Garden Pergolas pt 2 – Styles and materials: What should you choose for your garden?

Last week, we looked at how to know if your garden needs a pergola, and if so, how to place one correctly, so that it looks good. This week, we’re going to take a closer look at the details of styling option available, of which there are many…

Timber-PergolaThe material types and sizes you choose for your garden pergola will have an enormous impact on how it will look. It’s really, really critical to get the right materials and especially the right size of materials in order for the pergola to look right.

A pergola needs to look good even if it’s not covered in plants. Whilst plants will hide a multitude of sins, they do take quite a while to become established and unless you’ve chosen evergreens, you’ll see everything in the winter months. So let’s make sure you get it right, so you don’t have to wait years for the plants to cover it up!

How to get the right size pergola for your garden

In order for a pergola to look good, it has to be both the right width and height. The right height is fairly easy, approximately 7ft high (2.1 m) is a good starting point. Pergolas can certainly be higher than that, but they shouldn’t really be any lower.

A 7ft high pergola allows someone that’s under six-foot tall to comfortably walk under it without feeling like they need to duck their head down. It also allows for the plants to hang down a little bit. Obviously if you are taller than six-foot then the pergola definitely needs to be higher.


It’s important to get the correct width to height ratio

When it comes to having the right width pergola, that gets a little bit trickier.

If your pergola is 7 ft high and you have a path underneath it that is 2 ft wide, then if you were to put the pergola posts at 3 ft apart (1 m) that might sound about right, unfortunately it won’t look right.

Having the posts that close together will make the pergola look very tall and skinny. So visually, in order to look right, the posts would need to be at least 4 – 5 ft apart, width-wise.

If you require a pergola that is over 7 ft tall, then you’d need even more width, to make sure it looked right.

Also, the larger the pergola both in height and width, the chunkier the materials need to be, in order for it to look right. So if you want a really wide pergola then brick pillars or really big bits of wood would be required.

Now we’ve covered the height and width, what about the length?

Thankfully, when it comes to the length of a pergola, you have a lot more flexibility and freedom. It can be as long or short as you need it to be to suit your situation.

Also, the spacing between the posts or pillars for the length, can be different from the width. Unless you are planning on an L-shaped pergola, then they do need to be equal so that the corner works. So, for example, you can have a pergola that is 5 ft wide with the posts for the length every 6-8 feet apart etc.

Choosing the right top for your pergola

Just to add to your array of choices, the timber you use for the top of your pergola can be, and often is, a completely different size to the timbers you use for the rest of it. Again, a lot of the choice comes down to the overall size of the pergola. The bigger it is, the larger the top sections of timber or metal need to be. It tends to look better to use wider but narrower sections of wood for the top to the posts.


Pergola example using 4 x 4″ posts with 6 x 2″ tops

A combination I use quite a lot for medium-sized pergolas is 4 x 4″ posts with 6 x 2″ tops. For small gardens I use 3 x 3″ posts with 4 x 2″ tops. For larger gardens 6 x 6″ posts and 8 x 2″ tops works well.

Pergola styling

Yes, there’s more! It doesn’t just end with choosing the right size pieces of timber, brick, metal or whatever materials you’ve chosen to construct your pergola from. The real detail to pergolas comes in how you finish the ends.

It’s the ends of the timbers used on the top of the pergola that dictate, often more than anything, the overall style of it. Your choice of end will make the difference between the pergola looking very traditional or modern, as shown in the examples below. Basically, the more ornate the end, the more traditional the pergola will look.


Pergola timber ends from traditional to modern and contemporary with no end at all!

What material should you use to build your pergola from?

The choice of materials comes down to your tastes, but probably more likely budget. As wonderful as the traditional round stone pergola pillars with ornate metal tops look, in reality, that style pergola does cost a small fortune. So timber is usually the most popular option, because it’s the most affordable.


Of course, you can do a combination of brick and timber, but as soon as you are using brick or stone, then the costs do escalate dramatically.

It takes a lot of skill to build a brick pillar pergola because of the time it takes to line up all of the pillars correctly. If a single pillar is slightly out of alignment or skewed at an angle it will throw the entire pergola off and really show up when the top is put on.

I bet you never knew how complex a simple pergola could be! I must admit, I hadn’t realised how much there is to think about until I wrote this. At least it explains why I spend so much time on them when I do put one in a design.

Garden pergola examples

Here’s a selection of pergolas that I have come across on my travels.


A selection of big metal pergolas I came across in Tomelloso, Spain. Though don’t copy the proportions of these – they look like they’ve been designed for giants!


The very traditional stone pillar with timber and metal tops from gardens in Granada and Madrid, Spain.

Finally, a selection of timber framed pergolas from Spanish and UK gardens.


Pergola alternatives

Now, if you’re still unsure if a pergola is right for your garden, or you are concerned about the costs, then there is another option available to you. Planting rails can look incredibly effective in the right settings. I’ll go into more detail on how and where to place the planting rail in the next article in this series.

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About Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 20 years. My mission is to de-mystify garden design and make it easy for people to successfully design their own garden - without needing to spend a fortune!


  1. Rachel – thanks always a good read. What are your thoughts on pergola style verses function and ditto for covering plant selections. On plant selection I've been tossing up with a single covering plant verses multiple plants to provide something different over the course of the year eg bougainvillea, orange trumpet vine, passion fruit, star jasmine, wisteria and how best to train and manage them. My pergola is about 5.4mx4.0m located on a raised deck above a pool – function is to provide shade for a bbq dinning area. The pergola is also visible from the above top floor.

  2. Thanks Peter – I would say it comes down to how large the pergola is. There's a lot to be said for keeping things simple with just one or two different kinds of plants covering it. Also you need to be careful of things clashing. Your pergola isn't that large so personally, I would only pop a couple of things in to cover it.

    You say yours is above a pool? In that case I'd probably go for something like a large non-fruiting vine like vitis coignetiae – anything with lots of small flowers and leaves is going to be a real pain near a pool. Hope that helps!

  3. Pergolas are beautiful, and really add a lot of character to a space. Construction overall can be quite difficult though, and even though I like to try and build things myself, safely is my first priority. I think with big projects like these, it'd be best to leave construction up to the professionals.

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