Pergola Shade: Practical Cover Solutions for Any Outdoor Space

I love the look of Pergolas, especially with plants growing up and over, but before I start building I wanted to check if they are just for decoration or do they really offer shade?

A basic Pergola does not completely block the sun, particularly when the sun is overhead. However, as a structure, they can offer a significant amount of shade because they can be adapted to your particular requirements. The variety and flexibility of the methods that can be combined, along with the design of the Pergola, in order to generate shade, are part of its success. Here are some of the ways it can do that.

How to Cover a Pergola for Shade: Lots of different options!

Rafter and Batten size.

Shade from Rafters and Battens

A basic pergola has four corner uprights that support a grid of beams or rafters. The number of different designs, however, is limitless and is why they are so popular as they can be styled to your own preferences. The number and size of uprights, rafters and even the addition of battens, as well as how high, how much overhang and the end profile shape, all allow you to individualize your outdoor area.

All these aesthetic decisions also affect the amount of shade that the pergola will provide, even before you add any additional cover. Check out How Does a Pergola Work?

Rafters and Battens are the cross members that create the grid pattern on the top of the Pergola. Now some of these will have structural requirements to ensure your Pergola is strong and will not collapse (eg Consider if you will add a hammock, swing seats, lighting etc) but the size and shape of most of them can be adjusted. By increasing the number and/or their shape you can increase the amount of shade that it creates; this may actually mean you make the Pergola stronger!

Growing Shade

Planting shrubs or vines to form a living shield, that stops the sun’s direct rays, is a traditional and very popular method that will make a big difference. The plants will not only absorb the sun’s radiation but they also naturally cool the air around them, as they naturally release water from their leaves, through a process called transpiration.

The other benefit of homegrown shade is that, if the plants are selected correctly, it can automatically adjust to suit the season. At the peak of summer the leaves are at their biggest and yet you can still enjoy sitting outside in the best of the winter sun when they have all fallen off.

Fence Screens – Reeds, Willow, Brushwood, Bamboo…

Fence Screening for Pergola Shade

The best screening resources that are suitable for adding natural shade to the top of your structure varies, depending on your location around the globe. These screens are supplied in rolls held together by galvanized wire strands and are sold for screening or hiding aspects, such as fences, in your garden.

The biggest issue seems to be the degradation of the natural material in climates that have large variation from summer to winter, this will mean in time you may need to replace or update these types of shade.

As with anything, based on the reviews it seems you can get various qualities for each, where the more expensive versions tend to look better, not necessarily last any longer. Buyer beware! Here are some of the most commonly found versions:

Bamboo Bamboo Screening

This is the only one that seems to be readily available everywhere. As a product, it has many benefits (strong, lightweight, etc) that make it popular for many uses. As a shade layer, treated bamboo works very well and can last 3-4 years with direct exposure to sun and rain with no degradation. I personally like the look of the larger bamboo canes (> 1/2″ 1.5cm) that are not joined together (see below). It is possible to use the rolls of bamboo fencing/screening that is sold in the big box stores but the smaller diameter and the metal wire joins may mean they will not last as long.

Reeds

Reed Screen for Pergola Shade

These are similar in appearance to the bamboo rolls but the reeds rend to be thinner and are not available in such long lengths (~7.5′ max). My experience of these was for covering fencing in an exposed position, in a very changeable climate, and that they only lasted for 2-3years before starting to look ragged.

Brushwood Brushwood screening

Brushwood fences are made from natural brush wood or broom bush from a native plant in the Melaleuca (Ti Tree) family. This is a darker color than most of the other garden screen type products and like them can last for several years if not in damp conditions.

Willow Willow Screening

These have willow canes between 5-15mm thick that are held together with galvanized wire. There is a suggestion that these will last longer but I couldn’t find anything to say so categorically.

Natural Battens

Natural Shade Battens

A number of the same materials that are used to make the readily available style of fence screens, as mentioned above, can also be used in their larger format. Bamboo and Willow, in particular, are popular but also the use of driftwood, fallen branches, actually anything that is stable enough to span the gap!

Fixed Pergola Covers

Pergola with Shade Cloth

Adding some fixed shade cloth (a mesh-like material that lets hot air rise through it but can still block up to 98% of the suns rays) to the top of the pergola is probably the quickest and easiest way to add shade, whilst still keeping the aesthetic appeal of an open and airy structure that does not trap hot air underneath. There are a variety of colors and shade factors (amount of light it blocks) for the material that you can choose and also different methods of attaching the shade to make it removable if you get snow or don’t need year-round shade. Check out How to Attach Shade Cloth to A Pergola.

Retractable Cover

There are a number of variations for how this is achieved from the simple horizontal curtain style that accordions together to the fully automated sliding cover with either a cloth or hard shade, like a horizontal roller garage door.

Retractable Fabric Canopy

These are available as kits but are actually relatively straightforward in design so could easily be made at home, especially if your pergola dimensions are not too large.

They are designed with battens that stretch across the width of the structure but that can move along the length by either being attached to rails or wires. These battens are fitted inside the shade cloth material with a separation of between 1ft and 5 ft so that when the shade is ‘open’ the battens support it. When the shade is ‘closed’ the battens are gathered together along the rail/wire and the shade hangs down between them.

Depending on the design they can be opened and closed automatically with a motorized system, by means of lines (similar to those used for window blinds) or, as shown above, simply by having poles attached to each corner of the shade.

Miscellaneous Other Shade Cover Options

There are always some new creations for shade or even variations that may mean it should not strictly still be considered a pergola and I will just briefly mention some of the ones that I found:

  • Mechanical Louvre’s – This seems to have been created in Australia and has an automatic louver system across the roof of your pergola structure. The special aspect is that by the push of a button all of the louvers can close and make the roof watertight!
  • Retractable Awning On Top – It seems quite popular in Europe to have a pergola and then have a retractable awning mounted to the wall above for when it’s required. This is limited by the maximum extension of the automatic retractable awnings being about ~4m but some manufacturers can go further.
  • Not Attached! – This was simply a large piece of shade cloth that had a batten at either end with some guide ropes. For a smallish, square pergola the rope was thrown over the structure and then used to pull the batten and shade over the top. The benefit was that the shade was longer than just covering the roof. This meant it could be adjusted to cover the roof and one end of the pergola for when the sun was coming from the side.