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How To Tell If Your Backyard Trees Are Safe For Climbing, Swinging, Or A Third Bedroom

You may not have noticed, but there trees everywhere in your backyard. They go by names like the Mighty Oak, the Tenacious Birch, or the … Kind Of Wussy Dogwood. And if there’s one thing that kids love more than the playset you just built, it’s the trees they can climb up. Maybe you’re looking to hang a tire swing (or swurfer). Maybe you plan to show up Frank Gehry with that clubhouse. But according to Lee Dean, lead arborist at Cornell University, there are some genuine safety concerns attached to trees (along with, like, leaves and stuff).

Dean is basically the opposite of that kid in The Giving Tree, because it’s his job to oversee and maintain more than 4,000 acres of arboreal majesty. He is also tree risk assessment qualified, which means that he can examine these leafy giants for structural defects with legal authority. There’s no better person to talk to about what your local trees can (and can’t) handle. But, his first piece of advice on turning a tree into a living plaything? Get professional help.

Who You Gonna Call?
So, should you just call a tree company? “Don’t just call a tree company,” says Dean. “Go to and use the arborist search tool to find a local professional to examine your tree.”

Flickr / Ard H.

Once you’ve selected an expert with the proper credentials, have them take a tour of your yard to assess the general health of all your trees. Once they give it a thumbs up and declare it safe (or a thumbs down, and the chainsaw comes out), then you can finalize those blueprints.

What’s Safe For Climbing?
These are a couple of things to check for before your kid starts to scamper.

  • No Dead Wood. Not the David Milch kind (although you may still curse like Al Swearengen when you hear the news), but what’s known as snag in ecological science. Look at the top of the tree and its smaller limbs for anything that looks gray or smooth. This an indicator of root stress, decay, and other undesirable problems the tree may have.

How To Tell If You Have A Dead TreeSnag TreeCacophony

  • No Freeloading Woodpeckers. If pileated woodpeckers are spending time in the tree, this is another bad sign; these birds subsist primarily on wood-hungry carpenter ants that weaken a tree’s structure. And besides, those are your delicious carpenter ants!
  • No Bleeding. If a tree is bleeding sap from where the limbs attach to the main trunk, beware. This suggests there is sap or water gathering within the tree, and the branch is not necessarily connected to the trunk embryonically as it should be. Just like most bleeding things, this isn’t good.

Can It Hold A Rope Swing?
“This is something to use common sense on,” says Dean. Relative to the size of the tree’s trunk, a branch that’s going to support a swing should be large enough to carry the weight of someone swinging on it. One should also pay attention to the branch’s angle of attachment to the trunk. It should be “pretty much straight out,” he says.

Flickr / Rinaldo

Once again: Bleeding is bad. Your tree should have leaves, suggesting a healthy live branch — perhaps even with littler branchlets coming off of it. If it has hair growing off it, you’re not looking at a tree. It’s probably just a tall person.

And What About Supporting A Tree House?
“For a tree house, bring in the specialist,” says Dean. A tree risk assessment-qualified arborist will be able to tell you if a tree is structurally sound enough to support a house (although they’re usually agnostic when it comes to girls being allowed).

Thomas Pusch

All trees compartmentalize decay or resist it differently, so let the arborist tell you if you can start drilling holes, building on it, and what its prospects are for long-term sustainability. What you don’t want to do is create a structure out of wood that’s permanently attached to the tree. “Nails and board are bad news,” says Dean. “Trees expand as they grow, and your tree house should be designed to support the tree and grow with it.” Start planning that en suite bathroom, now.