As a kid growing up on the East Coast, going out to play for me meant exploring a nearby forest. Today's urban and suburban kids aren't so lucky. Outdoors is often a strip of grass, a smattering of plants and a lot of concrete.
When my husband and I began raising our family a few years ago, we lamented this lack of room to roam.
Then we built a treehouse.
Such a secret hideaway, we decided, would give our kids a private place to watch the world go by.
Not until I went up in the treehouse one night and listened to the whispering wind did I realize how good treehouses are for adults too. How calming and magical it is to be in an out-of-the-way, elevated space alone with your thoughts and away from the noise and stress of everyday life.
"Treehouses aren't just for kids," said Jeff Powers, co-owner of Earthscaping in Laguna Beach, an exterior landscape design and construction firm that has built treehouses for people of all ages. "Some people like to make the treehouse into a private getaway for reading, an art studio or a computer room. And of course, they are a great source of safe adventure for kids."
Many trees commonly found in Orange County backyards are perfect for building treehouses, Powers said. They include oak, avocado, Chinese elm, California sycamore, cape chestnut, pecan and Southern California black walnut.
Not all trees are appropriate, said Tom Larson, owner of Integrated Urban Forestry, a consulting company that specializes in trees and vegetation.
"If an inappropriate tree is used or the treehouse isn't installed properly, the tree could weaken, decline and even die," he said.
While building a treehouse is a lot of work, choosing the right tree is probably your most critical decision, agreed Fullerton consulting arborist Alden Kelley.
"Trees good for treehouses tend to have strong, tough, hard, durable wood," Kelley said. "They also have an open canopy structure that has room for the treehouse and doesn't make the removal of many branches necessary."
Other trees commonly found in Orange County yards can be used for treehouses if provided with additional support, Powers said. He has constructed treehouses that are held up by large, vertical beams camouflaged by vines.
"Trees that need additional support include ones that are big enough to accommodate the treehouse but not structurally sound or mature enough," Powers said. "Other trees that need support are ones that have limbs that aren't in the right position to accommodate the treehouse. In such cases, you might have three corners of the treehouse supported and just have to provide support for one corner."
Trees that Powers says can make a good treehouse subject but often require support include the California pepper tree, eucalyptus, Italian stone pine and Aleppo pine, Ficus nitida and Ficus rubiginosa.
The tree's structure will dictate the treehouse's size, shape and height, said Orange consulting arborist James Barry.
"Many people aren't aware that once a branch is at a given height on an established tree, it's going to be at that same height forever," Barry said. "That means that the treehouse will stay at the same level."
When deciding on the height of the treehouse, consider access, Powers said. "Do you want the treehouse to be easily accessible to small children . . . or do you want it more secret? We built one treehouse for a client with teenage sons. The entrance could only be reached by a single rope."
Trees good for treehouses tend to have certain characteristics:
* Strong, tough, hard, durable wood, which doesn't secrete resin or gum when punctured;
* a low-branching structure or low-trunk divisions;
* and moderate maturity (15 years or older, but not extremely old or declining). Age will vary according to tree type.
(If you don't have a mature tree and would like to grow one, there are a few eucalyptus that could grow big enough in about seven years, said Barry, who suggests Eucalyptus nicholii, E. polyanthemos or E. rudis. .
* Well-rooted in moderately deep soil (preferably 24- to 28-inch soil depth).
* Few or no surface roots.
* Branch structure open enough to allow construction of treehouse without need to remove more than three or four moderate- to small-sized branches that are 1 to 4 inches in diameter. No branches larger than 4 to 5 inches in diameter at branch base should be removed.
* No thorns or sharp-pointed leaves that could injure.
* Evergreen. Although some deciduous trees are strong enough to hold a treehouse, most experts suggest using an evergreen because of the sense of year-round privacy.
* Not overlooking your neighbors. While you might want to see the treehouse from your kitchen window so you can keep an eye on the kids, your neighbors probably don't want the treehouse overlooking their bedroom window. Keep their privacy in mind.
* In an open space away from power lines, fences, walkways, patios or other structures that could worsen a fall.
To keep the tree healthy in the future and your treehouse solid, arborist Kelley suggests the following:
* Make a frame-supported ladder or steps to the treehouse entry. Nailing or bolting rungs to the tree trunk hurts the tree and is unsafe for children.
* Don't attach wire, cables, ropes or other constrictive materials snugly around trunk or branches because they will girdle and possible kill the stems as the tree grows.
* Put a 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch over all the soil that will receive foot traffic. This will protect the soil and roots from compaction and reduce injuries in case of falls. Good mulch choices include wood chips, walk-on bark, natural leaf litter from the tree and decomposed granite.
Manufactured cushions that make a fall less traumatic include Safety Deck II, available at Mat Factory in Costa Mesa ( 645-3122) and Fibar System, available by calling Mamaroneck at (800) 342-2721.
* Water and fertilize the tree regularly, which will encourage deep roots. Use organic fertilizers at the root zone, as they break down slowly and will provide the tree with a steady stream of nutrients.
* Have the tree pruned correctly and conservatively by an insured, licensed tree care service that only prunes to standards defined by the International Society of Arboriculture or to Class 1 fine pruning of the National Arboriculture Assn.