It’s safe to say that pergolas are among the most popular garden structures in existence; and, actually, it has been safe to say that for quite awhile. I mean, a really, really long while. How long? Well, a serf in the Middle Ages could have said it with confidence. Even a landscape designer in Rome, during the time of Caesar, could have made a similar declaration. And a writer for the ‘Home & Garden’ section of a newspaper in ancient Egypt? Ditto.
Pergola (PUHR-guh-luh) is an Italian word that is derived from the Latin, pergula, which means “projecting roof.” While pergolas, with their universal appeal, have held their favored status for centuries, they have, naturally, taken many forms over the years. For example, beginning in late medieval times, and through the early Renaissance period, it was common for gardens to have green tunnels. The idea was to have passageways that would remain cool and shady when the weather was hot and sunny, and dry when it was raining.
The tunnels were made by binding shoots of willow, or “withies,” together at their tops, to create a series of arches, which were then loosely woven with long, wooden slats. Once in place, these structures would have climbing flowers and ivies planted nearby, which would eventually cover them. These were the early forms of pergolas.
It wasn’t until around the 17th century that pergolas began to look more like the ones that we see today. The main difference was that they were usually much grander, typically constructed with massive pillars of brick or stone that were fitted with large crossbeams. During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, there was a movement toward creating gardens that featured mostly natural elements. Therefore, manmade structures, such as pergolas, were a bit scarce for awhile.
Of course, as we all know, you can’t keep a good garden structure down; and pergolas proved that in the 20th century, when they made a comeback. Today, they’re huge (well, huge, as in, wildly popular – the actual size that you get is up to you). Incredibly beautiful and versatile, they lend themselves to dozens of uses, as they fit in perfectly with nearly any garden design, and can even solve many landscaping problems.
For instance, if you have an open space in your yard, you can turn it into a nice, shady retreat, just by adding a garden pergola, and putting some patio chairs and accent tables beneath it. With a picnic table, or an outdoor dining table, and an outdoor bar, it will be a great place for entertaining. Pergolas can also be used to cover patios that have no other sources of shade.
They also make wonderful enclosures for hot tubs, especially when used in conjunction with arbors and trellises, the siblings with which they have held a rivalry since time immemorial. In fact, their vying for top spot in the garden has been going on for so long, that people sometimes get them confused, and often use the words, pergola, arbor, and trellis, interchangeably.
That must really be frustrating for them, after having spent so many centuries trying to find ways of distinguishing themselves from the others. The crazy thing is that not one of them has any reason to feel inferior, because they’re all outstanding in the garden!