Pergola, Arbor, Gazebo: Learn the Difference

Ah, sweet harmony. That's the word -- and the feeling -- that springs to mind when you think of a garden arbor, pergola, or gazebo. These appealing outdoor features keep everything in balance, adding a distinctly functional aspect to your landscape together with an old-world beauty. They offer shelter from the midsummer sun, while at the same time allowing you to enjoy a gorgeous view and balmy breezes blowing by. What's more, they provide a modicum of privacy, a subtle separation of your space from your neighbors' … without the jarring quality of a 10-foot fence.

Would you like to have one of these mini-buildings in your own yard? Learn about what makes each unique.


Arbor Photo: 99worldtravel/morgueFileAn arbor is by far the simplest of the three garden structures. It consists of a frame, either square-cornered or arched, that acts as an entranceway or passage to part of your outdoor area and may even include an actual gate. Usually covered with attractive climbing plants like rambling roses or morning glories, it adds height, definition, and eye appeal to its surroundings.

An arbor, or its close cousin the trellis (a plant support comprising a flat piece of latticework), will work well in even the smallest scrap of yard. It is typically constructed of wood or wrought iron and measures about the same as a regular doorway -- at least 6'8" high by 3' wide -- to allow for comfortable movement.


Pergola Photo: penywise/morgueFileA pergola (pronounce it PER-guh-luh) is a larger wooden structure, with only columns for walls and either a solid or an openwork roof. It may also be draped with plants, such as grapevines. Although traditionally placed as inviting standalone hideaways at the end of a garden path, pergolas attached to the house are now becoming more popular, usually as a vertical addition to a patio. (In fact, the term patio cover is often used interchangeably with "pergola" these days.)

There are several advantages to this new style: it's easily accessible and protects your outdoor living room from the elements. In addition, construction is simplified by using the wall of your home as one side of the pergola. A good carpenter can build you a pergola in your choice of a variety of sizes, depending on the intended use and available space. Just make sure that it's weather-resistant and the columns will be adequate to support the roof.


Gazebo Photo: wallyir/morgueFileA gazebo is the most defined of these garden buildings. It is freestanding, an octagon shape with a solid pitched roof that is often topped with a whimsical bit of carpentry -- a cupola, or tiny dome. Supported (like the pergola) by columns, gazebos generally feature low railings around their base and may include a built-in bench for convenient seating. Some are screened against insect "guests," especially if they are designed for dining al fresco.

Large gazebos may be found in parks, used as bandstands. Wood gazebos are classic, but you will also find them made out of aluminum, wicker, or vinyl. The roofing material might be wood or shingles. As with pergolas, gazebos can be constructed to the dimensions you wish. However, be sure to read your local building code before work begins, as the size of any outbuildings may be limited to a certain percentage of your lot. In addition, check out your property's private covenants and restrictions.

Laura Firszt writes for

Updated August 19, 2018.

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