Not Just a Pretty Fence

About 10 years ago, I built a long trellis across the width of my back garden. The idea came from a drawing by Hubert Robert, an 18th-century French painter and landscape architect. His trellis was very sophisticated -- after all, he was a draftsman for the gardens at Versailles. I simplified his design, but the principle was the same: the trellis -- upright posts and a lattice grille -- would support climbers such as roses and clematis. In fact, the trellis had a far greater impact on the whole garden than I anticipated. It was relatively inexpensive and was easy to build with simple tools.

An Attractive Addition

Here are ways, both practical and aesthetic, that the trellis improved my garden.

When space is divided up, it looks larger. Visitors started to comment on how large my garden was. A garden seen in its entirety tends to be judged superficially. When you can see only part of it but realize that it continues beyond the trellis, you are curious to see what is on the other side. Diverse gardening styles can flourish close to each other. Nowadays, gardeners know a good deal about various styles of gardens and want to try them out. However, different styles in a single garden can easily produce a hodgepodge. With a trellis dividing the areas, disparate styles can coexist. In my own garden, an informal pond where I let things grow in a chaotic way is just a few steps from a geometrical, formal-looking lawn. The two do not clash because you never see them at the same time.

Two areas along the same axis create the impression of large scale. I have a 140-foot path that goes straight from the back door through a 2-1/2-foot opening in the trellis to the back of the property. From the back fence, the door becomes a focal point. The trellis frames and focuses the views.

Camouflage unsightly areas. One of my trellises hides the compost heaps. Another screens the garden from neighbors and creates privacy at the same time.

Provide sturdy support for climbers and a backdrop for bedding plants. Climbing roses normally need to be tied to a support, but weaving the canes through the trellis openings has the same effect. Natural climbers such as clematis, Dutchman's pipe, and kiwi vines only need to be redirected as required. Flower beds sometimes give the impression of not being related to their surroundings, but the backing of a trellis can anchor and set off these plants.

Let the air flow through. This is good not only for the plants growing on it but for the garden in general. The air flow discourages fungal diseases and, because it's slowed down by the trellis, is gentler on plants like delphiniums that can easily be snapped by a sudden gust of wind. In a cold climate, a trellis acts as a snow fence, encouraging the buildup of an insulating snow cover over flower beds.

Use it as a ladder. I can climb on it when I need to tie up or prune a high-reaching branch.

Are there any drawbacks? Over the years I have found only one. The trellis is a perfect highway for squirrels. My dog used to keep them under control, but once I had built such a convenient escape route, she entirely gave up chasing them.

Building a Latticework Trellis

Basic lumber dimensions are 12-foot 4-by-4s for the posts, 8-foot 2-by-4s for stringers, scrap 2-by-4s to support them on the posts, and 1-by-2 spruce strapping for the lattice (12 horizontal and 12 vertical strips for each section). The 4-by-4s and 2-by-4s are pressure-treated spruce, and the strapping is untreated spruce. Use 3-inch nails to connect the 2-by-4s, 1-by-2s, and lattice to the posts, and 1-1/2-inch nails to join the strapping for the lattice.

If you intend to paint or stain the latticework, it is easier to do it before construction than after.

First set the 4-by-4 posts about 3 feet deep in concrete, making sure they are perfectly vertical and 8 feet apart edge to edge. Nail 2-inch scraps of 2-by-4 near the top and bottom of the posts to support the 2-by-4 stringers. The distance between the stringers should be 8 feet. Between these supports, center and nail a 1-by-2 strip flat along each 4-by-4. On the front edge of the 2-by-4 stringers, nail a 1-by-2 strip flat along the underside of the top 2-by-4 and along the top side of the bottom 2-by-4, flush with the front of the 2-by-4. Nail the 2-by-4 stringers to the supports on the posts.

To make the lattice, nail 12 horizontal 1-by-2s to the front side of the 1-by-2s on the support posts; set strips about 7-1/4 inches apart on center. Then attach 12 verticals to the back of the horizontals, similarly spaced. Proceed in the same way for each 8-foot section. Stain or paint as desired.

Because a single trellis about 70 feet long could be unwieldy in high winds, I broke up the length by offsetting two of the middle sections about 2 feet from the main line.

Alain Charest, an avid home gardener and garden photographer, lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

Photography by Alain Charest

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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