Getting outdoors: Perfect pergolas and their luxurious lighting

user-gravatar Headshot
Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.

Many of your customers take enjoyment in sitting outside to enjoy the landscape you’ve worked hard on, and one element that could make the space even more enjoyable is a pergola.

Shade structures like pergolas are very popular and appealing to the eye, so if your customers have expressed an interest in having such an item in their landscape, take a look at what a pergola is and what lighting elements are necessary to add on to get the most out of the structure.

The ins and outs of pergolas

According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension, a pergola is defined as a long and narrow linear structure with pillars to support flat crossbeams and an open latticework that can be covered in vines to shade a walkway.

Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.

Pergolas are oftentimes confused with arbors, and they can extend from a building, protect open terraces or act as a connecting agent for buildings.

According to the Associated Press (AP), pergolas were historically very simple overhead structures that were used to protect garden walkways, and Gail Hansen, an associate professor and extension specialist in landscape design with the University of Florida, notes when talking about backyard pergolas, they will typically be attached to your customer’s house. If they are freestanding, she adds, they will more than likely be near indoor kitchens for ease of access.

“Traditionally, arbor shade gates, walkways or a bench are only a few feet wide and provide the perfect support for climbing plants,” Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), told AP.

While it’s true that both of these structures will support climbing plants, Henriksen says pergolas will be more elaborate and will help shade outdoor spaces in their entirety.

“The increase we are seeing in homeowners’ requests for pergolas is another example of how people are investing in their outdoor living spaces to create ‘staycation sanctuaries,’ add sizzle to outdoor entertaining and personalize their individual home environments,” Henriksen told AP.

Depending on your customer’s style, the personalization possibilities are endless, as many pergolas can have ceiling fans, lights strung across the top, chandeliers and more.

“Add color and excitement to an outdoor space with thriller, filler and spiller container gardens,” Henriksen told AP. “With the perfect planting combination and unique container, homeowners can add rich color and texture to a stunning pergola.”


Pergolas can be made of many different materials, both natural and synthetic, and both can prove beneficial to different customers.

Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.

Regardless of which your customer decides to go with, be sure to talk to him/her about how the material they choose will look in the landscape once the project is finished, the maintenance that will accompany each type of material and whether or not he/she desires a more formal or relaxed look.

“The materials used for the pergola construction will influence the resulting style but should also be considered with respect to long term maintenance of the structure,” Garden Design Inc. says online. “Cedar or other timbers will require some sealing or oiling over time.There are a variety of companies that produce synthetic pergolas with vinyl, fiberglass and polycarbonates. The higher quality of these products are almost indistinguishable from painted wood, though the lower quality clearly have a plastic feel to them. These synthetic products tend to work best when a more formal style is desired.”

Henriksen told AP that there are pros and cons to every material, so it’s important to have an in-depth discussion with your customer to ensure you are both on the same page with the project.

Generally speaking, Henriksen says pressure-treated wood will look better if it’s stained or painted, and she notes that cedar is insect-resistant while still looking great right after it’s cut.

“You can leave it untreated to turn a soft silver gray, or stain and seal it to hold its color,” Henriksen told AP.

According to AP, vinyl will require little maintenance while the fiberglass can be painted, it will span longer distances without posts and because of its lighter weight, it won’t require the same deep footers that other materials might need.

Pergola lighting elements

Once your customer has chosen a plan for the pergola, it’s important to make sure the proper lighting elements are installed with it.

According to A.J. Coleman, outdoor lighting designer with McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc., it’s important to get detailed feedback from your client on how the space with the pergola will be used before installing lighting elements.

“The functionality of pergola lighting is key,” Coleman says. “You can really extend the use of the space, whether it’s on a patio or out into the yard, and use it at dusk or in the evening to illuminate those spaces. And then it becomes kind of an architectural element.”

Coleman says that if the pergola is located out into the yard and is visible from a distance, downlighting is a good option, as it will put focus on the columns and illuminate the structure while also making it a more functional space for reading, conversing and more. By using the downlight, Coleman says it keeps customers from being blasted with flood lights or higher voltage lights shining down on them.

“Visually, we feel that downlights are the best option,” he says. “Another option would be to be in the ground shining up. Being conscious of the space, you don’t want to see where the lights are coming from or be hit in the face with light when you’re sitting in the space.”

Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting, Inc.

Coleman says the downlight is the natural way to light a pergola, as the header of the structure will hide the light source when customers are using the space. If the pergola is near or on concrete or pavers, Coleman says well lights are also another viable option.

Coleman adds that the type of light source chosen also depends on the materials that were used to create the pergola, as well as whether the structure is preexisting or under construction.

When wiring a lighting system for an existing pergola, Coleman says some of the most challenging aspects revolve around making sure the wires are hidden, as this can take away from the beauty of the space.

Coleman says the solution can vary from project to project, but he has had times when hiding the wires was as simple as running them up inside a column with a hollow void and other times when the only solution was to run wires up a post and paint the wires the same color to disguise them.

When working with landscapers to create a pergola from the ground up, Coleman says the most important aspect is proper communication and coordination between both parties.

Regardless of which situation he comes into, Coleman says the overarching goal for every project is to give the customer the beautiful lighting experience they desire.

“We’re here to serve the clients, and that’s our goal,” he says. “We’re always trying to uniquely design our lighting systems to fit their style and their need. Sometimes, they don’t know what they want or need, and that’s our job to present what we feel would look the best and get their input and feedback. We want to make it user-friendly in the end and pain-free through the process.”

The Attachments Idea Book
Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
Attachments Idea Book Cover