Friday | November 24, 2017
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Climbing trees and tree houses: Plant a legacy for Father’s Day

By Russell T. Nagata

University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Komohana Research and Extension Center, Hilo

Does Father’s Day bring any special fond memories for you? Did your father leave you a gardening legacy that you have cherished throughout your life? Did you as a father instill a lasting garden memory on your children?

This Father’s Day consider making a lasting garden memory that will be remembered for a lifetime. As a gardener, several things quickly come to mind:

— Plant a tree with your young child and watch it grow through the years;

— Discuss the importance of trees and plants to our wellbeing;

— Taking an annual photograph next to the tree can chronicle the event and give it special meaning when viewed many years from now;

— Planting a fruit tree may add years of eating enjoyment and will contribute to future food sustainability. Think lychee, mango or tangerines. It was said that early Hawaiians settlers planted a breadfruit tree for each child in order to insure food for that additional individual into the future.

Prior to the birth of our son, a seedling tree was planted in the yard that was to become the best climbing tree in the neighborhood. The young tree strained under weight of 3- and four-year-olds claiming to be the bravest by climbing the highest.

The tree grew along with the kids, and to this day its limbs are bowed due to the constant weight of climbers. The fun that each of them had can only be measured by the laughter, smiles and memories it brought over the years.

Nostalgia perhaps, but a great climbing tree is a jewel in itself.

The best climbing trees are those strong enough to bear the weight of the climbers, have branches at regular intervals to aid climbing similar to rungs of a ladder, lack thorns or many small branches, are well-rooted to prevent toppling over, and do not have irritants in the leaves or sap.

Select trees with good branch angles that are not prone to splitting or snapping easily. Those with flexible branches work well.

My favorite is the guava tree, whose branches are strong, rarely break due to its flexibility, with its smooth bark making it easy on body parts and clothing. Guava trees also have a profusion of branches that make climbing easy, even for little children.

Other trees include banyan, mango, and possibly thornless citrus. Trees to avoid are those that break easily, such as the lychee that has poor branch angles that make it prone to splitting and branches that snap fairly easily.

Pruning is an important aspect of developing a great climbing tree. By selectively removing branches to create regularly spaced branches and to open up space for movement among the branches, the utility for climbing is greatly enhanced. By selectively pruning the terminal shoot out of certain trees, initiation of lateral branching is enhanced due to the lack of apical dominance. The apical, or terminal, shoot in these trees — such as the ironwood — produced a hormone that suppresses the development of side branches.

Another garden project that can add many years of fun and lasting memories is a tree house, whether it’s built in a tree, suspended from its branches or constructed on posts surrounded by trees to give it the feel of living in the trees. Tree houses can be as simple as a platform for sitting in a tree to professionally designed and built structures one could live in.

Like climbing trees, proper selection of trees is critical to the success of the project. Those with spreading branches and that are well-rooted are best for stability of the tree house. In Hawaii, large banyan trees can make a wonder base for a tree house. Banyan trees are strong, yet flexible, and anchoring boards to the branches causes relatively little harm to the health of the tree.

When selecting a tree, it is important to select trees that can support the weight of the intended structure, items placed in the structure and individuals occupying the tree house, which can easily add up to several hundred pounds even in a modest tree house. It is recommended that long lag bolts of the appropriate size be used to secure boards to branches. Plan how the tree house is to be reached from the ground. Many options are available from stairs, ladder, rope or climbing, and each house will have unique elements that make one approach better than the other.

Other things to consider are local building codes and neighbors. Before starting construction, check with local building codes to see if there are any special requirements or restriction on tree houses. It is also a good idea to let your neighbors know of your plans, especially if the tree house will overlook their yard or windows.

For more information on this and other gardening topics, please visit the CTAHR electronic publication website at or visit any of the local Cooperative Extension Service offices around the island. I can be reached at


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