Traditionally, a garden arbor is an ornamental structure made of wood or latticework upon which climbing shrubs or vines can grow. Though you can find prefabricated arbors at gardening or home-improvement stores, they are often small and flimsy and do not hold up well to the weight of plants or to year-round exposure to the elements.
If designed and built correctly, however, an arbor can last for years and serve as more than a prop for your favorite plant. An arbor can define and control access to various parts of your yard, add visual interest to your landscape or serve as a quiet place to relax with a good book. No matter what purpose you have in mind, you can easily design and build an arbor that will outlast store-bought varieties, look far more attractive and better complement your landscape.
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Designing your arbor
Whatever the size of your planned garden arbor or the purpose you want it to serve, keep these design principles in mind as you plan your installation; they will help to create a harmonious and appealing overall effect.
Unity – consistency in design that makes the structure fit in with the rest of your property. Choose materials and plants that complement the established style of your home.
Balance – a principle that creates a visually pleasing layout. Your garden arbor should be built around a single center point, and each side of the structure should balance the other. Balance can be achieved through three different methods: symmetry, where each side duplicates the other and repeats in exactly the same fashion; asymmetry, which is less rigid and relies on natural curves and more variety in the design; and radial balance, which works in a circular or wheel-shape pattern that extends from a center point.
Transition – how your eyes move from one area to another. A gradual change in elements and a logical sequence that introduces a change in style slowly rather than all at once helps to draw the eyes easily across the landscape. For example, use medium-size shrubs to transition from sprawling shrubs to tall trees.
Proportion – considering the size of a structure in relation to other elements in the landscape to create a well-planned appearance. For instance, a grandiose arbor would look out of place positioned next to a small garden or modest patio, but the same structure might be perfect in a large, open setting.
Rhythm – a sense of natural movement through the landscape that’s created through the use of natural elements and careful repetition. Groups of plants, as well as individual materials, can create rhythm by establishing patterns of color and form.
Focalization – emphasizing a point of visual interest. This is the most important aspect of landscape design. If your garden arbor is designed correctly, it will naturally command visual attention.
Repetition – establishing a uniform look by using the same elements again and again. Although too much repetition can detract from the natural atmosphere of an outdoor area, appropriate repetition of similar plants, colors and textures can help to tie a garden structure in with the rest of the features of your property.
Cut the arbor parts
Whether you plan to build the garden arbor shown on these pages or design your own, you can fabricate most (if not all) of the parts in your shop prior to assembly. Doing as much work as you can in a controlled setting will help to ensure that the parts are the right size and will fit together properly.
Start by using a circular saw to create the notches in the 4x6 lintels. Set the saw to the proper depth and make repeated closely spaced cuts; then clear away the waste using a chisel and mallet.
To create the lintels’ tapered profile, use a circular saw to first make the profile cut along one face; then flip the lintel over and make the same cut in the same direction on the opposite face. Because there will be a small section of wood between the two opposing kerfs that the circular saw can’t reach, use a handsaw to finish the cut. Though you could use a reciprocating saw outfitted with a long blade to make cut in one step, I’m not a fan of that method because the long blade tends to deflect too much.
Use a jigsaw to cut the profile and the notches for the main crossbeams. To ensure that the 13 secondary crossbeams are all notched uniformly, clamp them together and use a circular saw that’s been set to the correct depth to make a series of repetitive cuts; then use a chisel and mallet to remove the waste as you did for the notches in the lintels.
Assemble the arbor
The key to properly erecting the arbor is to accurately set the 6x6 posts. Use an auger (preferably a gas-powered model, which will save you a lot of effort) to dig the postholes to a minimum of 3 ft. Fill the holes with 6 in. of gravel; then set the posts. Brace the posts and check for plumb; then backfill the holes with fast-setting concrete to ensure stability and strength.
To cut the posts to the correct heights, first measure and mark one post. Tack a 1x2 at that mark and span it between two posts. Check for level and mark the opposing post. Repeat the process to mark the remaining posts; then cut the posts to the indicated height.
Use lag screws to fasten the lintels atop the main posts. Set the doubled-up main crossbeams on top of the lintels and toe-screw them in position; then position and toe-screw the secondary beams atop the main crossbeams.
Toe-screw the 2x4s between the 6x6 posts to create the framework for the lattice panels. Cut the lattice to size and use ring-shank nails to attach 1x2 strips to the tops and bottoms of the lattice sections. Fasten the completed panels to the posts by driving screws through the fastening strips and into the 2x4 cross members. All that’s left is to apply a protective coating or stain to the arbor (if you choose) and bring in the shrubs and other plantings. You may be amazed at the overall impact that your new structure has on your yard and how well it helps to define the space.
Arbor Gate Details
Because we designed our arbor to be a transition from one part of the yard to another, we wanted to create a formal entrance to differentiate the backyard from the front. So we attached a decorative metal gate to the arbor.
The gate, ordered from Amazing Gates (800-234-3952), was available in a variety of styles and widths. It came pre-assembled; all we had to do was fasten it to the 6x6 main posts. To do this, we first established a level point for the bottom of the gate. Then we attached the hinges to the posts, slid the gate onto the hinges and tightened the attachment locknuts.