The starting point to any garden is its entrance or portal. It’s that doorway into our retreat from all the worries of everyday life that helps define the space – whether it’s a single garden “room” or a series of lovely spots along a winding path.

Finished arbor

It didn’t take too long to build our finished arbor – and now it’s ready for climbing plants!

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Second arbor

The second of two arbors custom built for a long strolling path.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

My wife and I recently decided that our garden needed some help with its definition. Our answer was to design and install a lovely arbor (actually two – one for each end). The nice thing about arbors is that they form a passage between the outside world and your special place of tranquility, and they also serve as a support for plants that can transform a garden opening into a dramatic tunnel.

Arbors range from elegant scrolling ironwork perfect for Mediterranean-inspired retreats to the charming white Victorian lattice and moldings that often complement a cottage garden. Both are ideal for sunny, open spaces. Japanese designers turned away from incredible opulence several hundred years ago to pursue a rustic simplicity that signals the kind of garden behind it, and it’s easily adapted to American woodland design. In other words: It’s a timeless style that works anywhere.

Our local home centers are well-prepared with standardized kits and books offering detailed plans and new materials (such as vinyl lattice) that make arbor construction and long-term maintenance a breeze. But if you’re handy with basic tools, you can design and build your own customized arbor to suit your garden’s exact needs in as little as a weekend.

Here are some basic things to keep in mind:

Arbors can have as few as two posts, but more typically they’ve got four. (More than four posts, and the structure starts to become a pergola.) All the posts should go 2 feet below grade, preferably into concrete. They should also be made of a rot-resistant material – like cedar, redwood or pressure-treated 4x4s.

Plan for your arbor to stretch about a foot wider than the path that passes through it – and make sure it’s wide enough for maintenance equipment (like garden tractors with mower decks) to pass through as well. Depth is a matter of choice, but height should be a minimum of 86 inches. Use surveyor’s stakes, cheap and available at any home center, to mark the corners – just be sure to keep it in a perfect rectangle.

If your soil is soft and loamy, a manual posthole digger will be fine to use. If the ground is hard clay or rocky, rent a power auger with at least an 8-inch bit. Have a helper hold the post perfectly plumb and level while you attach temporary supports in at least three directions – it’s easiest to do using light furring and drywall screws. It takes about 50 pounds of concrete to fill a hole around a single post (and be sure to pour a little dry ready-mix into the hole first). You’re posts should be about 10 feet tall, allowing for them to settle 24 inches in the ground and still reach 8 feet above it. (Don’t skimp on footings!)

An oversized hole gives you a little “wiggle room” to keep the four posts in square, and it’s a good idea to connect the posts by clamping wide boards to them. This keeps them aligned for the material you’ll eventually attach.

Do all your leveling and measuring on the project in advance, and mark every piece to identify exactly where it goes (even the top and bottom of the board). Use the rails for the top of the project and bar clamps to set a level line for the finished height of the arbor. A minimum for people to pass is 80 inches, the height of a typical doorway. The posts will be 80 inches plus the height of the cross rail, which is usually 6 inches. Trim off any extra post height and use a carpenter’s level to keep the entire top of the frame even.

Make incredibly strong joints by cutting away part of the post to support the crossrails. Even though you’ll use 4-inch bolts to connect the pieces, the post itself will bear the full weight of the top and not the bolts.

To connect top rafters to the crossrails, mark and cut out notches the width of the rafter’s thickness at even intervals. With the rafters in place, mark and cut corresponding notches. You’ll want a slightly snug fit, requiring a soft rap with a mallet to lock them into place. This will support any plant!

To positively eliminate any flex at all, use simple dovetail joints for the side rails. Cut a 10-degree tail in the side rail, clamp it to the post, and mark the shape of it. Then use a saw to cut just inside the marked line and chisel out the space in between. A good joint will require a light tap of a mallet to drive home, and a couple of screws will hold it fast. (And be sure to use galvanized or vinyl-coated hardware to avoid rust and make the project long-lasting.)

We love how our arbors turned out (just follow the photos for a pictorial guide on how we built them). With the right materials and a little bit of know-how, you can transform your garden’s entrance with an easy, elegant arbor – all you need is a weekend!

Building an Arbor

Building Arbor - Step 1

Building Arbor - Step 1

Once you’ve chosen a site and determined a size for your arbor, set 10-foot posts into 2-foot holes, securely brace them to hold them perfectly straight, and pack concrete into the holes.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Building Arbor - Step 2

Building Arbor - Step 2

Use clamps to hold pieces to the posts, and make sure it’s level in all directions. A working piece stretching across the arbor keeps things even. Note the beginnings of dovetail joints for the side rails.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Building Arbor - Step 3

Building Arbor - Step 3

Clamp the top crossrail to the posts at the desired height (usually 80 inches or more clearance underneath) to mark the trim for the post and the bottom of a lap joint for strength.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Building Arbor - Step 4

Building Arbor - Step 4

A simple way to give the rafters a tapered touch is to mark a 45-degree angle about an inch down from the top – then saw away.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Building Arbor - Step 5

Building Arbor - Step 5

Make a cut to the thickness of the crossrail, then chisel out the waste. Use a clamp to secure the bar in place while you drill holes for bolts.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Building Arbor - Step 6

Building Arbor - Step 6

Mark and cut notches in both boards to create a locking joint. This will make the top very strong and rigid.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Building Arbor - Step 7

Building Arbor - Step 7

Use a pipe clamp to pull posts together if they’re a bit out of line to keep the sides even.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Building Arbor - Step 8

Building Arbor - Step 8

Finishing up the sides of the arbor is a matter of taste. I used 1x2s to create a slatted effect.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens