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Garden Structures

Garden Structures

From pergolas to living arches, structures can add new dimensions and atmosphere to any garden when used as part of the overall design. Trevor Bridge investigates the variety available and advises how to use to best advantage...

Garden structures can be practical, ornamental or even romantic. From the simplest pole to support a climber or tomato plant to the grandest, ornate pergola they are valuable elements for any size of garden. At the cost of minimal ground space, structures supporting climbers and tall plants add visually to a garden quite considerably. For instance, one simple arch could support a number of different climbers that flower one after the other for a succession of colour. In a border where there is not enough room for a tall shrub, a climber can be trained up a tripod or even just a stout pole.

Style of structures used will vary to suit different styles of gardens. For instance, rustic trellises, archways or pergolas are perfect in a cottage garden, but even steel ones will blend in once the plants are established. Also, in a cottage garden, simple structures are better, acting as plant supports rather than ornaments, whereas in more contemporary gardens they can be bolder focal points. Here, if of a sympathetic design, they do not even have to support planting, although my preference is for greenery to adorn them. Structures can be home-made, bought from garden centres or obtained by mail order.

It is a good idea for them to be at least 2.5m high to allow room to walk underneath when they are covered by plant growth. They also need to be sited back from paths or doorways to avoid plants narrowing the walking space.

Some climbing plants attach themselves to structures or wrap themselves around them, whilst others need to be trained by passing their shoots through the structure or being tied to the framework. They all need support until established, even the self-clingers. Morning glory twines around its support, ivy clings with adventitious roots, clematis use twining petioles, vines have tendrils, and Virginia creepers use tendrils with adhesive pads. Plants should be placed at both sides of arches and pergolas as they generally grow upwards.

TRELLISES are linear open frameworks or lattices, typically constructed from interwoven wood, bamboo or metal. They are attached to walls or fences or are free-standing. At Le Fayard our potager is separated from our orchard with a home-made trellis constructed from chestnut pales. Trellises are used for grapevines, decorative climbers such as clematis, honeysuckle and ivy, and shrubs such as pyracantha and roses. Rose trellises are popular here, being part of French gardening tradition. As well as being attractive in their own right, trellises can screen central-heating oil stores or other unsightly objects, preventing the garden from being spoilt by unsightly blots on the landscape.

ARCHES make wonderful additions to gardens, providing verticality and structure without the need for too much space. A garden viewed through a flower-covered archway over a front gate is very welcoming, as is a house with an arch smothered in roses or vines around the front door. Arches are appreciated more if there is a path going through them, or if they lead to somewhere interesting. They are constructed in a wide range of materials including rustic timber, sawn wooden posts and rails, bamboo and trelliswork. Metal arches can be simple steel bars, sheet steel or fancy scrollwork. They can be in polythene covered metal and I have even seen them in white vinyl, which may not be to everyone’s taste but they are easily maintained. Chestnut pales form an archway over the gate in the trellis between our orchard and potager. The archway and the trellis being in the same material creates a visual link.

PERGOLAS (also known as arbours) require more space than arches but are well worth considering if you can accommodate one. Pergolas are structures for providing semi-open cover. They consist of a series of linked arches with vertical posts or pillars holding up cross beams and lattices and, of course, like arches, often support vines and climbers. During hot summer days when covered by greenery they entice us in to linger in their cooling shade, and they lend architectural elegance and protection in winter. They can form walkways linking different areas or make a cool, summer retreat to rest and from which to admire the garden, especially if seating is placed beneath them. By contrast, a pergola positioned against the sunny side of a wall incorporated with a seat makes a warm bower to sit in for much of the year. They can act as a focal point, form an entrance to a garden or lead us into another separate area. I have seen people attach lighting to them, which is useful for illuminating pathways. They are constructed from the same materials as arches.

GREEN TUNNELS originated during medieval times and are passages formed to provide cool shade and shelter. They are fashioned from cut willow or hazel shoots, bound together at their heads to form a series of arches, then woven with horizontal slats on which climbing plants are trained. Green tunnels are basically pergolas of a less-permanent nature due to the type of material used in their construction. They are, however, well worth considering, particularly if you have ready access to willow or hazel.

