Reed ceiling shelter

9 Clever Shelter Solutions for Your Yard

There are a great many options for providing shelter within your yard, ranging from decks, porches, verandahs, and covered pergolas on patios adjacent to the house, to more elaborate structures like gazebos and summerhouses.

While function determines the location of the shelter, style will influence the type of protection or ‘ceiling’ you chose. A gazebo is best suited to a Victorian-style house and garden, while a thatched cabin looks more appropriate in a farmhouse environment. If you have a tennis court, the chances are you will want a summerhouse in which players and guests can sit on hot, sunny days.

If you are planning a patio for entertaining, this too may require some kind of protective cover.

Even if your yard and garden has not been planned to conform to a particular style, it is important that a garden shelter relates comfortably to the house itself. A wooden pergola tacked onto the side of a severe, symmetrical, Georgian-style building will look rather odd. On the other hand, the same structure, planted with creepers and climbers, will immediately add to the charm of a country cottage or farmhouse.

A shadecloth-covered pergola gives shelter from the sun on an elaborate outdoor entertaining area.
A pretty Victorian-style porch is perfect for alfresco eating.

Of course the amount of protection you require is also a major factor. The pergola will provide shade from the sun and may shield you from some of the wind, but it will not be proof against rain. For this, a more permanent type of roof will be needed.

9 Types of Shelter

1. Arbour

The traditional arbour was a simple, semi-enclosed structure designed to give some shelter from the elements and to introduce a touch of intimacy and seclusion into a yard. Constructed principally as a support for plants, it also housed a seat of some sort and provided an inviting, sun-dappled little retreat. Although invariably smothered with plants, the basic structure remained partially open to the sky a feature sometimes overlooked in the modern version of the arbour.

Arbours in ancient Egypt appear to have been practical rather than decorative, erected for the cultivation of grape vines. The Romans also constructed arbours, although these were grander structures, sometimes built on stone columns and with open lattice roofs.

By the mid-16th century. the arbour formed a familiar part of the English garden and was, again, a simple arrangement, often assembled from willow or juniper stems (rather like the Victorian bower) and, once planted with rosemary, box or another of the favoured plants of the day, became a living structure. The Victorians, on the other hand, favoured relatively open, wirework arbours that were often planted with roses.

The modern arbour is closer in character to a pergola, even though a more traditional design can be easily erected. A simple but charming result can be attained by building an arch and planting over and around on three sides to create (in terms of the dictionary definition) ‘a shady retreat with sides and roof of trees or climbing plants’.

Perhaps the most ambitious type is the topiary arbour, for which the dense foliage of an evergreen tree is carefully clipped and hollowed out to create a living shelter around a seat.

A huge number of plants are suited to arbours, among them such sweet-smelling climbers as jasmine and honeysuckle. Other possibilities include wisteria, which, although it is deciduous, will add a sensational splash of color to the garden when it flowers; the self-clinging, silver-veined creeper Parthenocissus henryana or clematis, which does better in colder climates.

Arbours are commonly sited at the end of a path or in a reasonably secluded corner of the yard, although there is nothing to prevent you incorporating one into a patio area close to the house. At Sissinghurst, in England, the white garden features a typical Victorian arbour, smothered in white roses and positioned centrally at the point where four paths converge.

2. Awnings

An attractive shadecloth awning gives welcome protection from the sun. Photo © Janek Szymanowski

Adjustable awnings are ideal for patios where there is a need for both sun and shade. These are available as lightweight aluminium louvres or in canvas. The color should be in keeping with the house yard and garden.

3. Conservatories

Though the conservatory is usually considered a part of the house, its origins can in fact be traced to 17th century orangeries built alongside houses (and mansions) to give protection to plants.

By the mid-19th century, the English had developed cheaper and better quality glass as well as iron glazing-bars to support it. As a result, elaborate conservatories and sophisticated greenhouses became familiar attachments to Victorian homes. Here, all types of exotic plants were tended until they could either be transferred into the garden or displayed within the house.

A traditional Victorian-style conservatory helps bring the garden into the house.

Popular types of modern conservatory include glass extensions and custom-made rooms with glass walls. Even though the former tend to get rather hot in summer, they do have the appealing effect of bringing the garden indoors.

4. Gazebos

This time-honoured structure is a perfect means of shelter for the large yard or garden, especially that which inclines towards the Victorian style. Essentially an outdoor room with a view, a gazebo (sometimes called a pavilion) was often raised on a terrace, for instance – to take in a vista beyond the property. Traditionally it was a delightful little building, often constructed from wood but sometimes from stone or brick, and had a steeply-pitched roof of either shingle, slate or thatch (depending on the style of the house). It had both doors and windows and was either square or octagonal in shape.

The renowned gardener Gertrude Jekyll had a celebrated gazebo in her garden at Munstead Wood, a retreat that was dubbed ‘the thunder house’ because it was here that she would sit and watch the summer storms that swept over the landscape. Designed by her partner, Sir Edwin Luytens, it was described as ‘a plain little building’ that matched the local stone used in the house and elsewhere and enabled Miss Jekyll to see over the fields and beyond to the distant hills.

A charming Victorian gazebo provides an inviting shady retreat on hot summer days. Photo © Janek Szymanowski

If sited some distance from the house, the style of a gazebo can be as whimsical as you choose. However, it is still preferable to have some kind of visual link between the two. Consider using the same tiles or sheeting for the roof, or perhaps mirror pillars to support a verandah.

