Making an Entrance

You can create an arbor like this one. Trust me; it's not that hard.
Steve Bender

It's a proven fact: No one ever throws away an issue of Southern Living. That is why I'm going to pause for a moment while you locate your February 2004 issue, which features a story called "From My Yard to Yours."

Found it? Excellent. This particular story, which demonstrates how to turn a neglected side yard into something pretty, features colorful plantings of maples, camellias, boxwoods, and Japanese sweet flag. Unfortunately, it provides only the faintest glimpse of the garden's most striking element--its arbor. Many neighbors have complimented me on this structure, so I thought you might like to fashion something similar for your garden.

A Little Help From My Friends
Don't get the idea that I built this myself. Heck, whenever I successfully change a lightbulb, CNN shows up to cover the story. No, my main contributions to this project included generously providing the location and then convincing skilled coworkers they could achieve moral enlightenment by doing most of the labor. My garden colleagues helped plan the design. Deputy Editor Kenner Patton and Executive Editor Derick Belden made the arbor. Contractors fabricated the columns. As for me, I painted the wood, which, as everyone who knows me will agree, was by far the most challenging part.

Location, Location
We placed the arbor at the head of the garden's central path for several reasons. Just as a front door and steps identify the entry to a house, so this arbor shows you the entry to the garden. It marks the transition from front yard to side yard and also frames a view of the garden beyond.

Sizing It Up
A vital consideration when designing an arbor is making it the right size for the space. Make it too small, and it looks like it came from a kid's play set. Make it too big, and people suspect that Mighty Joe Young lives in your basement.

My side yard measures about 40 feet long and 20 feet wide. The arbor is 8 feet tall with a 4-foot opening between the posts, so it looks in scale with the yard. There's 7 feet of clearance beneath the rafters, so, except for Shaquille O'Neal, most visitors can pass through without ducking.

 

Step 1--The Columns
The wooden structure rests on stone-veneer columns that are 18 inches square and 3 feet high. We decided to go with stone because the front door of my house is surrounded by stone. Using the same material visually unifies the house and arbor. 

To make the stone-veneer columns, we first excavated a 1-foot-deep footing for each column. In each footing, we placed cinder blocks, drove iron rebar through the holes into the ground, and then mortared the blocks in place. We mortared together additional cinder blocks atop the bottom ones until we reached the height we wanted and filled the holes in the blocks with concrete.

Next, we inserted a steel U-bracket into the fresh concrete at the top of each column. This type of bracket consists of a galvanized box attached to an 18-inch metal rod that goes down the center of the column. We propped up each bracket so that when the concrete dried, the bottom of the box would be about an inch above the topmost cinder blocks. You'll see why in just a minute.

Step 2--About Face
Next, we hid the cinder blocks behind a veneer of cut native stone. We selected stones that were basically flat, smooth, and about the same size so they would stack easily and give a neat, crafted look. We secured the stones by cementing them on the inside edge, next to the cinder blocks, hiding the cement to give the appearance of dry-stacked columns.

As a final touch, we slid 1-inch-thick "capstones" under the galvanized box atop each column and mortared them to the stones below. Then we used silicone caulk to seal the edges around the bottom of the box to prevent water from entering the columns from above.

 

Step 3--Topping It Off
We inserted a 6 x 6 pressure-treated post into each bracket on top of the column and secured it with heavy-duty screws. After measuring to make sure that everything was plumb and square, we attached a pair of 8-foot-long 2 x 8 rafters. Next, we spaced seven 2 x 2 crosspieces atop the rafters and attached them with galvanized screws.

Step 4--Details, Details
Ninety-eight percent of the time spent on a project such as this is grunt work--digging, hauling, nailing, and mortaring. But it's that final 2%--the details--that make the difference. We fitted wooden trim around the boxes of the U-brackets to hide them and used a chamfer bit to bevel the edges of the posts and a jigsaw to notch the ends of the rafters. We hid the galvanized screws used to attach the rafters to the posts by countersinking them and then gluing pieces of dowel over them. Finally, we topped the posts with decorative copper caps.

The Final Tally
How much did the arbor cost? The stone columns (labor plus materials) ran about $700. The other materials cost less than $100. I admit that my colleagues did a lot of the work. But, hey, I painted the arbor myself!

This article is from the February 2005 issue of Southern Living.