Garden entrepreneur Heidi Heiland found her calling very early. As a child growing up in Cottagewood on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, her earliest memories were of picking dandelions — and getting paid, two for a penny.

The precocious plant pro launched her own company when she was just 17. She’d been working at her summer job as a landscape “water girl” for a townhouse developer. “They were putting in a garden for the CEO,” she recalled. But the garden was uninspiring — common plants, with few varieties. “I thought, ‘This is it? He should have a better garden than this.’ ”

She knew she could do better, so the next summer, she and another teen started their own business designing and tending gardens near Lake Minnetonka. “It was one of those serendipitous things,” she said of her career. “It found me.”

Today, Heiland is the CEO (or “Chief Experience Officer”) of Heidi’s Lifestyle Gardens (, where she’s carved out a rarefied niche, with clients that include business owners, corporate executives and professional athletes, many with large lakeshore estates.

She won’t drop names. All she’ll say about her client list is “I feel lucky.”

“She’s very discreet about her high-end customers,” said Debbie Lonnee, horticulturist at Bailey Nurseries.

But there’s a lot more to Heiland than gardener to the 1 percent, according to Diana Pierce, the KARE-11 anchor who appears with Heiland on monthly televised gardening segments.

“She’s been doing those big lakeshore gardens for years,” Pierce said. “But she’s just as passionate about helping somebody try to grow a potted tomato on the porch.” (Pierce recently moved to a condo and enlisted Heiland’s help with her modest garden.) “That’s the energy she brings, not only to our segment, but to everything.”

Gardens for all

Lakeshore landscapes have been Heiland’s bread and butter, but she’s committed to sharing her love of gardening with average Joes, too. A few years ago, she changed her company’s name from Heidi’s Lakeshore Gardens to Heidi’s Lifestyle Gardens. “Not everybody lives on a lake,” she noted.

Passionate about the healing power of nature, she trained at the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Colorado and added horticultural therapy, accessible design and “healing events” to her firm’s services. “I believe in the ability of God’s green Earth to heal us,” she said.

She’s also emerged as a vocal advocate for protecting the natural environment, especially lakeshores. Recently elected as president of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA), she hopes to nudge her industry in an environmentally friendly direction, away from chemicals and toward water conservation.

“We’re the original green industry, and in a position to help,” she said. “More of us are going to have to learn to tread lightly on the land.”

Lonnee, past MNLA president, said Heiland, whom she calls “the queen of green,” is very aware of the environmental issues coming to the fore. “She’s very much into the new trends: bees, water quality, sustainability. The industry at large will have to deal with those trends. It’s coming at us.”

The balance between traditional, ornamental gardening and sustainability is one Heiland wrestles with personally.

Many of the clients who hire her firm to keep their containers looking pretty ask for five seasonal switch-outs: spring, summer, fall, winter/holiday and “fifth season — as in, my spruce tips are too brown and ugly, get ’em out of here, and it’s too early for pansies,” she said. “How sustainable is that?”

Heiland knows that becoming more sustainable will involve engaging her clients and educating them about plant choices, so they understand the benefits of perennials and native plants, and how they can be used to create an attractive landscape.

“Natives and rain gardens can be done badly,” she noted. “They can be messy and weedy. People get nervous.” But they can also be beautiful. “Mass plantings are easier to install, and from an aesthetic standpoint are calming, with a cleaner look.”

Still, she doesn’t shy away from the task. In fact, Heiland loves collaborating with clients. “We have people who don’t even live there. The gardens are pretty, but they don’t have the heart,” she said. “The best gardens are the ones where the clients are involved,” she said.

Refuge and studio

At home in Plymouth, Heiland has created her own unique habitat, a 2-acre spread on the shores of Gleason Lake. It’s her garden studio, where she experiments with plants and invites guests, both for formal tours and casual visits. It’s also where she does “green exercise,” using suspension-training straps hanging from a tree. “I’ll do more of these here than in a gym,” she said.

She has a kitchen garden, a succulent garden, a waterfall and a little fairy garden where she plays with her preschool-age granddaughter. She also keeps chickens and bees, and has added a floating island planted with native plants to create habitat for birds, bees and butterflies.

The bees, tended by the University of Minnesota Bee Squad, opened Heiland’s eyes and nudged her another step in her own green evolution. Two years ago, she lost 90 percent of her bees. “A bee landed on my leg. It looked drunk,” she recalled. She suspected colony collapse, and a chemical link. “We were treating Japanese beetles with a systemic that was hugely toxic,” she said. “Now I treat by removing the host plant, and freeze and feed” — picking and freezing the beetles and feeding them to the birds.

She’s incorporated a number of water-management features into her landscape, including a rainbox system (which has more capacity than a rain barrel), several rain gardens, a permeable-paver driveway and a rain chain. “I’m a Type A personality, but I’ll slow down for my rain chain,” she said. “It keeps you in appreciation of water. And it freezes in winter and turns into an ice sculpture.”

Water has been a theme throughout her life. “I grew up on the water,” Heiland said, and she bought her current home because she wanted to get back to water. “There was a little garden, but it was the water I wanted,” she said. “I knew water would heal me.”

Sober for 17 years, Heiland credits the outdoors and gardening with helping her get and stay healthy. “Gardening was the constant,” she said. “I was a high-functioning alcoholic. A lot of people never knew. We are all wounded birds, and being able to be outside was healing for me. I was lucky enough that it was my job.”