When planting beside a gazebo, it is important to ensure that vigorous creepers, such as bougainvillaea, which thrives in warm climates, have adequate support. Alternatively, opt for a lighter plant – perhaps the sweetly scented Chilean jasmine, Mandevilla laxa or pink flowering M. splendens, both of which are best suited to temperate parts, or the semi-hardy canary creeper which bears clusters of bright yellow flowers in late summer and autumn. Or you could plant an annual climber – Black-eyed Susan, Thunbergia alata, for example – which will grow quickly to provide additional screening in summer but will give the structure maximum exposure to sunlight in the cold winter months.

5. Pergolas

The pergola has a history dating back at least to Roman times (as murals at Pompeii show). Originally developed to give some shelter from the hot Mediterranean summer sun (making them an obvious feature in gardens created in this style), they are nowadays often built for purely decorative purposes in cooler climates.

A pergola (the Latin word pergula means a projecting roof or eave) is an ideal frame for climbing plants (see Plant ceilings, below) They may also be ‘roofed’ with wooden slats, shadecloth which is now widely available in a selection of colors, or an awning of some type (see Awnings, above). The structure can be freestanding or attached to the house. It is often constructed over a patio or carport to give shade, but maybe erected to form a covered walkway in the yard or even over a driveway. In fact, Sir Edwin Lutyens, who may be regarded as the master of the pergola, often used it to link house and garden.

When it comes to size, it all depends on your personal needs and preferences. There are no hard and fast rules: pictures of some Renaissance gardens show grand pergolas long enough to shade horse and rider during their daily gallop.

Vines flourish over a backyard pergola, which covers a patio used primarily for tending pot plants.

Hooped timber arches – which would have to be built by a skilled carpenter – will make a stunning pergola, especially if galvanized wire or something similar is stretched along the top to carry climbing plants, and to create a tunnel of soft foliage. Alternatively, consider a classical English pergola with hoops of iron set across a wide walkway.

If you prefer gum poles, choose ones that have been given a tanalith treatment. Do not use creosote. This black, tar-like substance is toxic to both plants and animals, and if the structure is covered with shadecloth, it will eventually rot this too.

The range of pergola plants is vast and varied and, once again, choice will depend largely on the surrounding environment. Rambling roses, for instance are an obvious option for a Victorian or English Country garden, while crimson hued bougainvillea is a must for the Mediterranean style exterior.

6. Plant ceilings

One of the most effective ways to create atmosphere in a yard is to allow creepers and climbers to form a natural plant canopy over pergolas, archways and other structures.

Any reasonably light material will serve as a framework: timber, metal, even rope or chain hung between uprights to form swags.

A leafy glade where trees provide shade is a good place to site table and chairs. Photo © Janek Szymanowski

Trees, too, will of course give shade, and some may even be planted so that they intertwine, forming a continuous line and an attractive plant ceiling.

While a plant ceiling will not provide shelter from the rain or from hail and snow, it will protect you from the sun and, when well established, usually from the wind too. Providing the climate is right, various climbers such as the Zimbabwe climber, Podranea brycei, golden shower, Pyrostegia venusta, and a wide selection of bougainvillaea will also create a riot of color in summer as well as afford welcome protection. The evergreen Chinese jasmine, Jasminum polyanthum will add a beautiful fragrance when planted up the sides of a pergola or gazebo, as will the lovely lilac-flowering wisteria, W. sinensis – which is deciduous  – and various honeysuckles, most of which are also evergreen.

The choice will of course depend on whether you want protection all year round or whether you need to let some sunlight into the area in the colder winter months. A dense ceiling of creepers over a patio attached to the house will serve as a cool, leafy retreat in summer, but will tend to make the house cold in winter. Here, it would be more sensible to opt for deciduous plants – Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, for example (although this is a self-clinging species akin to ivy, and this may make maintenance of the structure a problem). or an ornamental or fruiting grape vine.

7. The Summerhouse

Perhaps more accurately termed a ‘garden house’, this is a covered retreat, similar to (and sometimes confused with) the gazebo and pavilion, where there is sufficient space to relax and spend time out of the hot summer sun.

However, unlike the ornate gazebo, the summerhouse is a simple, often partially open-sided building which sometimes features a thatched roof. The traditional Victorian structure was large enough to seat eight or ten people, for it was here that the family would invariably ‘take tea’ in the summer months. The ultimate 19th-century design was mounted on a turntable base which could be rotated, so providing its occupants with a variety of views.

Well sited, a modern summerhouse can serve as the venue for a range of activities – weekend luncheons, dinners and so on – and may be particularly effective when established beside the swimming pool. It may also double as a children’s playhouse.

8. Umbrellas

While ordinary garden umbrellas will provide some protection from the sun, large, canvas, market-style models are an even better option. Thatch umbrellas will provide a more permanent shelter.

9. Verandahs

A covered verandah offers shade from the sun and shelter from the wind and rain, and because it is a part of the structure of the house itself, it will often become the family’s outdoor room. The same applies to porches and many decks incorporated in the structure of the house.

A covered but open-sided, modern patio verandah is elegantly furnished for casual entertaining.

The type and style of verandah chosen will determine the materials used in its construction. A traditional Cape Dutch stoep running the length of the house will be built of bricks and mortar, with a concrete surface that is usually tiled. A Victorian-style verandah, on the other hand, will feature decorative wrought-ironwork, wooden lattice or carpenter’s lace.

Wood, including planed timber or poles, is a particularly popular choice for the modern verandah, or deck.

All pictures by Janek © Szymanowski

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