Gardens consist of more than just flowers and soil. Fences enclose, trellises support, sheds hold supplies and tools. Successful landscape designs include functional and ornamental garden structures that beckon us into the garden. From do-it-yourself plans to expensive antiques, these benches, fences and other structures "furnish" the garden, defining it as an outdoor living space.
Garden houses date back to ancient China, where decorative pagodas stood in the center of gardens. Mediterranean gardeners created pergolas to shade strollers from the hot sun and allow ocean breezes through the walls. English colonists brought the concept of the garden fence from their medieval cottage gardens and built from local materials; stone in the Northeast, wood in the South and far West and brick and iron on the prairies. Spanish colonists built courtyards, surrounded by stucco walls that offered shade in the afternoon. Farmers fenced in garden plots on the frontier to keep cattle and other grazing animals out.
Most garden structures serve a function. Some are just ornamental. Practical trellises and sheds support vines and tall plants and shelter tools and supplies from rain. Gazebos make an outdoor "room" for a table or other furniture. Fences keep scavenging animals and kids out or pets and kids in. Boxes made of railroad ties or landscape logs raise beds for handicapped or elderly gardeners. There are also fanciful structures built for the sheer joy of looking at them; the pagoda without a working door, a Dutch windmill without a pump or the marble balustrade lined with statues.
Garden structures are made of any material that is--or can be made--weatherproof. Stone and its composites, like cement, are natural choices for patios, walls and boundary fences. Wood can be painted or preserved with oils to be used in decks, pergolas and garden sheds or guest cottages. Steel, wrought iron and aluminum (which will not rust) are used for fences, trellises, gazebos and greenhouses. Canvas is stretched between pipes to build awnings over decks or in open pergolas where no vines grow. Newer, "engineered" woods, made from pressure-treated wood and plastic and new plastics that will not fade or warp are being used to make fences, railings and other structural elements.
The benefits of a shady bench beneath a garden arch, a fence or grape arbor are apparent; they shelter, support and add convenience to the garden. The benefits of a gazebo or pergola are more intangible. They may get the inveterate do-it-yourselfer outdoors to work on a shared project with the gardener in the household. A fencepost may provide a place to mount a plastic owl to keep birds out of a vegetable garden. A three-sided compost bin may provide a way to save money at the garden center.
Garden structures must not only be made of weatherproof materials, they must be built to withstand wind, heavy use and neglect. Even a flagstone walk requires a good foundation of gravel and sand. Humidity and freeze-thaw cycles necessitate the use of marine or galvanized hardware and joinery. Fences, trellises and other structures must harmonize with or complement the style or period of the home; today's gardens serve as extensions of the home as well as a retreat. They must also fit in to the scale of today's smaller suburban and urban lots.