The gates at the entrance to a property are important elements of our garden boundaries, setting the tone for the whole garden, and complement the house, garden and neighbourhood as a whole. But there are gates and entrances throughout the garden, not just on the boundary, offering many opportunities to embellish or emphasise points of passage from one space to another.
In larger gardens this is a matter of ‘sequential design’. In other words, decisions about gates and entrances should reflect the experience of moving through the garden on particular routes. Think about what it’s like to leave one space and enter another. Contrast is important: deliberately emphasising the differing qualities of neighbouring spaces enriches the garden with a sense of variety, so the junctions or entrances of spaces need to be considered carefully, with materials, colour and scale all vital elements.
Pergolas can make effective entrances as these structures and the plants climbing on them ‘contain’ space and restrict views, creating a sense of contrast and expectation as views and space open up. Deep border planting on either side of the structure can also add to the sense of surprise. Hedges may be used with a pergola to screen or limit views. They should be substantial, or will appear ‘puny’ next to a large pergola. For the same reason, any associated planting must also be bold.
Arbours & arches
If space is limited, consider an arbour or arch. These have been used for centuries to focus on a view while identifying a route through hedges, plants or walls. Aim for large, tall arches. Many off-the peg products are too narrow or low to stand out as focal points, and when planted with climbers could prove hard to squeeze through. Think of the arch or arbour as part of the overall scene, rather than an end in itself, using your house or neighbourhood for guidance as to appropriate styles. For contemporary situations use square or rectangular arches. Lighting arches will help you find your way around in the dark.
A minimum pathway width of 1.2m – even for small gardens – is a good rule of thumb. Bear this in mind when shopping for pre-made structures. In larger gardens widths of 1.5m, 1.8m or 2.4m are common. Large structures are required to span paths this wide and it makes sense to match the width of paths and structures as this produces a much more coherent and logical end result.
When you are choosing a gate, consider vistas, and the importance of curiosity. If a gate is set into a wall or a dense hedge, should the gate be solid or transparent? An opaque material would be suitable if the entrance leads to, say, a storage area. A solid gate makes a decorative focus in the wall, arousing curiosity. Transparent gates are more appropriate if the view through them is interesting. Light and orientation can help you decide whether to fit a transparent gate. Putting one in a north-facing wall, for example, will reveal a sunlit scene beyond.
Using local craftsmen
Gates are usually made of timber or metals such as mild steel (often galvanised for rust protection) or aluminium. Look at other gardens nearby to consider the vernacular style in your area. Take photographs of those that appeal and seek out local craftsmen. There are many specialists who would be happy to make a gate, arbour or arch for you. The typical garden gate can be transformed into a sculptural or decorative piece.
Many companies make automated gates that swing open or roll on tracks along the boundary wall, with available space dictating appropriateness. Remember, though, that if the entrance is on a slope, such gates are costly and complex to install. Use brick or stone piers to support larger gates if they are to be free-standing features in a hedge, for example. Often they will need steel reinforcement if the gates are double or larger in size for drives and vehicular entrances.
Consider the design of these boundary gates for pets, too. Many designs include a greater density of uprights in the lower sections to prevent cats and dogs escaping. Sharply pointed railings are now considered a safety hazard. Their use is questionable on any railing or gate, but on public boundaries this is of great concern, especially within conservation areas in which a particular style or pattern may already exist. In such circumstances, contact your local authority for its thoughts and guidance.
Within the garden itself, be imaginative. Using materials inventively can transform a garden. Be open-minded to the use of stainless steel, copper, bronze or sculpted timber – all offer huge potential.
KEY POINTS TO TAKE AWAY
1 Ensure that gates and boundary treatments alongside public rights of way conform to local planning regulations, especially if you live within a conservation area. Fine metalwork and pointed finials can prove dangerous.
2 Relate the width and scale of gates to the paths they serve. Too narrow a gate or archway will produce a ‘pinch point’ in the garden and appear visually awkward.
3 Transparent barriers such as trellis or railings should be served by transparent gates or open entrances. Solid doors or gates will seem out of place. The same does not apply in reverse, however. A solid wall would be well served by a transparent gate, which might be used to take advantage of a specific view.
4 Look at the local vernacular in gates and boundary treatments, especially in rural areas. The use of local materials and styles will be both in keeping with your neighbourhood and supportive of local craftsmen and artisans.
5 Contact the Arts Council to find local craftsmen with the skills you require, or use local forges. Garden designers and architects will often have a range of skilled craftsmen on whom they can call.
Bespoke hardwood pergolas, arbours and arches.
Traditional wooden gates in seasoned oak.
Hand-crafted oak gates.
The British Artist Blacksmiths Association. For links to a range of blacksmiths and specialists in metalwork.
Contemporary metalwork arbours, fences and arches in decorative design.
Arts Council of England Contacts
Scottish Arts Council
Arts Council of Wales
Arts Council of Northern Ireland
This article first appeared in November 2007, issue 131.
Andrew Wilson is a garden designer, writer and lecturer, and an assessor and judge for RHS show gardens.