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How do Pergolas Provide Shade?

How do Pergolas Provide Shade?

Do Pergolas Really Provide Shade?

Pergolas are a unique type of shade structure that many people are not that familiar with. So when they begin to research how to shade themselves when spending time in their patio or yard, they naturally ask the question do pergolas provide shade?

In this blog, we will walk prospective pergola owners through the options for pergola shade and all of the many materials that can be used to provide shade and rain protection in a pergola.

Table of Contents

  • How Does A Pergola Actually Provide Shade?
  • Reeds and Leaves
  • Live Foliage
  • Branches or Bamboo
  • Lattice Panels
  • Fabric or Shade Cloth
  • Polycarbonate/Plastic
  • Retractable Canopies
  • Conclusion

How Does A Pergola Actually Provide Shade?

Pergolas give shade much as awnings — they include a frame with some shading material that lays over the framework. Unlike awnings, several different materials can be used on a pergola to provide shade.

Shades for pergolas can include metal, timber, reeds, branches, fabric, and even live foliage. Also, you can use these materials in combination to not only achieve the desired shade result but create a pleasing aesthetic look for your outdoor space as well.

Reeds and Leaves

In ancient Egypt, it was quite common to use reeds or palm leaves to block the sun. In fact, this is still a quite common practice today in that part of the world.

If you live in an area of the country that has a similarly dry climate like the southwest, reeds and leaves make an excellent choice for your pergola. A bonus is that reed mats can be used to transform your pergola into a sukkah in the fall.

Most people might not know that a well-constructed roof of palm leaf fronds not only does a great job of shading users from the sun, it also does a fantastic job of repelling water. This readily available and inexpensive material creates a true south seas feel for your pergola roof.

Live Foliage

In Tuscany, they have grapevines that grow over their pergolas. These not only provide shade in the summer, but they also allow sunshine through in the winter when the leaves of the vine fall off.

If you live in a part of the country where you rarely need rain protection, live foliage makes a great choice. Beyond a grapevine, you can also use all manner of flowering vines to provide shade and a pleasing look and aroma for your outdoor space as well.

One of the great parts of using this type of covering is that it creates a pergola that is actually alive. When choosing climbing vines like rose or honeysuckle, you create a pergola that not only creates an inviting outdoor space but literally changes in appearance on a daily basis.

Branches or Bamboo

A common pergola material that is used high in the Rockies or the dry climates of the southwest are rustic branches paired with a timber post frame. It truly creates an adobe style that blends perfectly into the surroundings of these areas.

Another material that is used in a variety of climates is bamboo. Bamboo is revered not only for the strong sun protection it provides but because it blends so well into such a large variety of styles and surroundings.

For the do-it-yourselfer, the great thing about bamboo is that there are a number of kits available that make it quite easy to add a bamboo roof to your pergola. Since bamboo is sturdy yet relatively lightweight, it makes it very easy for a novice builder to add these to a pergola frame.

Lattice Panels

With the recent advent of lattice panels, a new and unique way to cover a pergola was created. These panels are quite easy to find at hardware stores and come in a variety of sizes.

The beauty of lattice panels is that they have a variety of open areas depending on how much sun you want to let through. Lattice panels can allow as much as 50% sunlight to pass through or as little as 25%.

One of the real bonuses of using lattice panels is that they come in all manner of materials which means a variety of styles and colors that are sure to match any decor. In addition, lattice panel users are not limited to wood as you can find lattice panels made of composite and even plastic materials.

Fabric or Shade Cloth

Canvas fabrics can be used to provide your pergolas with shade and can be arranged in almost any type of design you can imagine. Be careful of using fabric in wet climates like the south and northeast since water can pool in the fabric in the unsupported areas between the rafters of the pergola.

Another great option is shade cloth that you usually find on the top of greenhouses. This product can do an excellent job of protecting you from the sun. The only issue for pergola owners is that this cloth can create an inexpensive look that not all pergola owners may like. 

One of the true benefits of using fabric is how it easy it is to repair or replace. Unlike other materials that may have more of an artistic design, the more utilitarian look of the fabric means that changing it out over time without missing an aesthetic beat is quite easy.


One option for covering your pergola is with a polycarbonate material. The advantage of this material is that it comes in a variety of styles and colors, thus allowing practically any amount of sunlight through.

Unlike most other pergola covers, polycarbonate can actually let most sunlight through while providing complete protection from the rain. The one drawback to polycarbonate is the somewhat industrial look it gives that some pergola owners may not like.

That being said, you really can enjoy the best of all worlds by installing a tinted or colored plastic roof on your pergola. You will still get some amount of sunlight while achieving high SPF protection and keeping rain off pergola users.

Retractable Canopies

The material that provides the most similar feel to a retractable awning is the use of retractable canopies on a pergola.

This incredibly convenient solution allows pergola users to have protection from both sun and rain when desired, but then also allow completes sunlight when the canopy is retracted.

It is not uncommon that when prospective pergola owners map out how they would design their pergola, they immediately think of canopies that are similar to the pergolas they might find poolside at upscale hotels and resorts. For those that love the idea of a glamorous “staycation” in their own backyard, retractable canopies make a great choice.

When using the right type of fabric for the canopy, pergola users and enjoy an SPF of almost 100% with the canopy extended. Pergola owners can also opt for retractable shade screens as well to let more light through when the canopy is extended, but SPF protection is reduced as a result.

The beauty of pergolas is in the limitless choices owners have when designing them. The table below summarizes the choices we have outlined here and how they will function in daily use for pergola owners.

Awning type Amount of pergola roof structure covered Level of Shade
Reeds and leaves 90% Almost total
Live Foliage Up to 75% Shade in summer, sun in winter
Branches or Bamboo 90% Almost total
Lattice Panels 50 to 75% Partial
Fabric or shade cloth 100% Varies with the material used
Polycarbonate 100% Varies with the material used
Retractable canopies 100% Total


For prospective pergola owners that wonder if pergolas really provide shade, you can see that your choices are practically unlimited. In addition, pergola covers can be combined with things like hanging curtains a/k/a retractable screens along the side and/or front of the pergola to create an almost entirely enclosed outdoor space.

The real beauty of a pergola is that it can be created with not only a wide variety of aesthetic looks, but also in ways that let in as much or as little of the elements as a pergola owner might desire. If you are considering a pergola to enhance the use and beauty of your outdoor space, check out our retractable pergola reviews at

I provide all of the different elements covered here with real-world critiques from pergola owners. With so many choices when creating a pergola of your own, arm yourself with the information you need to make a good decision about your outdoor space at