COLUMBIA — Barbara Ball learned about caring for trees the hard way — by making mistakes.
After watching some of her own trees die from incorrect planting, Ball signed up in 1997 for classes about tree care and identification that made her one of the city's first TreeKeepers.
She has been a part of the effort every year since, volunteering for a total of 388 hours on tree-related projects for Columbia Parks and Recreation.
Some of her most rewarding experiences come from the feedback she gets when she's volunteering for the city.
"People recognize we're doing something to help the park and them," Ball said. "It's nice that people will stop and say thank you. It makes you feel good."
TreeKeepers is a volunteer program where the city instructs people about caring for trees in exchange for help with Parks and Recreation projects.
After completing three courses — where forestry specialists give lectures about tree placement, invasive species, caring for trees, biodiversity and tree identification — volunteers are required to spend at least 36 hours working on TreeKeeper projects. Courses start Tuesday and continue Thursday and Saturday.
The organization is gearing up for another year of projects, and Ball said she plans to pitch in again.
"It's really nice to go back later to a place where you've planted trees and realize that now the tree is taller than you," she said.
Planting trees and native grasses while removing invasive species is the main focus this spring. TreeKeepers will be continuing projects started last year at the 3M Urban Ecology Restoration Project site near Forum Boulevard, Bonnie View Nature Sanctuary and Forum Nature Area.
Lisa Rohmiller, the city's volunteer program assistant, estimated that 30 percent of TreeKeeper volunteers return to help with projects year after year.
"Once a TreeKeeper, always a TreeKeeper," she said.
Although the TreeKeepers class was almost full Monday, interested volunteers can still sign up online or by calling Rohmiller at 874-7499.
The Columbia Aquatic Restoration Program, another volunteer effort organized by the city that maintains lakes, ponds and streams in city parks, also accepts volunteers. Classes will be held March 12, March 19 and March 21. They are also close to capacity.
Bill Reniker, who has contributed more than 288 hours to TreeKeepers since 2004 and more than 30 hours to the Columbia Aquatic Restoration Program since 2007, said he thinks of the outings as "a family reunion, almost like an extended family.
"You don't have anybody on the bench smoking or drinking a soda. Everybody is doing what they can," he said.
Reniker has planted 300 trees on his property since joining TreeKeepers and plans to plant 300 more, all with edible fruit, with his neighbor this spring.
"One of the things I've heard is, the best time to plant a tree is yesterday," he said. "We're planting the trees for future generations."