What Is An Arbor: What To Know Before You Buy

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Whether DIYed or purchased, an arbor is a welcoming garden classic. Find out what it is, where it goes and how to find the right one for your garden.

Stemming from the Latin word for tree, arbors give gardens a vertical punch. Ever since Romans sought shade from the blazing sun under arched garden arbors, they’ve been a go-to item to lend shade and beauty.

Read on for key considerations when purchasing or building an arbor for your outdoor space.

What Is an Arbor?

An arbor is a shelter of vines or branches, often climbing over latticework. An arbor typically defines an entryway or covers an alcove, creating dappled shade for small seating areas and pathways.

You can purchase an arbor as a kit, which can take a few hours to install, or build one that’s custom to your outdoor space.

What’s the Difference Between an Arbor and a Pergola?

An arbor and a pergola offer shade thanks to slats and posts, but each does so in different ways.

An arbor is a narrow structure made up of or covered in foliage that creates shaded little entries or nooks. A pergola, on the other hand, is much larger with a flat, slatted roof and open sides. The top may be covered with fabric or climbing vines. Pergolas typically top patios or decks, shading and defining outdoor rooms for dining, cooking, lounging and more.

Where To Put an Arbor

Consider your space and desired arbor function. A few key options:

  • In connecting space: Traditionally, arbors were placed along the fence line to greet garden visitors. Follow this lead and place an arbor where the front yard connects to the back yard, creating a welcoming gateway.
  • To create a nook: An arbor with a bench or seating area nestled in the corner of a back yard offers a focal point, adds interest and creates a shady destination.
  • To define an entry: Add an arbor over the entrance to your back yard, a garden, a shed or any walkway to your home.
  • As a frame: An arbor can guide visitors to the perfect spot for taking in a fountain, your favorite garden or a lovely sunset view.
  • Over the garage door: A garage door arbor, or eyebrow, frames the entire door — a fine way to dress up a dull facade.

How Do I Choose an Arbor?

Before you buy a pre-built arbor, arbor kit or design your own, consider the space and the function the arbor will serve. Do you want to create a seating area with a built-in bench? Frame a walking path? Offer vining plants a foothold to climb? Once you’ve got something in mind, consider these four key factors.

Arbor size

Joie Markes, a garden landscape online merchant at The Home Depot, says arbors generally range in width from 42 inches to 122 inches and are typically eight to 10 feet high.

Shopping to scale is important so the garden arbor blends flawlessly into your yard. A large arbor would take over a small space, while a massive yard would dwarf a small one. Also make sure it’s big enough to comfortably walk or stand under, and won’t run into any tree branches overhead.

Arbor cost

Arbors start at around $75 for something ornamental made of thin metal. Around $800 would get you a sturdy wood or steel arbor with plenty of depth. Custom options can be more expensive still. It depends on the material, detailing and size, Markes says.

Arbor material

Beyond cost, let the arbor’s function and your climate determine the material. A steel arbor might stand up to rain better than a wood arbor. And while a vinyl arbor will weather the elements, it may not be sturdy enough to hold up all the climbing roses you envision.

Here are some top options, with specific pros and cons.

  • Wood arbor: Cedar, bamboo and redwood are a few classic choices. Each is hardy and offers natural beauty; base your pick on personal preference and price. With wood, check annually for weak spots or rot. Markes recommends DIYers use ground-contact pressure-treated lumber, which will hold up to the weather, repel water, resist rot and can be painted or stained to your color-of-choice.
  • Plastic or vinyl arbor: Often delivered in kits with a few large pieces that need assembly, a plastic arbor is light, inexpensive, easy to install and requires little if any maintenance. However, it may not hold up to extreme heat and cold for more than a few years. And it may fall over during heavy winds or under the weight of vines.
  • Aluminum arbor: This treated metal is sturdy, maintenance-free and long-lasting. And if you already own an aluminum fence, they’ll match.
  • Iron arbor: Heavier than aluminum, a classic iron arbor installed with stakes deep in the ground can hold up to high winds and inclement weather. Iron can rust, however, so choose a treated and painted iron arbor for maximum life. On the downside, this is one of the most expensive arbor materials. It can cost thousands, particularly if custom made.
  • Steel arbor: Treated steel can be as sturdy as iron, yet molded into thin rods to create dainty and elegant arbors. These run from around $100 into the thousands.

Arbor ease of installation

All arbors need to be secured to the ground or surrounding structures to keep them stable.

For plastic or vinyl arbor kit, the process is easy. They should come with everything you need to sink the posts into the ground after assembly, or secure the lightweight structure to a fence or the side of the home if needed.

You’ll need stronger DIY skills for iron, metal or wood arbors. These require stakes driven deep into the ground or posts sunk into holes filled with concrete.

“Set the posts in holes about 16 inches across and one foot deep,” Markes says. And, as always, call 811 a few business days before you dig to request marking of buried utilities, such as electrical or gas lines.

Kimberley McGee
Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist based in Las Vegas. She specializes in health and wellness, food, travel, real estate and home improvement and decor trends. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, People, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Today's Parent and dozens of other publications. McGee can create a variety of content, including articles, blogs, case studies, newsletters, and more. She has a knack for capturing the tone and authentic voice to tell a brand's stories.