How to Build a Rustic Pergola

Learn how to build a rustic, wooden pergola complete with a bench and potting table by following these simple instructions.

| February/March 1998

When clearing a fresh patch of sunny meadow to rotate the kitchen garden last year, I discovered a robust young wild grape vine. Its multiple stems were rooted under the dripline of a fir tree growing at the uphill margin of meadow and woods. The vine's leading stem wound up into the evergreen, following the New England native "fox" grape's characteristic growth habit of seeking sun in the treetops. Secondary stems sprawled laterally over the garden-to-be, sending tendrils up every dry old goldenrod stem and milkweed stalk they encountered.

Flush with spring-of-the-year energy, I found myself dreaming of a leafy garden-side arbor dripping with plump bunches of tangy Concord-type fox grapes, their purple-black skins dusted with a silvery bloom of native culinary mold. This will naturally ferment grape juice into country wine and then to vinegar, and it can be cultured to make sauerkraut and sourdough bread. So I pulled the vine free of the fir branches and meadow-growth, and draped it over a temporary trellis: a 10-foot-long cut sapling pole supported by a pair of polebean — style sapling tipis.

The vine was still too young to bear fruit, but it leafed out luxuriantly and prospered over the growing season, enjoying unaccustomed full sun and free airflow around its leaves that would discourage mildew and black mold. I did my best to keep the land around its base free of serious competition by trimming the meadow plants around it to a short sod and then tossing the first year's crop of rocks tilled and raked out of the garden soil into a low cone around its base to create a weed discouraging, sun-heat-absorbing and water-retaining rock mulch.

This fall, as I was tilling compost, old mulch, and new-shredded leaves into the garden and adding still more rocks to the grape vine's collection, I began feeling a little guilty over the way I'd treated the young plant. I'd yanked it out of its protective evergreen refuge, and the now bare and leafless stems appeared mighty scrawny and vulnerable to winter as they drooped from their rickety sapling scaffold at the top of the garden. Taking a welcome break from the tiller, I went up and sat on the moist sod to commiserate with the vine and quickly developed a case of wet rump, a minor nuisance encountered any time during the past growing season that I wanted to rest, unpot seedlings, mix soil amendments, or perform any other chore requiring a flat surface close alongside the new garden.

I don't know if you commune with your plants. I do. Or if yours respond. I can't prove that mine do. But the solution to both the grape vine's dilemma and my minor garden-side problems suddenly came to me as I sat, damp-romped and guilt-ridden beneath the grapevine: I would learn how to build a pergola, a 4-post, ladder-topped arbor similar to a child's jungle gym. I'd install a sitting bench at one end, a potting bench at the other, and make space for a shed-roofed lean-to at the rear to provide a handy garden — side shelter for rakes, shovels, the tiller, and supplies. Up one end and across the top I'd arrange the grape vine, and at the other end I'd train an old-fashioned near-wild rambling rose. Over the summer, I'd mount two or three hanging baskets of flowers or vining vegetables in the front. In another age, one might mistake it for a bower, the sort of woodsy shelter where nymphs, dryads, shepherds and fair country maids were forever trysting in classical literature.

The classical idiom hasn't much resonance these days, alas. "Your browser or mine?" "Send me an e-mail" is more like it. I'd eschew the romance and build a strictly practical garden — shed type pergola in sturdy American rustic style from the saplings I was hauling out of the woods as I cleared space for the meandering paths, sunny meadow spots, and watery grottos of a woodland garden. Any lost naiads could go there to tryst with the resident wood sprites.

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