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What is a pergola and what is it used for?

Posted By  Becky Tudor  On May 12, 2023

There are a vast array of garden structures that you can use to add dimension to your outdoor living area. Vertical features and frames are an easy way to create zones or outdoor 'rooms' that break up the space and add interesting contrasts and themes without crowding your garden.

In this article, we're going to take a look at what a pergola is and how it can be used in your landscaping to provide functional and aesthetic benefits that elevate your outdoor space and help you create your own private oasis.

Summary:

What is a pergola?

A pergola is a garden structure typically made from vertical wooden beams supporting a latticed or cross-beamed roof. Popular wood choices include cedar, redwood and treated pine, although modern pergolas can also be made from vinyl, fibreglass and metals such as steel and aluminium.

Tip: If you're constructing your own wooden pergola, it's important that it's safe, durable, and can maintain pressure from natural elements. Postsaver Post Rot Protection is a reliable way to protect your pergola from structural damage caused by post-rot.

Image by Randy Fath

Pergolas tend to be square or rectangular in shape and their supporting beams are usually generously spaced to create an open, minimal feel. Though traditional pergolas also feature open-beamed roofs, some modern pergolas can be fitted with sliding or retractable canopies that can be adjusted to provide more or less protection from above. In either case, their open-top design is made to provide partial (or adjustable) coverage whilst still allowing sunlight to filter through.

Pergolas have been used for thousands of years to elevate outdoor living areas, providing spaces for leisure and entertainment as well as beautiful walkways decorated with vines and climbing plants. It's no surprise that their beauty and versatility has stood the test of time as we continue to see their prominence in modern-day landscaping.

Pergola vs pergoda

The main difference between a pergola and a pergoda is that the latter consists of a permanent slatted roof that provides full shelter and coverage, and tends to be used as a freestanding structure for seating and leisure (like a pagoda without solid walls). This can be ideal if your priority is protection from the elements as it won't allow light or rain to pass through the roof. However, if you're looking for a more seamless extension of your garden that doesn't restrict your access to sunlight, then a pergola is the way to go.

Image by Bryan Agua

Other garden structures that pergolas tend to get mistaken for include arbours and gazebos. Though not dissimilar, arbours tend to be smaller freestanding structures, typically with arched roofs, and are usually used in doorways or as coverage for a fitted bench or small seating area. Gazebos also tend to be freestanding and typically take on a hexagonal or octagonal shape, with an ornamental, bell- or turret-shaped roof.

Once again, pergolas allow for more flexible usage as they can be fitted in a range of styles and shapes, as well as attach to other structures, and their distinct open-roof design makes them compatible with smaller gardens that can't accommodate these more bulky, covered features.

What is a pergola used for?

So now you understand what a pergola is, but what is it used for? Pergolas are versatile structures that can be used to suit a number of different garden needs. Whether you're looking for a sturdy base for climbing plants to add colour and biodiversity to your garden, or you want to create a cosy, intimate patio area that gives shade without blocking light, pergolas are a great way to add vertical elements to your garden that facilitate separation without sacrificing on space or light.

Let's take a look at some of the ways that pergolas can help your garden reach its full potential:

Using a pergola as a walkway

Pergolas can be used to create garden passages that link adjoining buildings or frame walkways and paths within your garden. This can be used to highlight a focal point of your garden, such as a pond or terrace, by having the pergola guide guests through a beautiful garden canopy to the element or area that you want to highlight. This can also create a sense of privacy and separation in an open space, as it evokes the feeling of walking down a corridor into a new 'room'.

Image by Filza H

Pergola pathways are particularly useful if you're trying to create harmony and structure in a large garden. If you already have an array of different features and zones, these walkways provide synergy between multiple elements, and if you're dealing with a vast lawn that feels empty or barren, pergola walkways can create a sense of purpose and intrigue. You can also fit lights along the pergola to guide people along the path at night.

Using a pergola as a partition

Screen or single pergolas are where a pergola is built as a fence-like frame that can help to divide your garden with minimal intrusion on your horizontal space. This can be achieved by using a single row of vertical posts, supporting a narrow roof strip that imitates the traditional pergola style (either one row across or two placed very close together). If your outdoor space is on the smaller side, this is a great way to distinguish between different zones as well as frame the outline of your garden.

