Online searches for “pergola” doubled during the midst of the pandemic, as homeowners explored ways to create useable and attractive outdoor space that expanded the options for being housebound. Although we’re past lockdowns, the popularity of pergolas and arbors has persisted, as though it took a global upheaval for us to see our yards and gardens in a renewed way.
Arbors and pergolas are the pillars of outdoor and garden designs throughout the country and for all the right reasons. They support vertical vines, beautiful blooms and twinkling fairy lights, diffuse the sun’s rays and add a visual respite from the ordinary. But the choice of a pergola or arbor is as much about the choice of structure as it is determining the finishing touches of furniture, lighting and plants. Which, a pergola or an arbor, bests suits your space and fits your vision? In this article, we’ll compare the two structures in terms of design, function, and maintenance to help you make an informed decision—one that you’ll be happy with when you gaze into your yard or garden.
Because understanding the history of a structure can help you appreciate where it fits in your life, it can be insightful to look back. Historians tend to focus on ancient Egypt and how arbors created shaded areas to ward off the unrelenting heat and sun. According to Gardening Know How , early arbors “were often just spaces under trees,” as the word arbor comes from “the Latin word for tree, the original, simple structure for an arbor.”
The history of pergolas mirrors the history of arbors, as a place where climbing plants can be seen to advantage and provide shade. Pergolas, just like arbors, were found in ancient Egypt and were a common feature of early Renaissance gardens throughout Europe, particularly in warmer climates. Romans used decorative materials, creating structures with stone columns and statues. In later centuries in Europe, many arbors were built more simply as the vining plants became the visual focus.
But throughout history, gardeners have created and built arbors and pergolas out of myriad materials. For a deeper, artistic look back, consider the National Gallery of Art’s take on the history of the garden arbor.
Pergolas are typically larger than arbors and can be freestanding or attached to a building. They consist of vertical posts that support crossbeams, which can be left open or covered with a canopy or vines for shade. Arbors, on the other hand, are smaller and usually serve as a gateway or entrance to a garden or outdoor space. They have an arched or flat top, with lattice or slatted sides for climbing plants. Using arbors in the garden is a distinctive way to create separate spaces and visual interest, whereas pergolas lend themselves to creating seamless flow through areas and spaces.
With pergola designs, homeowners often choose from thoughtful details that complement their individual style and architecture, such as rafter tails. According to an architect’s viewpoint in Fine Homebuilding magazine, rafter tails are the exposed exterior portion of a building’s structural truss that protrudes beyond the structure’s perimeter wall. The rafter tail is usually detailed—often scrolled or ornate—and is a defining component because they’re the tail end or exposed end of a rafter.
Both pergolas and arbors come in a wide selection of colors, column types, sizes, and shapes to fit individual spaces and style.
Because pergolas and arbors play different roles in the garden or yard, understanding what purpose you have for your outdoor design can assist you in your choice between the two structures. Pergolas are an impressive choice if you want to create an outdoor room for entertaining or relaxing. They can provide shade and a focal point for outdoor dining or lounging areas, as well as support for lighting and outdoor heating. Their distinctive nature, though, means they can overwhelm a yard or garden if they’re not designed or chosen for the right space.
Arbors are usually used as a decorative element in a garden and create a sense of entry or transition between different areas of the landscape. Although they can also serve as a support for climbing plants, which add vertical interest to the garden, they don’t usually have the larger visual impact a pergola does, so they can work well in smaller yards or garden. Though it’s generally pictured as an arch, it can also have a flat top or even a pointed one.
Both pergolas and arbors require some maintenance to keep them looking their best, particularly if they’re made of wood, which can be insect and hard-weather-damage magnet. Pergolas with a canopy or vines will require regular cleaning and pruning to prevent debris from accumulating and to keep the plants from overtaking the structure. Arbors with climbing plants will also need pruning to keep them from getting too bushy.
Additionally, both structures will need to be checked for any damage or wear and tear, especially after harsh weather. Arbors Direct lays out the specifics for its low-maintenance fiberglass pergolas:
Three months and every year after installation, inspect the hardware assembly connections on top of each column to ensure hardware assembly is properly tightened. There should be “no-play” in the assembly meaning nuts should be tight and secure, ensuring the top plates are snug allowing no movement in the columns.Inspect all other hardware connections on the pergola top annually to ensure tight connections.
Immediately and every year after installation, inspect the engineered coating on the entire structure. Touch-up any nicks or scratches in the coating that may have occurred during shipping or installation with Arbors Direct-provided ChromaGuard® touch-up coating that comes with their pergolas.
Fiberglass components should remain completely always covered by at least two coats of suitable exterior paint. Inspect the entire structure at least every year, if not quarterly, especially after periods of high winds, inclement weather and even yard maintenance.
Cleaning a fiberglass pergola or arbor is relatively simple, but follow a few guidelines. Arbors Direct compares cleaning fiberglass garden structures to washing vehicles, as the same basic rules apply.
- abrasive materials, including rags or cloths.
- harsh chemicals.
- pressure washers.
- a low-pressure garden hose.
- non-abrasive, pH balanced soap.
- a soft cloth.
- common sense (and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.)
In addition to the design, function, and maintenance considerations we’ve already discussed, there are a few other factors to keep in mind when deciding between a pergola and an arbor for your outdoor space.
Style and Aesthetics
First, think about the overall style and aesthetic of your home and garden. Pergolas tend to have a more formal, classic look that works well with traditional or Mediterranean-style architecture.
Arbors, on the other hand, can have a more rustic or whimsical look that pairs well with cottage-style gardens or naturalistic landscapes. Picture a Jane Austen novel or scene from any classic British film that includes royalty or the landed gentry. If you need inspiration, consider an article featuring the best movie gardens.
Another consideration is the type of plants you plan to grow on your structure. Because homeowners have so many choices, plants offer a way to customize any chosen structure. Pergolas can support a wide range of climbing plants, from roses and wisteria to grapes and kiwi.
However, some plants may be too heavy or aggressive for a pergola, so it’s important to do your research and choose the right plants for your structure. Arbors are typically smaller and can support lighter climbing plants, such as clematis or morning glories.
Finally, think about the level of privacy and shade you want in your outdoor space. Pergolas with a canopy or curtains can provide a more private and shaded area for lounging or dining, while arbors with lattice sides can provide some privacy without completely blocking the view or sunlight.
When it comes down to it, the choice between a pergola and an arbor comes down to personal preference and the specific needs of your outdoor space. If you’re looking for a large, versatile structure that can serve as an outdoor room, a pergola might be the right choice. If you’re looking for a smaller, decorative element that can add charm and vertical interest to your garden, an arbor might be the way to go. Want more comparison? House Digest even throws gazebos into the mix, while both of the following articles focus on the pergola designs for Old House gardens and Family Handyman magazine’s guide to pergolas.