Engineers can get their calculators in a wad with all the standards and rules for regular bridges, because the best part of a garden bridge is that there are no rules. As long as you enjoy having it in your space, it's doing exactly what it needs to do. The bridge can connect a footpath or just stand alone. It can cross a koi pond or stream or just rise over a stretch of polished stones. Maybe you've just got a tricky patch of lawn that you're tired of mowing. You don't need an elaborate outdoor plan to incorporate a garden bridge, so don't overthink what they can do for you. Those 8th century Japanese monks would tell you to follow nature's path for a more harmonious environment, which is a more refined way of saying, "go with the flow, Dude".
Bridges symbolize transition and flow, and without getting too transcendental, the best bridges we've seen follow the natural flow of the outdoor space. Japanese gardens take their unique feeling from the subtle, organic interaction of the water, plants and man-made features. It sounds complicated, but they've had 1300 years to practice and we don't think they would mind if you "borrowed" some of their ideas.
So you've committed to the bridge lifestyle, but what kind is best for you? From a subtle, raised footpath to an ornate, full-service bridge, there's a size and style to fit your personal taste and the needs of your outdoor space. From the dead-simple to the grand oasis of Mr. Miyagi's backyard garden/dojo/classic car lot, there's no reason not to enjoy the peaceful, Zen-like experience these backyard bridges can bring.
- Length: Garden bridges range in length from 3 feet to over 12 feet. From small ruts in your lawn to wide streams or rock gardens there's a bridge that's just the right size. Keep in mind that your bridge doesn't have to cross anything. If you want an 8 foot garden bridge just because it looks charming in your garden, go for it.
- Rails: Most bridges over 6 feet in length will have some type of rail. This serves not only a safety function but also adds a decorative touch. Rails can run vertically, horizontally, and some are more elaborately detailed, especially on metal bridges. There are also bridges without rails if simple and understated is more your style.
- Finials: You'll find that some garden bridges feature posts with no decorative details and others feature finials. Finials can be simple blocks, round to soften the look, and some garden bridges even feature solar lights on the posts for nighttime ambiance.
- Style: You can let your garden bridge inspire the garden or vice versa but either way, there are styles available to integrate one into any space. Like the fresh feeling of a Cape Cod-inspired backyard? Go for a painted bridge or one with clean, simple lines. If you're more into the rustic vibe, there are wood options with thick posts and dark finishes that will do just fine. To bring a little romance to the backyard, shop for metal bridges with ornately detailed railings and side panels. Orient-infused garden bridge designs are another option and often feature low railings and arched or straight lines.
Depending on your climate and how much you plan to travel on your garden bridge, the material used for the bridge can make a big difference. Cedar is naturally resistant to insects and mold while redwood is tough enough to resist weathering. Pine gives wood-lovers a dynamic, knotty grain but will definitely need a sealer or finish to keep it safe while it lives outside.
Most woods will need to be re-stained and/or sealed on an annual or semi-annual basis to keep them looking new. Or go natural and let the wood patina over the years to a weathered silvery grey. A painted finish can maintain the visual style that you like on any material, and when available, galvanized metal can offer maximum resistance to all outdoor threats.
Maybe you're not even after the visual effects, as much as you need a rugged, reliable way to cross water, a ravine or soft ground. Metal or pressure-treated lumber can provide advantages that make it more desirable for you, and require less maintenance, than the primarily ornamental styles.
That's a lot to think about, but we'd like to finish with some of the best advice that we've ever been given, from of all places, a class on wine-tasting. Don't worry about all the rules if you think it tastes good. We've got more bridges than Madison County, and there's one in here that's just right for you, so get a feel for your own personal style and start shopping. When you find yourself spending more time enjoying the outdoors, you'll know that you made the perfect choice.