Video: Arbor Vs. Pergola

Hi. This is Nathan Harrison for Recently I featured this industrial to residential remodel, and at the time, I called this structure a pergola. But I became interested in exactly what to call it, and what the difference is between a pergola and arbor, or if it should be called something else.

And this search led me to some very interesting history that I’ll share with you now.

In seeking to distinguish between the term arbor and pergola, it became clear that there’s a lot of confusion about those 2 terms. Now, words to evolve, but we should try to approximate their meanings and use them accurately if if we can. Things began to make sense about these 2 words as I began to understand their history.

These terms are both gardening terms from a bygone age which we are tempted to apply too quickly to parts of a modern house structure. So to really understand these words, let’s step back to a time when most people grew most of their food.

A house or a cluster of houses would be surrounded by gardens maybe like this, some with well defined parameters, even walls as you see here.

Now, for a production garden to grow well, we need for there to be no or very few trees. But his means no shade within the confines of the garden. And we humans need shade.

So what if we take some of the viney elements of the garden and let them grow up over a structure. Then we can have our cake and eat it too. We’ll have a shady spot to rest without depriving our garden of any sunlight. And so was born the concept of the arbor.

If you look at the word “arbor” and related words, what you realize is that it refers simply to trees. And I think what this suggests is that the original shade in a garden was provided by some low fruit trees, probably on the north side so that they wouldn’t blocking sunlight from any of the vegetables.

So, an arbor provides shade. That is the most important thing. Obviously it is only going to be providing shade in the summer months. This shot is in winter; you see the daffodils blooming there. So this would also be an arbor.

The garden arbor is a simple, relatively small structure, and traditionally it’s arched at the top. And this ties in with the fact that an arbor is non-structural. We’ll tie that in in just a moment. And also, there is traditionally a sitting place in an arbor. So that’s your basic definition of an arbor.

But wait just a minute. We’ve got a place for a person to rest in the shade. But what about all the sunlight being wasted on the paths? After all, we need fairly wide paths in a traditional garden because we’re going to be using carts to haul the produce out.

And so was born the concept of the pergola. It’s a passageway with a roof of some kind of trellis work intended for vegetation.

Unlike the arbor, the pergola is eventually going to have a large mass of vegetation growing on it because there is just so much more area. And if we assume it is going to be a fruiting plant like grapes, we’re talking about a lot of weight, and possibly the need for a human to climb on top and do some picking. So really something like this is not going to be ideal in a traditional garden.

We’re going to need a pergola roof that is strong and structural. It will hold a lot of weight and a person could climb around on it. Now, of course, in a traditional setting the beams are still going to have to be wood, but the uprights can be stone or some kind of masonry where they’ll last a long time.

The word pergola comes from a city in Italy where this concept was developed, and they do have, like this masonry columns and wood beams.

So getting back to the concept of tying one of these into your remodel…whenis it fair to call something a pergola or an arbor?

Well, one definition I’ve heard is that a pergola is a room without walls. I don’t think that’s close enough to the historical definition. Let’s go through some pictures, and I’ll sound off on each one.

This is definitely a pergola – a structural passageway designed for vegetation.




Arbor. Yes, I know there’s no real human structure here, it’s just some vines that have been trained up to create some shade. It’s an arbor.



Arbor – and let’s hope they get some vegetation on there.

Definitely pergola.




None of the above. It could be considered a pergola because it is a passageway, but it’s not designed for vegetation. So, it’s neither a pergola nor an arbor.

So, getting back to the remodel I began with, this structure would be considered an arbor assuming they get some vegetation trained up onto it.