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Pergolas: stylish shelter

Pergolas are classic garden structures. They’re easy-going, open-air architectural elements that bring the comforting embrace of an interior room into the garden, and define and distinguish an outdoor space. A pergola is an irresistible destination, an unfailingly nice, lightly shaded place to sit and take the air.

James Van Sweden, a landscape architect and designer, calls arbors, pergolas, trellises and garden pavilions the “icing on the cake after the hard work of planning, building and planting a garden.”

Designer Joe Hertzler is working on a freestanding pergola to provide an inviting destination in his backyard. Flowering vines clamber up the posts, and the only furnishing is a porch swing, heaped with cushions, hung from stout beams under the peaked roof. It’s as pretty from across the yard as it is when you’re sitting under it.

Whether a pergola is attached to a house or set out in the more open context of the garden, its style and construction should suit the architecture of the home and should be in scale with its surroundings, Plan ahead and think about where you like to entertain, where does the sun come up and go down. If the pergola will cover a patio, the patio has to be big enough to support it gracefully.
Scale is important, especially if the pergola will shelter a dining table and chairs. It might be a good idea to shop for the furniture before you define the dimensions of your patio and pergola.

Position the beams (or purlins, as the crosspieces are called), to cast interesting shadows as the sunlight moves across the garden. If you need more shade, a length of shade cloth (available from garden shops) stretched over the pergola will soften the light .Vines will also cover a pergola and create dappled light.

Graceful proportions are critical. A comfortable height for the header that supports the purlins is 7 to 8 feet. Plans and designs for weekend gardeners usually show pergolas with an 8-foot clearance under the purlins. You’ll want to test this on your own structure to decide what looks best in your setting.

Before you get started, check local codes to make sure the structure you’re adding complies with building and setback requirements.

Professional builders will know whether a permit or variances are required.

Pergolas shape the experience of a garden, frame views in interesting new ways and create intimate spaces. It’s a pretty neat trick for structures that don’t really enclose anything: they just open up new possibilities.

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