The entrance to a space sets the tone for the coming experience. Preconceptions of the impending experience are set and feelings and emotions are put into play from past experiences. These memories form expectations that establish the context in which a person experiences a space. By utilizing the different senses of scent, touch, and sound, stronger contextual feelings are created. The mind finds past neural pathways and prepares for similar outcomes. These mental expectations can sometimes be stronger than the actual experience.
The crunch of gravel underfoot, the smell of gardenia blossoms or lavender, the quick darting of hummingbirds, or the sound of a gurgling fountain or stream can evoke powerful responses as a person prepares to enters a space. An entrance or gateway can be used to create an endless array of emotions. Entrances can be imposing and scary and trigger the fight or flight reflex of dumping adrenalin into our system. They can also be enticing, with views of a comfortable path leading inside, with hints of warmth, protection, and enjoyment ahead. Because of the importance of the gateway setting the tone for a garden space, the concept has been studied for thousands of years. An example of a set of guidelines is Feng Shui, where the gateway establishes how the flow of energy or ch'i enters the garden. Depending on the direction of the entrance, the ch'i is different and needs to be dealt with differently. South facing entrances need to be filtered to slow down the ch'i. North facing entrances need to be opened up to help the ch'i enter. Feng Shui can help decide what color to paint a gate, what material to use, and even how to prune a tree near or over an entrance. Accommodating a smooth flow of energy makes sense for most entrances, but the desired visitor's reaction is what should be considered.
Also of concern is local planning and building codes. Many times an entry gate is dictated by the restrictions of front set backs, fence height limits, vehicular sight lines, and perhaps even necessary approval by the homeowners association of the neighborhood, right down to the color of the trim. It is fun to think about designing gateways for a large "multi-room garden" or park where separate interconnected spaces all have transitional gateways that prepare or surprise the visitor as they move through the different environments. For the most part, my client's entryways are to a front yard space accessed by both the street and a driveway. There is usually a secondary path leading to a side gate and a main path leading to the front steps of the house. It is important that guests feel comfortable, that the path to the driveway is wide enough, and that there is something along the way of interest as well as a place to rest, if only symbolically. It is highly desirable for there to be a pedestrian entrance from the street and not force visitors to squeeze past vehicles on a driveway to enter the area. Likewise, if guests park on the side of the street, allowing for pathways through the sidewalk planters and space to open doors makes sense. A small patio with a bench accompanied by a collection of planting containers is a classic way to provide a symbolic resting space in an entry garden. Some sort of accent, such as a small water feature, a statue, a bird bath... or an interesting plant... should be a part of the entry experience. There should be a nice flow to the entry circulation without sharp turns and the hierarchy of the various paths should be immediately apparent. Utilities such as garbage and recycling bins should be accessible but hidden. It is best to have the entry gate off set to the front door with a pleasing "s" curve, not a straight line from street to door. The front entry path or steps should ideally be splayed so that circulation from various directions are accommodated and directed smoothly.
The choice of materials is best done by addressing the house and the occupants; Sometimes it is desired to emulate strong architecture or create grandeur. Most times, it comes down to budget. Stone and wrought iron are nice, but wood and plants can do the job -sometimes better. The best way to determine the materials and details is to take a moment on site and reflect on the "genius loci", the pervading spirit of a place, and go with that, modifying it to the temperament and desires of the occupants. It's hard when someone wants a white picket fence and a cottage garden entrance when they live in a mediterranean climate and also want low maintenance. Ultimately, the gateway to a garden should prepare the visitor for meeting the owners of the home. Real estate professionals talk about "curbside appeal". This usually means that the entry has character, is nice to look at, and is inviting, never invoking hard work to maintain. Use nice clean lines, soften walls and fences with plants, and provide a sense of safety and of welcome with wide, sturdy, well defined, and well lit paths.
Gates and arbors are best when they echo the architecture of the house. They need to be sturdy. If you are hanging a gate on a post it should be at least a 4x6. Using three hinges instead of two makes a big difference. Spring loaded hinges make sense if there are pets, kids, or deer in the picture. Self closing latches also provide great utility. I've come to appreciate magnetic latches that snap closed as the gate closes. While it might seem like a good idea to have a double gate, many times the necessary cane bolt is not considered in this decision. Also, if one wishes an arbor of wisteria or virginia creeper over an entry way, you must plan to support the future weight. Having a way to peer through into part of the garden while the gate is closed is a big bonus and worth the extra effort every time.