In the hot, sunny weather, you want a shady retreat, a spot to sit and relax and entertain and enjoy the view, with shelter from the blazing sun. If you don’t have mature shade trees or a vine-covered pergola already doing the job in your yard, consider a canopy. The right one can transform an uncomfortably hot, exposed space into a welcoming, airy oasis.

Will you choose an umbrella or is a gazebo your style? While the terms gazebo and pavilion are often used interchangeably for a freestanding, covered structure, a pavilion will often have a higher price tag. Or do you like the openness and modern look of a suspended shade-sail structure? To decide which works best for your needs, you will be considering area size, aesthetics, durability, function and, of course, price.

To educate myself in the latest shade technology, I contacted the local experts: Aaron Fogleman at Sonoma Backyard in Cotati, specialists in outdoor furniture, to learn about about umbrellas and gazebos; and Andrea Lynn at Sonoma Shade Sails, a Forestville company that both designs and installs custom freestyle shade sails.

The showroom at Sonoma Backyard has a full range of shade options and price points, from economical market umbrellas to cover your picnic table, to midrange priced actuating umbrellas, to the handsome high-end, laminated bamboo Bambrella Alize 10-foot by 10-foot pavilion, which resists wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour and has privacy draperies on all sides. If you compare these umbrellas to what’s available at the big box stores and online, the price difference is in the materials.

You want your outdoor room to look great, and you also want it to last. The best canopies are made of Sunbrella fabric. Natural fibers are great when it comes to clothing; for outdoor furnishings—not so much. Fifty years ago, textile manufacturer Sunbrella began producing a durable alternative to outdoor canvas fabrics; their brand-name fabrics are woven from solution-dyed acrylic fibers; the pigmentation is added prior to extrusion so it is integral to the structure. They look and feel like cotton, but do not fade or degrade. Over the years, Sunbrella has practically become synonymous with durable outdoor fabrics. They offer consistency, come with warranties, are easy to clean, and while the color choices are not infinite, they are vast.

Fogleman explained that cheaper umbrellas have wood poles that will break and are covered with fabrics that will mold, fade and degrade with exposure to the elements. In contrast, Sonoma Backyard offers higher quality. “We take care of people who don’t want to buy products made in China—85 percent of our products are made in the U.S. and we stand behind our products and offer service,” he said.

You can buy new covers for older umbrellas, too, and have the Sonoma Backyard staff install them for you. Recently, Fogleman replaced the bright yellow covers on five teak umbrellas at the Charles M. Schulz Museum with a Sunbrella fabric called “Sunflowers.” The 10-1/2-foot octagonal canopy umbrellas, each weighing 100 pounds, were originally installed 17 years ago, a testament to their durability.

The most economical umbrellas at Sonoma Backyard are built from a tubular aluminum with fiberglass ribs. They are light, strong and rust resistant and have a 1-year warranty. The higher-priced umbrellas are all aluminum or hardwood, offer more fabric choices and carry a 4-year warranty on fabrics.
Actuation is another determining factor in selecting an umbrella. Choices are no-tilt, where a simple pin holds the opened umbrella canopy in place; push-button tilt, with a crank to open and close the canopy; auto-tilt, which uses a single crank to both open the canopy and tilt it (good for use as a table umbrella where reach is an issue); and collar-tilt, which has a crank to open the canopy and a collar around the pole to tilt it. Sonoma Backyard features Treasure Garden umbrellas in a veritable rainbow of colors.
Don’t want to stare at a pole while you’re dining with friends at your patio table? Then you can choose a cantilever (or offset) style, with a sturdy 4-inch, powder-coated aluminum pole (in bronze, white, black, champagne or java) and canopies from 11- to 13-feet wide. Treasure Garden brand has the price-friendly AG model or the more expensive AKZ-11 and AKZ-13 models. These higher-priced cantilever umbrellas have 360-degree rotation, operated by a foot pedal that locks in place, and three levels of tilt: 18 degrees, 36 degrees and 54 degrees (in either direction) so that late afternoon sun doesn’t have a chance of getting in your eyes.

The appropriate base is an additional cost. The sand base holds up to 400 pounds of sand (not included) and comes in black or bronze, or you can buy a kit to install a mount in concrete, on your wood deck, or directly in the ground.

If you favor sustainable materials and a sleek modern design, consider Bambrella, the socially responsible UK manufacturer, for umbrellas and pavilions. Bambrella’s Side Wind Range, in the top-priced tier of umbrellas, has a 360-degree rotation and a 45-degree tilt. Bambrella uses laminated bamboo with stainless steel joints for their cantilevered design; the gorgeous frame has a cable operating system (like sails on a boat), adjustable feet for an uneven ground or an in-ground mount system.

Shade sails are an alternate way to create shade in your yard and can cover a larger area. While suspending a piece of cloth horizontally between posts or trees to provide shade is not a new innovation, today’s custom shade sails combine aesthetics with modern technology. These shade devices have a history in scorching climates like Australia and the hot spots of Southern California and Arizona, but in the last 10 years, they have made an appearance here in Northern California.

Ready-made shade sails that you can install yourself are available online and at home improvement stores. Custom shade sails are entirely in another league. “Our clients appreciate the beauty of our product; it’s a long way from throwing up a tarp in the back yard,” says Andrea Lynn of Sonoma Shade Sails, who, along with her partner, general contractor Bob Brouwers, has been providing custom shade sails in the Northern Bay Area since 2008.

Their team includes a shade sail engineer, a computer technician, a professional sail maker and several installers. These are permanent installations, designed and engineered to stay up 24/7 and can cover an area as small as a 20-foot back yard or as large as an amphitheater. A single sail, or several used in combination, placed adjacent to each other or sometimes overlapping, create unique patterns that add drama and color to an open space. They are lovely to view from any angle, while protecting the area below from the harsh UV rays of the sun, reducing the ambient air temperature by 15 to 20 degrees.

Sonoma Shade Sails installs only their own designs, constructed from California fire-rated knitted high density polyethylene (HDPE) shade cloth, configured in a variety of shapes, and bound on all sides with a 2-inch pocket that encloses stainless steel cables. The sails are installed under a high degree of tension—to keep them tight and flat and able to withstand wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour—between poles anchored in the ground, or from secure rooftops mounts or attached to trees, in a variety of design configurations. All of the hardware used is made from anti-corrosion stainless steel. Poles are made from 6- to 12-inch diameter steel pipe.

“Every installation is as unique as a fingerprint,” says Lynn, and because there are so many variables, Sonoma Shade Sails’ website offers an on-line estimating process prior to quoting a price. Using information and photos sent by the prospective client, Lynn will provide a rough sketch of the project, drawn to scale, with cost estimates. If the client approves, she will then meet with them to discuss the details of the project. Once the design has been finalized and approved, construction can begin.

Sonoma Shade Sails has designed patio installations at Dry Creek Winery and J Vineyards, both in Healdsburg. Urban Tree Farm and Absolute Statuary in Sebastopol also have custom installations. Photos of a variety of residential shade sails, including those protecting an outdoor kitchen, a treetop deck, a swimming pool, and a putting green are on the Sonoma Shade Sails website. Sails are made to stay up all year long, but some clients prefer to have Sonoma Shade Sails detach the sails for the winter months and reinstall them when the hot days return.  The only maintenance they require is cleaning.   SD