Trellis vs Pergola vs Arbor (What Is The Difference?)


If you are a gardener or homeowner, you may be looking to add visual appeal to your yard and garden.  Perhaps you have heard of trellises, pergolas, and arbors, and are wondering about the difference between them.  I was wondering the same thing, so I did some research to find out just how they compare.

So, what is the difference between a trellis, a pergola, and an arbor?  A trellis is a lattice, which can be freestanding, and always supports plants.  A pergola can be freestanding, and has sturdy posts to hold up a flat roof, which provides partial or full shade for a deck or patio.  An arbor is often freestanding, and creates a tunnel to shade a garden gate, path, or bench.

There are multiple types of trellises, pergolas, and arbors you can build, depending on the size, material, and budget that you want for your project.  Let’s look a bit closer at the differences between these yard and garden features, along with some plants you can use to make them look great.

Trellis vs Pergola vs Arbor: What Is The Difference?

As mentioned above, trellises always support plants, pergolas have a flat roof supported by posts, and arbors are used to accent and shade pathways.  Let’s dive into a bit more detail about what makes each of these garden features unique.

What Is A Trellis?

A trellis is a vertical or sloping lattice that is used to support plants that climb, such as vines (grapes, tomatoes, squash) or flowers (roses, wisteria).

wood trellis
A trellis has a lattice structure so that plants and vines can crawl up to the top.

A trellis can be freestanding, or you can attach it to the side of a building or a fence.  A freestanding trellis can be vertical, or you can choose a slanted trellis.

A vertical trellis attached to a building or fence can be used to train young fruit trees.  This is known as espalier, and is a popular way to add beauty and interest to your landscape.

A lean-to trellis is one type of slanted trellis, and it allows plants to grow up an incline.  You can also put plants that prefer shade underneath a lean-to trellis.

cucumber on trellis
Cucumber plants do well when supported on a trellis, such as the vertical one shown here. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cucumber_plants_growing.jpg

An A-frame trellis is another type of slanted trellis.  It has two inclines that meet at a point at the top of the trellis.  As a result, plants can grow up both sides of an A-frame trellis, or they can grow up one side and down the other.

A trellis is smaller than pergolas and arbors, and is the only structure that must support plants, by definition.

For more information, check out my article on how tall a trellis should be.

What Is A Pergola?

A pergola is a structure that uses sturdy posts or pillars to support an open flat roof.  This roof is often used to provide partial shade for a patio or deck.

A pergola is a flat roof supported by posts to provide shade. You can also grow vining plants on a pergola.

The open style of the roof means that a pergola does not provide full protection from sun or rain.  Of course, you can always use a cover (similar to a tarp) to provide extra protection.  You can design it so that the cover will pull back if desired, much like the roof of a convertible car.

A pergola can be freestanding, but it is often attached to a home.  A pergola is open on the sides, but you can use lattice work for extra shade from afternoon sun, and to provide more space for plants to climb.

pergola
A pergola can also support climbing plants, which can provide extra shade for a patio or deck.

Of course, plants can climb the posts (supports) of the pergola, but this is not necessary.  You can use a pergola without plants to provide decoration and shade on a deck or patio.

A popular use of a pergola is to create a kind of “outdoor room” near a grill for cooking, dining, and entertaining.  You can also hang lights from the top of the pergola and keep the party going after nightfall.

pergola
A pergola is a great way to provide some shade on a sunny day, without completely blocking out the light.

A pergola is larger than trellises and arbors.  However, as mentioned before, the structure does not necessarily need to support climbing plants to be considered a pergola.

For more information, check out my article on pergolas.

What Is An Arbor?

An arbor is a structure that creates an overhang to provide shade for a garden gate, pathway, or bench.  You can also use an arbor to separate your garden into different areas, or “outdoor rooms”.  Another idea is to create an opening through a hedgerow of shrubs.

arbor
This arbor has an arch, and forms the entryway to a garden path near a hedgerow.

An arbor is often freestanding, and is tall enough to walk under (7 feet or taller).  An arbor usually has a curved roof, to give an “arch” appearance, although an arbor can also have a flat roof. 

An arbor that is shaped into an arch often uses curved lattices to create a tunnel appearance.  You can grow climbing plants up the walls and ceilings of the tunnel to create a “living arch” appearance.

arbor arch
The “living arch” forms an arbor over the walkway up to this house.

An arbor is larger than trellis, but smaller than pergola.  The structure does not necessarily need to support plants to be considered an arbor.

For more information, check out my article on arbors.

What Is The Best Material For A Trellis, Pergola, Or Arbor?

Whether you build your own structure from scratch, use a do-it-yourself kit, or hire a contractor, you will need to choose a material for your trellis, pergola, or arbor.

All three structures are traditionally made from wood.  However, exposure to the elements will rot most wood quickly.  If you want natural beauty and are willing to replace the structures more often, wood is the way to go.