FENCES can be much more than boundaries and make useful supports for trellises for climbers. South facing, solid fences will shelter tender shrubs and herbaceous plants, although to a lesser extent than walls. Simple fences constructed from stakes and wire netting or chestnut pales are inexpensive, quick to erect, and make good barriers, as do timber post and rail and picket fences. Hedges or climbers can be planted against them to soften their appearance and after a few years the effect is very pleasing. If immediate privacy or shelter is vital, timber-boarded fences are suitable, and they can also form a backdrop for plants.

GATES range from the imposing wrought-iron gates of a chateau to the alluring small wicket gates of a cottage. They can be inviting to entice people in, or defensive to keep the world out. They are open or solid, wooden or metal. Consider the site, the surrounds and the use for which the gate is to be put to. If part of a fence, it is often pleasing to the eye for the styles and materials to match. We have already considered how flower-covered arch gates can set off a rural garden and that simple trellis gates form attractive entrances to potagers. In towns, solid boarded gates with perhaps embellished post caps are effective for privacy and security. Wrought iron gates can be decorative magnificent affairs between ornamental stone piers fronting a grand residence; for smaller houses they can be simple gates with perhaps some understated attractive scroll-work. Situations dictate choice, but gates suitable for a chateau will look incongruous in a less imposing location. It is common to paint metal gates black, although white-painted ones give a cottage garden effect.

LIVING ARCHES, as their name suggests, are comprised of living plants. They are a form of topiary and are extremely attractive, quite quirky, and create much interest in a garden. These are created by planting two young saplings 2m apart, beech or yew are commonly used, which, as they grow, are clipped to form two uprights and are then trained to grow into each other at the top to form an arch. They are then regularly maintained to retain their form. This takes time and patience but the result merits the effort and the good growing conditions we benefit from here in France make them a worthwhile proposition. Arches can also be similarly formed in hedges if they are accommodated for at the time of planting and provided that the hedge is high enough.

LIVING WILLOWS differ from living arches in that they tend to be in the form of walls, tunnels or arbours fashioned from growing plants. They are created by planting willow saplings or cuttings, then tying them together into the desired shape. Long, straight willows are needed and they are placed into the ground at an angle of 40 to 60 degrees in a row about 40cms apart. Another row is then inter-planted along the row, angled in the opposite direction to form a diamond pattern. The joints are tied together for stability and they need to be regularly pruned to retain their form. For the more adventurous, shapes such as domes, chairs and benches can be created. Willows require an ample supply of water and
so they need to be planted in an area with a permanent high water table, perhaps next to a river or lake.

CANES, STAKES & TRIPODS - the simplest garden supports consist of a single cane, stake or post used to hold up tall single-stem plants such as delphiniums in the flower garden or tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes in the potager. For plants with many stems, hollyhocks for instance, it is often easier to use a circle of canes around the plant and loop twine around the canes at one third and two-thirds of the plant’s height. Multiple canes or stakes can be formed into rows, double rows, tripods or even wigwams; often combined with string as shown left. There are many interesting combinations of these and I am always on the look out in other people’s gardens for ideas to use at home.



Cane tip protectors Corks or those probiotic yoghurt drink pots popped over the tops of canes are a good way to protect your eyes. Cane tip protectors are also available commercially but why spend money?

Arch plants One arch could support a honeysuckle, a rose and a jasmine to provide a succession of flower colour from spring right through to autumn.

Trellis plants Roses & vines combine well together on a trellis or other structure. The large yellow flowers of Rose ‘Gloire de Dijon’ make a good partner for the purple leaved vine 

Sweet peas Old-fashioned sweet pea varieties have intense perfume but many modern cultivars, although colourful, lack scent. If it’s fragrance you are after choose old varieties.

Climber planting To allow climbers to grow freely against walls and fences, fix supports such as trellises or mesh about 5cm away from the wall or fence surface.

Scented plants Honeysuckles and roses are superb for arches and pergolas as you are surrounded by and immersed in their fragrance.