Garden shelters, such as this arbor, should meet certain size requirements to ensure comfort.

Gimme shelter in the garden

Gardens existed before gardeners, but gardeners can claim credit for the idea of shelters and trellises, structures that allow us to come closer to and enjoy our plants more in their natural setting.

There is a wide variety of choices in garden shelters. This is a great time of year to focus on shelters and outdoor garden structures. In a few weeks, when temperatures begin to drop, your attention will turn back to fall garden chores and away from structural aspects of the garden.

In essence, any structure in the garden with beams or a roof is a shelter. Each type has a name. There are arbors, belvederes, bowers, casinos, gazebos, loggias, pergolas, porticos, shade trellises, screened-in porches, summer houses and more, but there is a lot of overlap in terminology.

  • Open-roof structures: Arbors, pergolas and shade trellises all have open roofs. An arbor consists of open rafters or lattice overhead, often designed as a support for vines or trained plants. A shade trellis sometimes has one wall that can serve as screening or wind protection or can attach to a house. Pergolas are a more formal structure, generally having three walls and pillars for support along an open front. Any of these will add interest and will be attractive with plants trained on it.
  • Solid-roof structures: Belvederes, gazebos, loggias and porticos are open-sided structures with solid roofs for protection against the elements. The term belvedere is applicable to any garden shelter sited where it commands an outstanding vista. The gazebo was developed for English gardens.

The name is a derivation of a combination of English and Latin words meaning, "I shall gaze," and it was built to be a retreat with a view. A loggia is a covered open area overlooking a courtyard. Generally attached to a house, porticos are covered promenades. They were popularly used around pools in the Moorish-style gardens of Spain and decorated with mosaic tiles, carved pillars, fountains and formal rows of shrubs.

Enclosed garden structures: Bowers, casinos and screened-in porches are shelters that can function as summer houses or guest lodgings. A bower is a rustic structure often covered with branches and vines twined together. It could be used in a woodland garden or other natural setting. The casino was introduced in Italian landscape designs as formal entries onto an estate. Casinos were sculpturally very ornate. From the casino, which often doubled as guest quarters, visitors could enter the garden. The main house was usually located up a level on the other side of the garden. For the American-style garden shelter, screened-in porches make eating and spending time outdoors a pleasure without the annoyance of insects and inclement weather.

Some of the names of these outdoor structures may sound familiar and help you form an immediate mental picture of one that might work for you. Others might spark an idea of how you can incorporate a structure to add more interest to your landscape. Consider a structure that you will use often and that will create comfort and enjoyment for you and your guests.

For more ideas, go to public gardens, or the local library for gardening and architectural books and magazines. Architectural Digest, Country Living Gardener and Fine Gardening are just a few magazines with articles and ads for a variety of structures.

You can hire a licensed architect or landscape architect if you would rather have a custom-designed structure. The professional you hire should provide you with a ready-to-build drawing of your concept with dimensions that meet your needs.

Garden shelters should meet certain size requirements to ensure comfort. Here are some guidelines to ensure your shelter fits human proportions. Total area: 50 square feet per person. Roof: eight feet to beams, more if design requires. Doorway: 32-inch minimum. Table height: 29 to 31 inches. Seating: 17 to 20 inches. Steps, six-inch riser, 14-inch tread.

If you have the opportunity to choose the location for your garden structure, a lovely orientation would be slightly elevated on a southeastern slope away from the property's lowest point.

The structure's placement depends on how you plan to use it. It's not necessary to attach it to the house, but I like to design structures close enough to a house to create a smooth indoor/outdoor relationship. A casino, patio, pergola, porch or shade trellis designed to match your existing architecture will integrate the structure with your property, even if it's across the garden.

Shelters such as belvederes, gazebos or bowers are most effective when completely separated from the house. Construct such a shelter in a private or separate part of the garden to create the feeling that you are getting away from your daily world. The design of these types of structures can be completely independent of the landscape design surrounding your house to create this effect.

Whether close to the house or not, a garden shelter can give the landscape a more designed look. Often the structure doubles as a trellis for training plants, as is the case with arbors and pergolas.

Trellises are a network of crossed strips that form a geometric pattern. A separate trellis used with the shelter can further enhance privacy and enclosure, and create more interest and beauty. Companies that handle pre-built ornamental landscape structures will usually sell or build trellises.

If you are training large plants that develop heavy wood, you will need strong supports, such as steel pipe and heavy lumber. A pergola, arbor or shade trellis can be the perfect plant support in this situation.

There are many prefabricated and custom-built garden shelters available in a wide selection of materials. Visit garden and home improvement centers, get some catalogs or go on the Internet. Also check the Yellow Pages for home improvement contractors, outdoor furniture suppliers and companies listed under "sheds."

Here are some national firms to contact: Amish Country Gazebos,, 800-700-1777; Absolutely Amish,, 888-216-4576; Vixen Hill,, 800-423-2766; Walpole Woodworkers,, 800-343-6948; Dalton Pavilions,, 800-532-5866; Leisure Woods,, 888-442-9326.

— Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of "Anyone Can Landscape"(Ball 2001). Contact him through his Web site,

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