Practical or frivolous, a simple arch over a garden gate or an elaborate tunnel to nowhere in particular, the arbor has had a role in the garden for centuries. Arbors frame views, define spaces, give a garden a vertical lift and play endless tricks with light and shadows. They add structure to the landscape, merge art and nature, and showcase the gardener's individual style.
The forms of arbors are many. They may be flat-topped or arched, rustic or urbane, exotic or thoroughly home-grown, broad enough for a bench or not much wider than a wheelbarrow.
There are two basic types: those that support plants and are at their best dripping with blooms, and those that give only an architectural nod to that tradition.
If you build it yourself, a simple wooden arbor requires about $100 to $150 worth of materials and a long weekend. If you decide to give the job to a contractor, estimate about $300 for materials and labor; fancy designs cost more.
Start with a simple and durable plan, then add embellishments. The uprights have to be sturdy enough to support the structure and the plants on it. They also carry the burden of the design, establishing its architectural movement. Use generous proportions: The minimum finished height should be 7 feet.
Set the posts in concrete in holes at least 2 feet deep. Two uprights are all you need; for rhythm and depth, plant two or more posts on each side, about 2 feet apart. The cross braces can be much more delicate than the posts. To determine the arbor's width, consider the size of your lawn mower, the opening of a door or the span of your arms. Except in very small gardens, 3 feet is not wide enough. Start with a minimum of 42 inches.
An arbor can be made of lumber, iron, woven branches, bricks or stone; choose materials that complement the garden and the house.
"Wooden structures are sort of the standard, because you can do so much with wood," says garden designer Tom Woodham. It's also easy to come by. Use screws, not nails, for strength.
Ironwork is more permanent, but it's also more expensive. Rebar (heavy iron rods used to reinforce concrete and available at builders' supply stores) can be bent into a sturdy arch, and galvanized iron can have surprising presence and sophistication. Once painted or overgrown with vines, such structures quickly lose their industrial look.
Arbors and arches sold in garden centers or through garden-supply catalogs are tempting, but they're often too small. Read the descriptions carefully, and plan to bolt them onto supporting posts sunk into the ground for permanence, which will also give you a foot or more in height. Whatever source, style or material you choose, Woodham says, "Buy the best you can afford."
Protect with paint
After priming, protect wooden arbors with three or four coats of good-quality house paint, all the way down to the posts' concrete foundations. White is the traditional color for garden structures; yellow, pink and blue are bolder choices that make a statement with or without plants. As an alternative, wood-preserving stains can have a fine, subtle effect.
Roses are a classic choice for planting on arbors. Plant on the outside of the supports, making sure plants have the necessary sun and drainage. Steer clear of the posts. New Dawn, a shell-pink ever-blooming rose, could be combined with Coral Dawn, its blushing daughter. Visit rose gardens and take notes. Look for fragrance, repeat bloom, disease resistance and winter hardiness -- climbing roses are not easy to protect from frost. Other choices: clematis, wisteria, honeysuckle, morning glories and scarlet runner beans.
Challenging questions of perspective and proportion will arise when the arbor is placed in the garden. "More than half the artistry in a garden is putting things in the right place," says Rosemary Verey, a British garden authority. An arbor may find its ideal spot deep in the garden, right at the entrance, or against a fence or tool shed. In other words, anyplace that offers itself as a destination for the foot or the eye.
Smith & Hawken, 117 E. Strawberry Drive, Mill Valley, Calif. 94941; 800-776-3336 or 410-433-0119. The catalog is free.
Gardener's Supply Co., 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, Vt. 05401; 800-955-3370. The catalog is free.
Pub Date: 3/30/97