If you want to take your outdoor space to the next level in functionality and beauty, one of the best ways to do it is to add a garden structure such as a pergola or an arbor. While many people use these terms interchangeably, they are not, in fact, the same. Pergolas and arbors serve quite different purposes in modern society. Let’s find out about the pergola vs. arbor issue, and see whether one of them (or both) is right for your patio and garden environment!
In this article we’re going to explore the similarities as well as the differences between these two garden structures so that, by the end of this comparison, you will come away with a clearer understanding of their many uses, and how you might incorporate one or both into your own outdoor space.
We’ll also explore some creative decorating ideas, including accessories that you can add to really make a statement with your new garden structure.
Pergola vs. Arbor: History and General Information
Pergolas and arbors have been around for centuries, and are some of the oldest outdoor structures on record. The very first pergolas and arbors date all the way back to ancient Egypt.
Then, by the 16th century, their popularity spread throughout Europe, with pergolas being more common in countries like Italy and arbors gaining popularity in countries such as England.
Although they are used similarly today, thousands of years after they first showed up on the scene, modern pergolas and arbors have diversified and become so much more than their ancient predecessors. And, in doing so, have regained their popularity all over the world, including the United States.
Both structures are traditionally constructed out of wood, although nowadays they come as vinyl and metal as well. See here for the difference between Pergolas, Gazebos, and Pavilions.
These structures consist of a series of posts or pillars supporting an open roof structure of beams and crossbeams. They can have lattice or slats on the sides to support climbing plants and offer a bit more privacy, or they can be completely open to let the sunshine through.
Pergolas tend to be much larger, covering an area such as an outdoor patio or deck and can be free-standing or attached to a house. A pergola is really an extension of your living space, creating an outdoor room with a compromise between openness and cover.
These structures have at least four posts or pillars (more for a larger structure) to support the open roof.
Arbors are much smaller and have two or four posts to support the roof, which is often times arched but can also be flat. These are typically used as an entrance or transition into a garden space or yard, but can also have a bench underneath for a pleasant place to sit and rest.
In olden times, both pergolas and arbors were used for climbing vines and plants, which would completely cover the structure, engulfing the interior in deep shade.
They offered people protection from the elements when the plants were fully mature, providing both function and beauty to ancient gardens.
Pergolas were usually long walkways or an extension of the home; arbors were used almost exclusively to house a bench for sitting, or as a transition from one area to another. When you look at these early structures, sometimes crafted with very natural looking elements, you can see why the two terms have often been confused. It was hard to tell the difference, many times, between the two.
The shapes are quite similar, but the scale and function are different.
Today’s pergolas and arbors have changed somewhat, in terms of how they are used and how they look. Yet these outdoor structures have stood the test of time, retaining many of the basic features of the originals, and providing us with a nostalgic glimpse of a bygone time and a path forward as well.
But, although they had very similar uses in times past, today’s structures are much more distinctive and defined. Let’s take a look now at the similarities and then the differences between modern pergolas and arbors.
Similarities between Arbors and Pergolas
Both pergolas and arbors are outdoor structures that define a space. They were created to offer some shade or protection from the elements by the use of climbing vines or plants, and this is still the most popular practice today.
There are many beautiful climbing plants you can use for either structure such as clematis, star jasmine (prefers warmer areas), honeysuckle (scented or not), trumpet vines, wisteria, climbing hydrangeas (prefers shade) and climbing rose, to name a few.
If you plan to use heavy plants such as trumpet vines, wisteria or climbing hydrangeas, for example, you need a sturdy structure. Some arbors and pergolas are not well suited for these types of plants, so always do your homework before purchasing plants.
Pergolas and arbors have an open structure as opposed to a closed roof and sides and come in wood, vinyl or metal. Wood and vinyl tend to be stronger than metal options (something to consider when thinking about the types of plants you want growing on them).
Generally, metal pergolas are covered with canvas and provide a more modern style. If you want to cover your metal pergola with vines, be sure to confirm that it can handle the weight.
Differences between Arbor and Pergola
In considering the differences between pergolas and arbors, we felt the best approach is to look at each one individually. This will allow us to explore the unique features and purposes of each type of structure so you can get a good idea how you might use either of these very popular outdoor elements in your own landscape. We’ll start with pergolas.
A pergola is usually a medium to large construction consisting of four or more posts or columns that serve to support a roof structure with cross supports linking the posts or columns together. The roof is constructed with a series of equally spaced beams or slats across the top and then, usually, crossbeams or slats going the other direction, creating a grid pattern.
They are commonly connected to a house, but having a freestanding pergola is also a popular option.
As stated earlier, pergolas come in wood, vinyl, and metal. You can build it yourself, if you’re handy, have it built by a skilled carpenter, or you can purchase a wood pergola kit that comes complete with everything you need.
If you don’t want wood, there are also vinyl pergola kits as well as metal pergola kits, both of which tend to be lower maintenance. Whichever you choose, kits definitely take the guesswork out of building a pergola.
Wood pergolas are timeless and strong, adding a natural beauty to your landscape. However, they usually need to be treated, painted or stained to preserve the wood (though some types of wood can weather naturally).
