12 Tips for Trellises and Arbors

Are you a climbing-rose devotee who doesn’t see the buckling trellis for the pink wave of Cecile Brunner blooms drifting onto your roof? Or maybe you want to accent the front of your Craftsman with a wisteria that doesn’t look like the botanical comb-overs you see snaking across porches in many old neighborhoods. Oregon Home asked landscape designers for tips on growing plants up in style.

 [1. Think beyond the fan-shaped cedar trellises available at Big Box stores.]
Innovative trellises and arbors are out there, just not in the garden section of a lot of big box stores where gardening supplies and plants are cheapest.

“Sometimes an off-the-shelf trellis or arbor will work in your yard, but sometimes you need a custom design,” says Portland-based sustainable garden designer Amy Whitworth, the owner of Plan-it Earth Design, which specializes in collaborating with clients on small-space design and creating habitats with native plants.

“I keep my eyes open for nice trellises whenever I drive around town or when I’m in another landscape designer’s garden. I also like to encourage my clients to go to specialty sales such as the Cracked Pots Garden Art Show that’s held every July at McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale.”

Whitworth has benefited from seeing landscape structures in many different garden zones: The Long Island, N.Y., native studied ornamental horticulture at the University of Delaware and fine arts at the Philadelphia College of Art, before relocating to Portland 20 years ago and studying landscape design at Portland Community College. She launched her own business in 1998.

[2. Before you plant a rambling rose or a vine that will have limbs as thick As a small tree, install a support system that will accommodate its mature size.]
If rose growers showed photographs of the aftermath of  improperly supported Cecile Brunners (which climb as high as 20 feet) amid the dreamy photographs of pearl-pink Mme. Alfred Carriere (it tops out at 16 feet) in their 98-page catalogs, they’d undoubtedly curtail their sales. Hiring a landscape pro to build a sturdy trellis or arbor over which your climber can ramble will save you the heartache of having to cut down a house-eating climbing Iceberg after a decade of growth.
    “We just finished a red-powder-coated steel arbor with side gates for the owner of an old house who wanted a modern industrial look for a trellis that she plans to grow two red climbing roses on,” says landscape designer David West, the owner of Structures in Landscape, a Beaverton, Ore.-based full-service landscaping business that helps clients prepare for the massive loads that some trellises and arbors end up bearing. “The powder-coated metal will be maintenance free and will disappear beneath the red roses once the climbers mature. You have to think about everything from snow loads to style when you engineer a structure in the landscape.”

 [3. Don’t plop an arbor just anywhere.]
News flash: Arbors are supposed to frame a view. “A lot of homeowners don’t use arbors properly in their landscapes,” says Whitworth. “An arbor should be an entrance into another space or a threshold into a transitional space; it shouldn’t just be stuck somewhere in your yard. I worked with a client whose daughter made her a beautiful arbor, but it wasn’t framing a view. I helped her align it elsewhere in the garden so that it now creates an approach to the garden from the house.”

[4. Get over the notion that a trellis or arbor must be made of wood.]
Many companies are using nontraditional materials for garden structures, even when the design is traditional. Walpole Woodworkers (go to, a 75-year-old garden structure manufacturer based in Walpole, Mass., makes hand-crafted trellises, arbors, lattice panels, screens, pergolas and fences out of cellular vinyl that has the look and feel of wood yet requires no maintenance.
Whitworth likes the sculpture-like trellises that Portland metal artist Jill Torberson makes (go to and the work of Ray Huston (503-630-2256), an Eagle Creek, Ore., metal artist who makes arbors and fences out of vintage garden tools and salvaged metal, among other things.

[5. Never wrap a vine around its support.]
They look so innocent, those pliable new canes emerging from the base of your climbing rose or the ropelike vines of wisteria that easily climb up your siding. What could be so wrong about encircling a cane or two around a porch pillar? “I was just with a client who had a beautiful cedar pergola supporting a huge, multi-vine wisteria, but she’d allowed one vine to wrap around the support pole and they had to cut down that vine,” says Whitworth. “You should never wrap something like wisteria around a structure; train it to climb hooks that you’ve carefully placed to get the plant where you want it to grow.”

[6. Establish a visual relationship between an arbor and the architecture of your house.]
With something as important as your home’s curb appeal, you want to figure out the optimal height of an arbor before you install it permanently. “Think about how your garden structures and the architecture of your house will look from across the street,” says West. “They should work together. If you live in a house with nice architectural details, for example, I even try to replicate some of those details such as the pitch of your roof into the details of your arbor.”

[7. Embellish your edible garden with small trellises for an artful look.]
Look for functional garden art that can do double duty as both supports for plants and sculpture. On last year’s Association of Northwest Landscape Designers annual garden tour, Whitworth saw tomato cages that Jill Torberson had made out of salvaged metal. “They were stunning!” she says.

[8. Pair the right plant with the right trellis.]
You only have to visit the display gardens of a world-class emporium of roses such as Heirloom Roses in St. Paul, Ore., to see the many forms—and trellis needs—of roses (don’t miss the 100-foot-long pergola that supports 50 rambler roses). Go when the roses are in full bloom, but go again when the bushes are flowerless so that you can easily see the structure of the plants. “A lot of vines and roses become too big for the average-sized trellis,” says Whitworth. “My favorite vine is a star jasmine, which I like, in part, because of its smaller scale.”

[9. Work with a garden designer who knows how to work with carpenters.]
Don’t just talk plants with landscape designers you’re thinking about hiring. Talk structures, too. “I work with a number of different woodworkers and carpenters,” says Whitworth. “I like to work with carpenters who like to collaborate with me on a client’s garden structures, somebody like Patti Perkins of P.I. Woodworking, who does really great work.”

[10. If plants will totally cover a structure, opt for function over beauty.]
Don’t think you have to blow your Paris Vacation fund to get the garden structures you’re envisioning. Whitworth points to landscape designer Chara Alexander as an inspiration for resourcefulness. “Chara just goes to Oregon Wire Products and buys 4-by-8-foot sheets of remesh, which she anchors into the ground and ties together at the top,” she says. “Once the trellises are covered with plants, you can’t tell what the support looks like anyway.”

[11. Resist buying a cheap imported arbor that won’t stand the test of time.]
“I wish people would stop buying those $150 metal arbors that are made in China or Mexico,” says Robert Jefferson Travis Pond, who turns out custom metal work, including garden structures, as Steel Pond Studios (go to “Ten years ago, I made a double-gated arbor for a client who ran out of money, so I put it in front of my house as an entry arbor. It still looks good, and I’ve never had a problem with it. If it had been one of those 6-foot-tall arbors from China, I would’ve had to replace it three or four times by now. They use cheap materials and lack the craftsmanship that I put into every piece I make.”

[12. Be patient to see your climbers grow into the focal point you envisioned.]
After 15 years in the landscape design business, West is used to delayed gratification. “I recently saw a 7-foot-wide, clear-cedar beam pergola that I built for a president of Monrovia, the nursery, completely covered with wisteria,” he says. So when did he build it, exactly? Try 1991!