Image by Eva Bronzini

As with any pergola, you can space the vertical posts as narrow or sparse as you like, adjusting according to how open or private you want it to feel. You can also attach a lattice to the sides to make it easier to grow a curtain of plants or flowers, which is a particularly great way to elevate these partition-style pergolas.

Using a pergola to create a terrace

One of the most popular uses of pergolas is to have them frame a terrace or outdoor living area. Whether it's a cosy reading nook or a large open dining area that you're after, pergolas are a great way to section off specific areas of your garden or draw attention to a central feature.

Image by Arcwind

Many use pergolas to define outdoor cooking and entertainment spaces. If you have a fire pit, barbecue or outdoor bar that you want to make part of a more cohesive space within your garden, pergolas are a great way to create this indoor-outdoor living effect. Of course, you need to be cautious with open flames beneath any garden structures.

Using a pergola as an extension of your home

Pergolas are also often used as an extension of a home or building, creating an open veranda or porch-like structure that blends the transition from indoor to outdoor living. This is a particularly appealing option if you have French doors that open onto a patio as it will harmonise this passage between home and garden by removing the strict boundaries between the two. Adding outdoor lighting can help to maintain this open-plan feel when it gets dark outside.

If you really want to maximise this indoor-outdoor living effect, you can install flooring that extends from the inside of the house to the exterior, divided by glass bi-fold doors that can be opened up on warm summer days. This will create a continuous, seamless extension that makes both spaces feel larger and more open.

Using a pergola for climbing plants

Depending on the look that you're going for, you can use the structure of a pergola as a feature within itself, drawing focus to the beautiful wood or other modern materials to break up the greenery in your outdoor space. However, if you prefer a more naturalistic, seamless appearance then you can utilise pergolas as a frame or trellis to support vines and climbing plants, creating a beautiful vertical garden that adds colour and charm.

Covering your pergola in vegetation is also a way to provide additional coverage without an artificial roof. This can be a functional and natural way of adjusting to the seasons, providing more light in the winter when sunlight is scarce and additional protection and shade in the summer when the sun's rays are at their hottest. Light will still trickle through, but you'll be protected from the harsh summer heat by a beautiful natural canopy.

Image by Deborah Jackson

Some ideal climbing plants to grow on your pergola include wisteria, clematis, honeysuckle, and Dutchman's pipe. You will need to train the plants along your pergola, using a soft cloth or tape to guide them into place as they grow, and freeing any vines that have become tangled.

How to customise your pergola

There are a number of ways that you can customise your pergola to suit your individual needs and optimise the specific layout of your garden.

Retractable roofs are an increasingly common feature of modern pergolas. These can feature in the form of louvred roofs, where horizontal slats (like those seen in window blinds) can be adjusted flat to form a solid closed roof panel, or adjusted to various angles to allow for sunlight and airflow. These can be operated either manually or automatically with an electronic remote system. There are other electric options such as sliding roofs, as well as a number of manual options that include threading fabric or curtains through the crossbeams of your pergola.

Image by Marco Trezzi

Adding curtains and draping fabrics to your pergola is a great way to add protection and privacy, and you can have them drape around the sides to create even more coverage. Particularly if you live in a terraced property or are overlooked by other homes and buildings, this can help to curate a more intimate, cosy atmosphere where you can relax and unwind without feeling like you're being watched.

You can also fit lighting, overhead fans and heaters to your pergola to suit your individual needs. Being able to control and customise your climate in this way is the pinnacle of outdoor living, allowing you to create a space that can be enjoyed in any weather and at any time of day. You may never want to go back inside!

Conclusion

Being such a versatile garden feature, it's no surprise that pergolas remain such a popular way to add charm and functionality to gardens and outdoor spaces across the world.

Some of the best moments in life are spent outside, sharing drinks with friends on a hot summer evening or curling up with a book by a fire pit - it's important to us all that we create gardens which feel both like an extension of our homes and a sanctuary that we can retreat to. Pergolas are the ideal way to create the synergy and tranquillity in your garden that makes it a space you always want to return to.

So now that you understand what a pergola is and how it can optimise your outdoor living area, all that's left to do is decide which is best for you!

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