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How to: create the perfect pergola

Shade, privacy and a place to show off fabulous plants - who doesn’t want a pergola!



Pergolas can create an intimate space; help modify the microclimate to enhance human comfort; offer privacy from overlooking neighbours; and provide the ideal structure to create a horticultural extravaganza. No wonder they are the most desirable structure in the garden.

Pergolas can create dramatic hallways leading from one section of the garden, or wonderful outdoor rooms. Add a table and chairs and you have an elegant dining room. Add some comfortable armchairs, a sofa and a firepit, and you’ll be spending a lot of time in your new living room. Despite being so simple - some posts, beams, rafters and battens or cables to support plants – pergolas can dramatically change a space and how it is used.



Style and size

Pergolas can be made from many materials (timber, metal and masonry) and in many styles. It is usually best to choose something in harmony with the character of the house or garden. It’s important that the pergola is structurally sound and won’t collapse. Your local Council will require you to submit plans, certified by a structural engineer, for approval. Getting the scale right is essential. A pergola should be at least 3 metres wide and 2.5 metres to the underside of the rafters;going wider and higher will enhance your enjoyment. You may decide to pave the area under the pergola or to include a path and plantings of shade-loving plants.



Climate comfort

A lush climbing plant over the pergola provides shade and cool respite from the hot summer sun. In cool climates, choose a deciduous climber to let in valued winter light and warmth. In subtropical climates, evergreen climbers can be trimmed back to major laterals when the weather cools to allow the sunshine in.They will burst back into growth as the weather warms again. Attach a trellis and an appropriate climbing plant to the westerly side, to provide protection from cold westerly winds and hot westerly sun.



Plants for pergolas

For many people the best thing about pergolas is the amazing plants they can support. Plants with hanging flowers look particularly stunning draped over a pergola, creating an effect like a beaded curtain. Great choices include lady’s slipper vine (Thunbergia mysorensis), jade vine (Stronglyodon macrobotrys), red jade vine (Mucuna bennettii) and wisteria (Wisteria sinensis and W. floribunda).

If the pergola is overlooked from the house or other areas of the garden, it might be preferable to use a climber which flowers over the top of the pergola. Bougainvillea cultivars (selected with care for appropriate vigour and size), orange trumpet creeper (Pyrostegia venusta), trumpet vine (Campsis ‘Madame Galen’), Allamanda (Allamanda cathartica) and Kock’s bauhinia (Bauhinia kockiana) are great favourites.

You might also decide to hang baskets of cascading plants from the rafters of the pergola. In recent years, pergolas have begun to feature planters placed on the beams, to allow for cascading plants to drape over the pergola and create a very different atmosphere. This approach is particularly successful where the pergola is shaded.