The earliest known surviving garden plan dates back to about 1400 BC.
It belonged to an Egyptian high court official of Thebes, and it details a pergola over the entryway into the garden. What inspired the creation of this pergola? Perhaps it was aesthetic beauty or protection from the hot sun. Pergolas serve both functions wonderfully, making them timeless.
In fact, pergolas have served many purposes down through the ages. From supporting beautiful hanging gardens for the rich elite, to enabling access to harvestable vegetation for the common worker.
Pergolas Down Through the Ages
Egyptian pergolas were long, angular structures comprised of vines from fruiting trees like figs and grapes.
Following the Roman conquest of Egypt, vine training systems were introduced throughout the Roman Empire. These systems increased in popularity, particularly in Mediterranean countries. The first known use of the term “pergola” (Latin for “projecting eave”) occurred in Rome in the Late Middle Ages (1250-1500 AD).
During this same period, East Asians were creating their own pergola structures, featuring curved beams similar to the design of their pagodas.
The artistic revival of the Great Italian Renaissance in the 17th century resulted in pergolas with large, dramatic pillars made of smooth stone. Then, the naturalism movement of the Victorian era combined the softness of garden life with the pergola’s classic structure. This became the basis for modern-day pergola design.
Which Brings Us to Today…
Modern pergolas are generally not crafted from the same stone and brick that previous generations seemed to favor. Today’s pergolas are typically constructed of wood (primarily cedar or pine), although they may also be made from vinyl, aluminum, fiberglass, or composite materials.
At its heart, the modern pergola is relatively simple: Sturdy boards and crossbeams, often accented with lattice and climbing plants. But innovations in technology — such as the addition of louvered roofs – have increased the functionality of pergolas and contributed to the popularity of outdoor living spaces.
The various styles of pergolas run the gamut from traditional Roman, to Mediterranean, Asian, rustic, contemporary, and just about anything in between. Space and budget are two possible constraints with a pergola, but in general, the “rules” of pergola design are flexible.
Let’s look at some of the options available to cover a pergola, either permanently or from season to season.
A water-repellant canvas canopy can be installed on top of the pergola or under its eaves. Most canvas covers include a retractable system (either manual or motorized), which allows the cover to slide over the pergola area when needed, and then roll back up when not in use.
Some canvas covers offer UV protection, which will help extend the life of your outdoor furniture and cut down on heat penetration. Another benefit to fabric is the variety of colors and designs available to add even more style to your outdoor structure.
Another option to cover your pergola is to install a louver system. Made from wood, fiberglass or heavy-duty plastic, the louvers can be installed like individual “flaps” over each of the pergola’s crossbeams. The flaps operate like venetian blinds, and can be rotated about 165 degrees using a center pivot system. The louvers can be adjusted up to allow sun into the space, or down to keep out the rain.
One advantage to the louvre system is that it’s more adjustable than fabric, as the louvers can be positioned partially open to maintain ventilation. Some louver systems also have built-in gutters to drain off rain. These covers are typically available in a variety of colors, styles and configurations.
If you’re looking for something more permanent, and enjoy the sound of rain on a metal rooftop, consider copper or aluminum. Both are similar to install and can be cut or sized to fit any size or shape. Another option is steel, which is more expensive, but extremely sturdy and durable.
If you want a permanent feature that also lets in light, then you’re probably looking at plastic or fiberglass roofing panels. Both materials are designed to allow complete light exposure, while keeping rain and harmful UV rays from passing through. Fiberglass may be a greener option, as most fiberglass materials are made from recycled materials.
Of course, the down side to permanent covers (whether metal, plastic or fiberglass) is that they’re, well, permanent. Once installed, they will not be easy to remove. So they’re not your best you want if you’re hoping to toggle between a covered and uncovered pergola.
A Few More Pergola Points
- A pergola can stand on its own, but it also works well with another outdoor structure such as a patio or deck. Its placement can help delineate traffic or seating areas.
- Trellises on one or more sides of a pergola are ideal for increasing privacy.
- The spacing of the pergola’s crossbeams will determine how much sunlight is shielded. For instance, in an area with large trees, only a few beams would be needed. Areas that get a lot of direct sun would require more beams.
- Weather-proof fabric draperies can be a useful accessory in pergola designs; they shield the space from sunlight and provide seclusion.