Plant in a position with morning sun and afternoon shade and provide loads of leaf mould and compost.

Pandorea: known for its dark green foliage and pretty tubular flowers in shades of white and pink, Pandorea jasminoides is an attractive option. It grows in sun or semi-shade and flowers most of the year, particularly in warmer regions.

Black-eyed Susan: thunbergia alata is a fast-growing, long-flowering creeper that grows in any soil, needs little water and is mostly evergreen. There are different varieties with white, yellow, salmon, deep orange and red flowers available. It flowers in summer but in warmer areas can flower all year.

Jade vine: although quite rare and difficult to find, the jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) is worth a mention for its spectacular emerald, hanging flowers that cascade as long as 1m. It is a tricky vine to grow in any area other than the completely frost-free sub-tropics. It grows in sun or semi-shade.

Virginia and Boston creeper: for a splashy show in autumn you can’t go wrong with Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) – a hardy deciduous creeper for sun or semishade, or Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) – with smaller leaves. Plant in full sun for better colouring in autumn.

The Gardener