Shade Structures: How Pergolas Can Add A Touch Of Nature To The City

There are a lot of reasons to live in the city, but feeling “back to nature” isn’t one of them. The sun shines plenty hot in the city, though, and shade structures are a must. Choose a pergola, and you can add your own touch of nature to any urban landscape.

Pergolas are the shade structures that can turn a plain outdoor area into someplace irresistible, turn waves of heat into cool refreshment, turn the grays and browns of urban brick and concrete into a veritable rainbow of color and turn that “city” smell of diesel and who-knows-what-else into a symphony of inviting fragrances.

With just a few plants, you can literally bring your pergola to life. Shade structures that use greenery for cover don’t just shade people and patios, they can actually cool the air underneath by as much as 15 degrees.

Pergolas are the perfect companions for plants.
Pergolas are usually constructed of wood, a natural material in itself. They can be free-standing or attached to a wall. You can create shade structures that appear entirely casual or highly sophisticated, to complement any architecture or size or shape of space.

Traditional pergolas are topped with separated cross-members. You can accentuate the natural look of these shade structures with Southwest-style “latillas” – narrow sticks or bamboo that filter the sun more closely and provide beautiful shadow textures as the sun moves across the sky.

But unlike most shade structures, what really sets pergolas apart is their value as a landscape feature.

If your view skyward is less than appealing, any shade structures can eliminate that. But pergolas can give you a canopy of greenery, a living room that provides both shade and beauty. You can create a lush urban jungle or just a small accent – a single vine or hanging basket that adds a touch of nature but allows your pergola to remain the focal centerpiece of your outdoor space.

As shade structures, pergolas can cover walkways or eating and seating areas, all of which benefit from the addition of plants. Create a simple entryway trellis or shade your entire patio. You can completely cover your pergola’s pillars with luxuriant vines or variegated ivy. Add potted plants – shrubs and perennials as well as the usual annuals. Hang a few baskets. Create living walls.

Add pretty wood lattice side walls to your pergola, for extra visual definition. Plant them with leafy vines and you can curb a breeze or add more privacy. Hang a swing from your pergola. That’s something you can’t do with other shade structures, and everyone will compete for that seat.

What should you plant?
You can grow almost anything in a pot. Or you can plant vines or climbers in the ground at the base of each pillar, if you have open soil. You can use cooling colors – whites, blues and greens – or vibrant colors like reds, purples, oranges and yellows. Or hot pink. Complement your color scheme or create an eye-popping contrast.

You can choose evergreen or semi-evergreen perennial climbers or fast-growing annual vines. Annual vines are fun because you can do something entirely different from year to year. All these are good options:

  • Climbing roses or hydrangea
  • Clematis
  • Wisteria
  • Akebia
  • Honeysuckle
  • Boston ivy
  • Virginia creeper

Plant hardiness is something to think about, as is the way your shade structures are oriented to the sun. Consult your local professional nursery for advice. Use a variety of plants that bloom at different times, so you always have a good show and it’s always changing for your regular customers.

Pick plants that complement your pergola most dramatically, with interesting flowers, knock-your-socks-off fragrance or subtle perfume, multi-seasonal interest with dried seed pods or winter berries. Even in the dead of winter your shade structures will offer the promise of another spring and summer to come.

Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr