How it Works: Building an Arbor

Simon Hickman puts up arbors with the same ease and frequency that I put up excuses. When you tour the grounds surrounding his home on Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury, they’re as abundant as sparrows and each has its own distinct personality.

There are functional arbors that lift ancient grapevines off the ground; decorative arbors that host wisteria and roses; gracious arbors that create shaded areas for sitting and al fresco dining; not to mention the formidable “Woodhenge,” as it’s been dubbed by Simon, an enormous arbor made entirely from trees toppled by Hurricane Gloria.

But what these arbors all have in common is that they seem to grow gracefully out of the earth and are in total harmony with their surroundings, and that has a lot to do with the stock Simon uses to construct them.

“I use the trunks and branches from trees that have fallen or died around my yard, and I use locust trees almost exclusively,” explains Simon. “It’s very hard wood and doesn’t rot much. You can either strip the bark off or not, but I kind of like it with the bark on – it makes it look more organic. If you use milled posts from a lumber yard, it looks manufactured.”

Simon suggests that if you don’t have access to locust trees, you might try asking a tree cutter on-Island.

The actual construction of the arbor is relatively simple, much like framing a house. And the dimensions can be flexible, depending upon how much room you have or the size of the logs that are available.

For a traditional rectangular arbor, Simon begins by sinking the vertical posts (at least two per side, for a small arbor) about two-and-a-half feet into the ground. The arbor has to be anchored well because the vines growing on the top form a canopy, and the wind can get underneath and lift them like a sail. However, he advises against anchoring the posts in cement.

“The problem with setting the posts in cement,” explains Simon, “is that water can collect on the top of the cement and form a puddle, which will rot the wood.”

Since the area where the posts and the ground intersect is where the wood is most vulnerable to rotting, Simon wraps the posts at ground level with a copper sleeve that extends about eight inches both above and below ground.

Once the exterior posts are in place, Simon lays beams across the top along the lateral sides.

“I notch the lateral beams so they’ll fit on the posts,” says Simon, “and then I drive a big spike down through the beam into each post to keep it secure. It doesn’t have to be terribly precise, because once the vines start growing, they cover up most everything.”

The last step is to lay more locust limbs across the top, but as loose slats – neither notched nor spiked – so they are easy to adjust, depending upon how the vines are growing.

The height of the arbor is dictated by how it’s going to be used. If it’s a traditional grape arbor, for instance, you probably don’t want to make it so high that you can’t reach the grapes. If the arbor is going to be a place used for sitting or dining and accessibility to the vines isn’t a factor, then you might make it higher.

But Simon cautions: “The only problem with sitting under a grape arbor is that the grapes tend to fall down on you. You might want to use something other than grapevines if you’re going to spend much time out there.”

I would suggest you also stay away from coconuts.