The built environment: garden structures



This gazebo at Oakwood Gardens, the home of Julie and Mike Safley in Hillsboro, creates a focal point for the garden and its shape is perfect for its space, simple yet compelling. It beckons to all who meander through the woodlands.

// Photo by Joshua McCullough

Mother Nature is responsible for the great cherry tree debacle that forever altered the design of our back garden. In one fell swoop, the sickly 45-foot tree slumped to the ground, obliterating everything in its wake — three fully formed small trees, shrubs, perennials, objets d’art, pathways and the arbor reduced to rubble. Heartbroken by the loss of our sheltering arboreal canopy and lush shade garden, I allowed myself some time to wallow in the mud of self-pity. But seeds of optimism lurked in the mountains of debris that we carted away to be recycled.

Ideas began to percolate as my husband, Fred, and I considered our options for recreating the garden. I relished the opportunity to be my own client — maybe an oxymoronic idea but one that intrigued me. Time to assess what worked and didn’t work in the garden we were grieving. Mitigating the loss of scale, privacy and shade was the starting point for the new design. Looking at what was left was heartening as some of the original structural elements were intact and would be the backbone of the new garden.

Gardens are places of shelter and repose. Structural elements that create shade, screen us from the street, provide refuge from the rain, separate us from our neighbors, and define garden rooms provide human scale and help us organize our outdoor spaces.

Fences are key components of garden design. Cars, traffic, the neighbors’ heat pump and unsightly garage wall are banished from view by a well-placed fence or screen. Select materials that relate to the architectural vernacular of your home and personal style. A split rail fence conveys rusticity while a white picket fence is romantic. For years we had chain link fences. Ugly, yes, but good at preventing kids and dogs from escaping and perfect for supporting climbing plants. Fred worked for a fencing company in his youth and rolls of chain link were his dowry; free is a good price. Some years ago we replaced the chain link with recycled wrought iron, which plays well to our Victorian/Craftsman vibe and wasn’t damaged by falling trees.






This fence used in the Hillsboro garden of Laura Crockett shows how to design a fence so that it acts as a portal to the garden from the street, rather than one that blocks the view.

// Photo by Joshua McCullough

The demise of our oversize arbor left a huge void in the space, as it was the primary focal point visible from all parts of the garden. A mosaic bench underneath the arbor afforded some extra seating space and a view back to a terrace. Repeat blooming climbing roses clambered up the sides, providing an extravagant floral canopy from late spring to fall. With it gone the space seemed flat and the surrounding buildings loomed large.

When Fred began thinking about building a new garden centerpiece we discussed many possibilities. A new terrace on the north property line was the right location for a new structure. We considered pergolas, which can be characterized as bigger than an arbor, supported by columns or posts with a lattice work top. We weren’t sure if we wanted a gazebo, often defined as having eight sides. That seemed excessive. We opted for what we call Fred’s Folly. Historically follies are exotic, highly decorated little buildings with a roof. Fred let his imagination guide him as he designed a structure that references decorative and architectural elements from our buildings and is tall enough to reduce the scale of a neighboring duplex.

Our garage, too small to hold anything larger than a “smart car,” was shrouded from view by the trees and climbing roses that were destroyed. A newly planted tree won’t be tall enough to provide much screening in the near future so we needed another built element. Fred constructed two trellises that peak above the level of the roof. Vines wend their way through the wire grid surrounded by a frame embellished with Victorian trim echoing the spirit of the new folly.

Revisioning and rebuilding the garden was a joyous and creative process for both of us. The new structural components speak to the architectural vernacular of our buildings and the pre-existing fence. I’m feeling like a good client — I didn’t get impatient and succumb to plant lust before the built bones of the garden were finished. Time for a nursery road trip.






A very simple arbor, like this one in Pat and Dave Eckerdt’s garden in Salem, can guide you through the garden by focusing the eye and directing traffic.

// Photo by Joshua McCullough

Yard checklist

  • Fences, arbors, pergolas, sheds, chicken coops, etc., are part of the architecture of the garden — they add functional and aesthetic value.
  • Check with your city or county planning department about code restrictions, setbacks and height requirements for fences, pergolas, garden houses and sheds. 
  • If you live in a neighborhood with covenants or restrictions, you’ll need to contact the homeowners association to find out about their submittal and approval process for garden design.
  • Consult with your neighbors before replacing or adding fences along a common property line. In some cases it may be necessary to employ a surveyor to establish boundaries. It is a win-win scenario when neighbors share expenses for fence construction.
  • Look to the architectural style of your house for inspiration. The roof pitch, trim, decorative woodwork and exterior materials can provide the starting point for design elements in the garden.
  • Rejuvenate an old structure with new paint and architectural details. Make it fun or funky.