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Arbor-Covered Outdoor Spaces

Martha Stewart Living, June 2011

In its simplest form -- four posts and a slated roof -- an arbor is a breezy shelter, an open-air retreat for garden gazing, and a place to laze, protected from the sun. But its purpose and look can vary widely.

Part of that freedom comes from the structure's inherent openness: Unlike its cousin the pergola, an arbor is generally a stand-alone frame, not attached to a building. Yet an arbor is still very much an extension of a home, a room with a role as distinct as that of any space in the house -- dining room, living room, lounging spot -- but with the bonus of an airy backdrop.

Design inspiration can crop up anywhere: in architecture, in nature, in movies (one of the arbors here was fashioned after a trellis glimpsed in a French New Wave film). A garden's style and materials, of course, can also dictate an arbor's; the structure might be made of weather-tolerant wood or metal, with perhaps stone or even concrete accents.

Flowering vines are a long-established feature of arbors, sometimes even their raison d'etre. They soften an arbor's edges and make the structure look more at home in the larger garden. Picture grapes swaying from a trellis overhead or clusters of wisteria crowning a garden bench.

If the arbor is close to a house (a plus if the plan is to lunch beneath its rafters or assemble there for cocktails), the construction might match the home's architectural style, a visual trick that integrates indoor and outdoor living. Should it be situated somewhere more remote, functioning as a landscape destination, idyllic elements might be played up -- a willow-twig roof, hanging lanterns, a chaise longue -- conjuring a tranquil, stumbled-upon hideaway.

The arbors photographed for this story are located in Southern California, but each offers lessons that can be adapted to other climates. All of them are inviting and big on comforts, and reveal how open to interpretation these open spaces really are.

California Dreamy

The Arbor
Garden designer Kristin Smith built this arbor over an existing terrace with full-on southwestern sun that was often too bright for comfort. To make the arbor appear original to the house and in keeping with its early California architecture, she modeled it after a trellis structure atop an upstairs balcony. Posts and rafters are made from painted, pressure-treated wood. The arbor measures a spacious 12 by 15 feet.

The Details
A bluestone floor harmonizes with nearby stone steps and two seating walls.

The Plants
Evergreen creeping fig and summer roses grow up the posts from cut-outs at the base of each.

Earthy Idyll

The Arbor
The Tuscan columns supporting the redwood lattice on this arbor were inspired by a design from early-20th-century California architect Irving Gill, known for his simplified take on Spanish Colonial style. Landscape architect Rob Steiner had the columns fabricated in foam-wrapped steel, which is less expensive than concrete and easier to mold.

The Details
The 12-by-18-foot outdoor room is elevated above a small lawn, enhancing the views. The decomposed granite "floor" connects the arbor to its natural setting.

The Plants
Wisteria blooms in spring, and bougainvillea flowers from fall through spring, shading this southwest-facing spot.

Movie Star Mod

The Arbor
Malibu artist Tina Beebe and her architect husband, Buzz Yudell, based their arbor, above, on an image of a trellis they spotted in an early-1970s French film. The painted steel supports are architectural in feel but lighter and airier than masonry columns. Up top is a retractable awning, which can be whisked across as weather and light demand. The custom-made vinyl covering is easy to clean with a hose. 

The Details
Built-in concrete banquettes with cushions add substance and comfort. A pool-blue palette adds to the midcentury vibe, and industrial light fixtures illuminate the arbor at night.

The Plants
The couple's first shade-plant solutions were problematic: The grapevines mildewed. Now they skip the vines and enjoy a simple frame of the view of their garden's Mediterranean-climate plants.

Permanent Vacation

The Arbor
Kristin Smith had this retreat built in a shady corner, giving property unfit for gardening the aura of a world apart. The 8-by-12-foot Asian-inspired arbor is made of rot-resistant, pressure-treated wood and backed by existing bamboo. It has a wood floor and a willow-twig roof.

The Details
A teak chaise longue offers a spot for naps, and hanging lanterns provide a way to take in the garden after dark.

The Plants
Landscape designer Richard Hayden wreathed the roof in fragrant stephanotis and tucked the structure into the larger garden with a selection of shade plants, including Japanese maples, hellebores, potted ferns, and mondo grass.

Eager Vines, Made for an Arbor's Shade

Clematis
Fast growers (once the roots are established) for gardens in Zones 4 to 9, this wide-ranging group of vines can scramble up more than five feet a year. Most hybrids top out at 10 feet while some of the smaller-flowered species grow 20 to 40 feet.

Climbing Hydrangea
This woody creeper will grow to 75 feet, tolerate partial shade, and flower white in early summer in Zones 4 to 9. The vines need sturdy support and may take time to get established.

Climbing Roses
Pick from hardy climbing hybrids such as 'New Dawn,' classic old varieties like 'Zephirine Drouhin' (hardy to Zone 5), or species roses such as Rosa banksia (best for the South or Southwest). They will grow 10 to 30 feet, as long as their lanky canes are tied to supports.

Grapevines
Grapes are a fetching alternative to flowers, fruiting from late summer to fall. Tie the vines as they climb. A grape relative, the crimson glory vine (Vitis coignetiae) doesn't make edible fruit, but its brilliant fall flowers more than compensate.

Silver Lace Vine
Where heavy soil, wind, or dry conditions rule out other vines, this late-summer-to-fall white bloomer can succeed, particularly in Zones 5 to 9; it requires tying when young but can grow up to 40 feet.

Trumpet Honeysuckle
This rapid twiner reaches 12 feet. It draws hummingbirds with summer flowers and fruits in fall (Zones 4 to 9).

Wisteria
Loved for its scented, pendulous purple or white blooms, this vigorous vine is hardy up to Zone 9 and can reach 28 feet.

Check with your local extension agent to make sure aggressive plants, such as silver vine, trumpet honeysuckle, and wisteria, won't escape your garden and cause trouble in the wild.