The transitory rustic garden arch: Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop

– Posted in: Design

Image of large box elder branch in an inverted u shapeI have long fantasized having a substantial arbor dripping with roses. Ignoring the fact that there aren’t too many repeat-blooming climbers hardy enough to take my climate, I realize with dismay that my most favored place to site an arbor turns out to be on a slope every time I leave my dream world and actually go take a look. Then there is the little matter of cost, and the issue of frost heaving, and with one thing and another I’ve never installed an arbor.

Over ten years ago, however, a winter storm bent a large branch of a large box elder tree in the Secret Garden. (Click on the photo at left to enlarge it.) You can see this box elder to the right in the background in my November entry for the Design Workshop. At the time, the path didn’t run this way. It made a direct beeline from the house to a location just in the foreground and then turned left down the path that you can see in this photo. I redirected the path as a result of this branch coming down, intending that it become a natural arch framing the path and drawing you in from the entrance.

Although the branch wasn’t as broken as it is in this photo, it was apparent even at the beginning that it wouldn’t be a permanent structure, but I figured (correctly) that I’d get at least ten years out of it. I had wanted to relocate the path so that its entrance was a bit more secret, and the arch-shaped branch provided the inspiration for how to go about it.

I planted a Clematis terniflora at each of the two forked branches on the left, and had my second oldest son up on a ladder staple-gunning chicken wire (aka poultry netting) to the branch so that the clematis could climb. I chose this particular clematis because even though I hadn’t decided at that point to limit myself to native plants in the Secret Garden, I did want the vine to look natural, giving the impression it had “just grown there.”

I had all sorts of problems with that clematis. First and foremost, the vines and I disagreed on the quickest way to reach the sun. The vines did not want to clamber up the arch, but to head due southwest, which would be left as you’re viewing the arch. So I had my work cut out for me, as any gardener does when they decide to fight the natural inclinations of a plant. One year early on in this experiment, one of the vines appeared to be chewed off at deer height. Most years they died to the ground and had to climb up last year’s dead vine to get to the arch. Eventually the two vines just died out.

I didn’t bother to replace them, partly because it’s no fun fighting with a plant, and partly because by then it was clear the arch’s years were numbered. Eventually that same son got on the step ladder again and cut the branch down.

And I still dream of an arbor dripping with roses.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 31, 2008, 3:15 pm

What a great use for Boxelder! They’re not much good for anything else (I have about a dozen of them left in my garden, awaiting the chainsaw.)

Lisa at Greenbow January 31, 2008, 8:25 am

Kathy, your natural arbor was great. I take cues from the natural happenings in my garden too.

I didn’t think of your story as sad but I know that wistful feeling of a natural element slowing bowing out of the garden. The bower in my garden is nearly down. I patch it as time and materials allow. I know it won’t be long and it will be gone with just the brick floor to show for where it stood.

I too dream of those beautiful climbing roses dripping blossoms and frangrance over an arched arbor. I can get the arbor going but the roses illude me. Roses just don’t like me or is it my soil??

Nancy January 26, 2008, 10:35 pm

Your serendipitious branch arch makes me wish I could afford to have one sculpted or worked in iron to look like it.

ah well, it will just have to inspire me to look for my fortunate acts of nature, and to make the best of them when they happen.

Carol January 25, 2008, 7:03 pm

Doesn’t every gardener dream of rose covered arbors? I have none in my garden, for the same reason. Winter die back. I’d take it as devine intervention on the garden design if I had a big branch break like that.

Don January 25, 2008, 2:22 pm

Ah, the rose pergola dream…

Pam/Digging January 25, 2008, 12:14 am

I’m using a weeping yaupon branch in much the same way. I don’t know why I didn’t think to include it in my arbor post. Probably because I’m not growing anything on it, as you did with your tree branch. But I have enhanced its framing quality with careful pruning, making it more arbor like.

Curtis January 24, 2008, 11:02 pm

I love your natural arch Kathy. I wish with the ice storm that we had. That it would at least d0 that to one of my tree branches. Instead of snapping them in half.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens January 24, 2008, 9:21 pm

After I saw the rose covered arches at Dee/Red Dirt Ramblings, I sort of gasped and thought, “Wow, some gardens really do look like rose catalogs.” Your experience is much closer to my own. I love your story because, as we used to say, “I can relate.”

Nan Ondra January 24, 2008, 8:34 pm

That was a great story, Kathy. I didn’t see it as being sad: more that you got to enjoy a wonderful natural feature for a while, then were free to move on to something else. When the time is right, you will have your rose arbor. But maybe you don’t want to over-think it too much. Go for it, enjoy it while it lasts, laugh over the inevitable mistakes, and then try something else.

Kathy Purdy January 24, 2008, 7:31 pm

Yes, Stuart, the path still follows that route. It has worked out very well. One day I hope to create a map that shows the entire system of pathways and their relation to the house.

Dee, thanks for your advice about the climbers. I have my eye on William Baffin and what Fedco calls Bombu’s Rose.

Hedgewizard, honest, I wasn’t trying to make anyone sad. But you rightly point out that whatever arbor I eventually come up with is going to require thoughtful planning as to its maintenance.

CurtissAnn January 24, 2008, 6:56 pm

Your speaking about the hard work of going against the natural inclinations of a plant made me think of how hard this is for people, too. I do find myself wanting a broken branch somewhere to work with.


Stuart January 24, 2008, 5:47 pm

Kathy, I was inspired by your use of the natural resources within your garden and the way you used them to your full advantage.

Does the path still follow that route now that the branch has gone?

Dee/reddirtramblings January 24, 2008, 5:19 pm

Kathy, I’m sorry you don’t have a rose covered arbor. My arbors are iron, but in your climate, they might freeze the canes. As to repeat climbers, they really don’t repeat that much anyway. I say get a really hardy one timer that will give you a month of blooms. Just my thoughts. I have several like that.

hedgewizard January 24, 2008, 4:24 pm

Most, most sad. Roses are tricky because it takes several years to achieve the effect you want, which means untreated timber is tricky. Still, you could build an archway using bodged timber with a wire trellis fixed onto it – then train the roses on the wire. The bodgework needs to be replaced every few years, but the roses are to be fixed to the trellis, not the woodwork – so with a willing helper (or two) you could redo the whole thing with less loss of effect.

Kathy Purdy January 24, 2008, 4:06 pm

The branch is long gone. It came off a couple of years ago. I knew it was not going to last, and I watched each year as less of the branch showed green sprouts. It was planned obsolescence.

You are right, Lisa did a wonderful job. She has my efforts beat by a mile.

Jim January 24, 2008, 3:55 pm

What a sad account. It made me weep.

Any chance of making an arbo(u)r from the downed branch?

Lisa at Greenbow can probably make an arbor, a bower, a pergola and a picnic table from that branch.