If you want your trellis, pergola, or arbor to last longer, then choose cedar or redwood, which will resist rot.  Otherwise, you should use pressure-treated wood that will resist damage from the elements.

redwood
Redwood is one material that will hold up against the elements if you use it to build your trellis, pergola, or arbor.

Besides wood, these structures can be made of vinyl, which is resistant to damage from weather and will last longer than wood.  Remember that vinyl cannot be painted, so you are stuck with the color you choose, unless you replace the entire structure.

Finally, you can build your trellis, pergola, or arbor out of metal.  The metal may rust over time, especially if made of iron.  So, make sure to treat the metal to protect it against the elements.

What Are The Best Plants To Grow On A Trellis, Pergola, Or Arbor?

The best plants to grow on a trellis have a vining habit, meaning that they grow tall instead of wide when given support, such as a lattice or pillar.

Some of the best plants to grow on a trellis, pergola, or arbor include climbing, flowering plants like roses, clematis, wisteria, bougainvillea, and ivy.  You can also grow climbing, fruiting vines such as grapes, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.

Roses

A rose is a perennial (it comes back every year) that has flowers and also sharp thorns.  Roses can have colors including white, yellow, pink, and red.

rose
Every rose has its thorn – and the flowers can come in red, white, pink, and yellow colors.

They come in many varieties, with some being compact, and others reaching heights of 20 feet (about 7 meters).

The taller varieties of roses will happily grow up along a trellis, pergola, or arbor and also provide you with beautiful and fragrant flowers.  Just be careful of the thorns!

For more information, check out this article on roses from Wikipedia.

Clematis

Clematis is another climbing, flowering plant that prefers full sun and is ideal for trellises, pergolas, and arbors.  The flowers can be white, pink, red, blue, and maroon.  Many varieties originated in China or Japan.

clematis
Clematis flowers can come in white, pink, red, blue, or maroon colors.

There are many varieties of clematis, so should be able to find one that thrives in whatever region you live in.  When choosing a variety, you may want to choose one that climbs and grows tall, rather than a shrub variety.

For more information, check out this article on clematis from Wikipedia.

Wisteria

Wisteria is another climbing, flowering plant – one that is technically in the legume family along with peas, peanuts, and beans.  The flowers are purple, violet, pink, or white.  They are popular as ornamental plants, with many originating in China and Japan.

wisteria
Wisteria likes to grow on arbors and hang down from above, with its purple, violet, pink, or white flowers.

Wisteria can climb as high as 66 feet (20 meters) and spread out as far as 33 feet (10 meters).  It will grow quickly, often able to survive in poor-quality soil.

For more information, check out this article on wisteria from Wikipedia.

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea is a climbing, thorny ornamental plant that comes in vine, bush, or tree form.  The flowers are pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, yellow, or white.

bougainvillea
Bougainvillea flowers come in pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, yellow, or white. No matter which color you prefer, you can find a bougainvillea that you’ll like!

Bougainvillea is native to South America.  They can grow from to 3 to 40 feet (1 to 12 meters) tall.

For more information, check out this article on bougainvillea from Wikipedia.

Ivy (Hedera)

Ivy is an evergreen that will either climb or creep along the ground.  Given support, they can climb up to 100 feet (30 meters) or higher above the ground.

ivy
Ivy likes to grow up along walls with texture, such as brick or stone walls. Ivy will gladly climb a trellis, pergola, or arbor too.

The flowers are greenish-yellow, and ivy also produces a greenish-black berry.  Pollinators are often attracted to the flowers of ivy, so this plant is a good way to bring bees to your yard to pollinate your garden.

For more information, check out this article on hedera (ivy) from Wikipedia.

Climbing Fruiting Vines

If you want to decorate your trellis, pergola, or arbor with plants that bear fruit, then you have many vines to choose from, including grapes, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.

grapes
Grapes are a nice choice to provide shade and tasty fruit when grown on a trellis, pergola, or arbor.

These plants will add style to the structure, but they will also provide food for your family.  Imagine picking fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, and grapes for cooking and eating under the shade of a pergola!

tomato plant
Tomatoes are another great choice to grow on a trellis, pergola, or arbor. Choose indeterminate varieties and they can grow up to 10 feet tall or higher!

You can also make wine or jelly from grapes, and you can freeze or can beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, or squash to preserve them for later in the fall or winter.

pole beans
Pole beans are another good choice for a vining plant to grow up a trellis, pergola, or arbor. This one kept me fed with green beans all summer, with some left over to freeze!

The only drawback of these plants is that many will die in the winter cold, especially in northern climates.  This means that you will have to replant them every year, and their growth will have to start all over again.

For more information and ideas, check out my article on which fruits will grow best on a trellis.

Conclusion

By now, you have a much better idea of the difference between a trellis, a pergola, and an arbor.  You also have some ideas about what plants to use to complement these structures and make them look great in your yard or garden.

I hope that you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.  If you have any questions about trellises, pergolas, or arbors, please leave a comment below.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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