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Pergolas, Arbors and Trellises, Oh My!

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

A lot of our Landscape Design clients here in San Jose, California and the surrounding areas call in with requests regarding pergolas, arbors and trellises. In these interactions, we typically notice one problem - differentiating between the three outdoor structures. People tend to confuse one structure for the other. The only thing that they have in common is that these structures are beautiful and each offer unique advantages when used within the outdoor living experience. On that note, the following is a detailed description of the three structures, explaining how each follows different binding rules and how they can be implemented to enhance your outdoor space.


A pergola is an outdoor structure made of four-post columns with slats on top to block the sun’s rays. Typically, it covers a patio outdoor sitting area to give the owner a relaxing outdoor experience. Pergolas do not have a full roof but work with a dappled beam, rafter pattern, and vines and plants in some cases. To make it more beautiful, a landscape designer may cut the edges of the roof for some flare. Most importantly, having a pergola, commonly referred to as a patio cover, may offer some protection against elements if you attach it to your house. Furthermore, this would make the building process much easier because you do not necessarily have to construct the side adjacent to your house. If you want to see more pictures of pergola designs, please visit our Houzz page or Instagram account.

Pergolas can be constructed in all shapes and styles.

A simple yet elegant pergola covering an outdoor dining area. Pergola designs don't need to be too busy.

Modern pergola and landscape design in San Jose, California.
Modern Pergola design and Outdoor Living Space in San Jose, California


An arbor is a simple two-post structure that you walk under and has a close resemblance to a pergola. Arbors typically feature an arched top, and in most cases have vines growing on them. The main difference between an arbor and a pergola is the size, which is not big enough to cover an entire patio area. In addition, the walls of an arbor look like side panels that are quite small, measuring at most two feet in width. It is a simple structure but does much with regard to the enhancement of your garden’s beauty, and framing a space that invites the visitor to walk through it to see what’s on the other side.

A double patio entrance, each with an arbor to greet visitors. Wisteria at the base of each post getting ready to climb


A trellis can be either an independent outdoor structure or works alongside a pergola or an arbor. It is the most versatile of the three types of structures. You can describe a trellis as a wall piece meant to support the growth of vines in your garden or around an arbor or pergola. In most cases, trellis lacks a roof; thus, it does not provide shelter. In addition, trellises rarely have a permanent attachment to the ground.

Trellising against a fence offering vertical interest.

Differentiating between the three structures can be confusing sometimes, even doing a simple Google search may give you contradicting results. Nevertheless, from the descriptions shown above, it would be easier to identify the prevailing differences between the three structures. It only requires a few hints for you to easily identify and point out the correct structure. I hope that this information will guide you in determining the structure that you want to build in your yard.

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