Vinyl is a popular choice because it is both strong and maintenance free, offering years of carefree backyard enjoyment. Vinyl pergolas are quite attractive as well. If you were planning on painting your pergola, it may be easier to just go with a pre-colored vinyl pergola instead.
Metal is a good option if you’re on a budget and you also like the idea of not having to do maintenance (at least for several years), but it isn’t as sturdy as wood or vinyl and is typically strongly modern in design.
Once you have the basic structure organized, the design is up to you. You can add lattice on the sides, slats that create a unique design, or you can leave it completely open. You can get as creative as you like, dictated only by your available space and your personal taste.
Of course, if you purchase a kit you are limited to that design, but there are many wonderful options to choose from in kit form as well.
You might prefer the traditional look, a more “old world Italy” feel, covered with beautiful grape vines heavy with luscious fruit cascading down. Or, perhaps, something you might find on an English country estate would be more in keeping with your style, featuring a stunning canopy of flowering vines enveloping your pergola, possible offering a sweet scent.
Maybe you lean towards the clean lines and sophistication of a contemporary structure and like the idea of a cloth roof to offer additional shade from the hot summer sun. Perhaps even some flowing curtains (like these Ryb Home Curtains) to billow in the summer breeze.
The point is, you can have the look you want with a pergola, whether you prefer wild and natural with climbing vines or plants as previously noted, or by adding curtains for more privacy.
Whether the roof remains open with only the beams covering the area, or with an additional covering, the choices are plenty.
If you want to be able to sit out when it’s raining, you might consider adding plastic see-through panels that could keep you dry. If you live in a very hot sunny climate fabric or even bamboo may be quite appealing additions to help block the sun’s rays.
Pergolas are wonderful for defining a space and creating a whole new outdoor room, thus extending your living area. And you can have a lot of fun decorating your new “room”! There are so many options for outdoor living furniture, outdoor rugs, and accessories to accommodate any style and taste, again, you are limited only by your imagination. Well, and perhaps, your budget.
But who wants to talk about that, right?
If you want to simulate a breeze and stay a bit cooler during those hot summer days and nights, you could add an outdoor ceiling fan to your pergola (be sure your pergola can support the weight).
How about pergola lighting? Consider some festive outdoor string lights or solar hanging lanterns to create an enchanted feel to an evening gathering! And you must have a cozy seating area for friends and family to gather on a starry summer evening for drinks and conversation or a lively weekend party.
There are countless choices for outdoor furniture in an abundance of styles and colors to suit any taste and budget. And if you’ve got a wedding coming up, use your pergola with string lights for a great wedding focal point!
Now that you know all the ins and outs of a pergola, we’re going to move on to the arbor.
What is an Arbor?
A modern arbor is quite different from a pergola in that it is much smaller in scale. Where pergolas create outdoor rooms, arbors create outside doorways.
You will usually see an arbor as an entryway into a garden or yard. It might be free-standing, or it could be connected to a fence. You can also find garden arbors with a gate. Arbors are also popular to house benches, as their old-world relatives did (see this AllThingsCedar arbor for the idea). The bench can be built into the arbor, or simply placed underneath.
Much like pergolas, arbors have an open construction, consisting of two or four posts for the main support, then framed with connecting support pieces, and topped with slats or cross pieces, usually going only one direction.
Many times, the sides will be made with lattice or have decorative cross pieces like this Outsunny wooden arbor, some with intricate designs. The design of an arbor has a lot to do with the material it’s made out of.
For instance, metal arbors may offer decorative curly cues and such, where wood or vinyl have straight lines or a gentle curve if the arbor features an arched design.
You can get arbors in many styles, such as craftsman, Cape Cod, colonial and so forth. They can be built from scratch or purchased in a kit that comes in wood, vinyl or metal. There are many options available for arbors today, so it mainly comes down to your own personal taste and style.
There are not a lot of decorating options for an arbor, but again, it serves a completely different purpose so this makes sense.
An arbor can make a stunning addition to your yard and offer a wonderful focal point in your garden. Most people grow climbing vines or plants on their arbors, but you certainly don’t have to. Either way, it will make a statement in your landscape that will have the neighbors talking.
If you do grow climbing plants, take care to choose suitable plants for the type of arbor you have. As with the pergola, certain climbing plants such as wisteria, trumpet vines, and climbing hydrangea, are heavier than others.
Wood and vinyl are usually strong enough to handle the heavier vines, metal is typically not the best for that. It’s also important to anchor your arbor firmly in the ground so it is strong and stable, not just for heavy plants, but also for high winds.
As with pergolas, the material the arbor is made from can make a difference in the amount of care your structure will require. Wood is strong and beautiful but will need additional upkeep. Vinyl and metal are both maintenance free, with vinyl being the sturdier of the two.
Eventually metal will rust after being exposed a few years to the elements so there might be some additional maintenance down the road. Not so with vinyl, which should stay as beautiful after several years as the day you first put it up.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today in the world of pergolas and arbors. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of these two very different structures, and which one would work best in your outdoor space.
Remember, though, because they serve different purposes, you don’t even have to choose one or the other.
Why not have both and really make a statement in your landscape?