October 28, 2015

Former Garden Club of America President Katie Heins Brings Her Leadership Skills To A Variety of Projects

Katie Heins

To lead, one must be able to motivate others, to summon their best efforts in order to attain a successful result. Pinceton resident Katie Heins is such a leader.

Former president of the Garden Club of America (GCA) and Stony Brook Garden Club of Princeton, she has held numerous positions of responsibility in these organizations. Through her effort, energy, and expertise, she has helped them to become more productive, responsive, and influential.

As her friend of 30 years, Princeton resident Susan Levy, points out, “The productivity of any organization, it is often said, reflects its leadership. The Garden Club of America is better for having had Katie as its president. It is more productive, more cohesive, and more directed. Katie inspires by her own remarkable example, adhering to the highest standards, eager to take on challenges.”

These leadership qualities were evidenced in Ms. Heins’s early years. Enthusiastic student in school, president of the Student Council, active participant in many responsible positions, she welcomed opportunities to achieve.

Time Outdoors

Born in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Katharine — always known as Katie — was the second child of three born to George and Jane Phillips. Growing up in central Pennsylvania, Katie enjoyed the chance to spend time outdoors appreciating the natural world, and at the same time to excel in school.

“I think my happiest childhood memory is of playing outside with my friends,” she recalls. “We were outside all the time. I loved the Pennsylvania farmland and the beauty of the countryside. I also liked everything in school, especially math and science. I really liked school from the very beginning.”

Her leadership skills surfaced early, and serving as president of the Student Council, Katie discovered the opportunity to make an impact and see positive results. “I liked leadership and being in a position to make a difference. I really liked this right away.”

She also liked going to the movies, and enjoyed family outings to the beach in the  summer. Importantly, she continued to be inspired by her paternal grandmother, Frances Phillips, a very special person in her life. “I especially looked up to her. She was a lovely person, very elegant. She also had beautiful gardens, which I loved.”

School and the love of learning remained a major focus for Katie, and after graduating as valedictorian in high school, she entered Penn State. Majoring in Spanish, she also had a semester at the University of Salamanca in Spain, an experience she remembers with great pleasure.

While in college, she had met John Heins during summers spent at the Jersey shore. “We were both working there,” she remembers, “and John had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.”

Right Away

They soon became a couple, and when Katie graduated from Penn State in 1963, the wedding was set right away. “We got married in Spain, then went on to Majorca and Paris for our honeymoon. We sailed home on the Rotterdam. It was very special,” says Ms. Heins.

They settled in Philadelphia, and Katie decided to take post graduate work in creative writing at nearby Bryn Mawr College. “It was something I had always enjoyed,” she reports, “and I was pleased to have the opportunity to explore it more fully.”

What took her time even more fully was the arrival of four children in the next six years. Child-rearing kept her busy, and it wasn’t until the Heins family moved to Princeton in 1980 that her as yet dormant interest in gardening began to flourish.

“Princeton was new to us, and we liked it right away,” says Ms. Heins. “In 1983, friends invited me to join Stony Brook Garden Club. When I first joined, I began to create my own garden, and I found that I really enjoyed it.”

Previously, despite always admiring the beauty of her grandmother’s gardens, Ms. Heins had never seriously gardened herself. Once she began to explore the pleasures of gardening, typically, she delved deeper and deeper into the experience.

“My garden just grew and grew,” she explains, “and I learned that you can’t just plant something you like and expect it to do well. You have to understand about sun and shade, soil conditions, etc. I decided I needed more information.”

Fabulous Education

She then entered the rigorous three-year program at the Arboretum School of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, earning a certificate in horticulture. This was at the same time she was parenting four children, running a household, and volunteering at Stony Brook.

“It was a fabulous education,” notes Ms. Heins. “It involved all aspects of horticulture, including Latin nomenclature, landscape design, etc.”

Serving on various
committees at Stony Brook, including the horticulture committee, and eventually becoming president of the club, she found that her interest in gardening and horticulture continued to deepen. As president of the club, she was involved in a variety of projects, including mounting a statewide flower show and seeking to preserve and showcase the Rockingham historic site.

As Susan Levy, currently Garden Club of America liaison to the Royal Horticulture Society in England, notes regarding Ms. Heins’s tenure, “By delegating well, overseeing thoroughly, and working hard, Katie helped mold a stronger club.”

During this time, Ms. Heins also became more involved in creating and designing her own personal garden, which came to be especially admired by colleagues and friends. It became such a showcase that it was documented by the Stony Brook Garden Club for the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens in 2009, and was among 28 public and private gardens featured in the 2014 book Gardens of the Garden State.

Stony Brook is one of 200 garden clubs throughout the U.S. which are part of the Garden Club of America (GCA). This non-profit organization, founded in 1912, is dedicated to horticulture, conservation, and civic improvement, and includes 18,000 members.

Singular Honor

Since 1996, Ms. Heins has served on GCA national committees, including program, library, horticulture, and strategic planning. She ultimately chaired the horticulture committee, and began serving GCA in executive leadership capacities as recording secretary in 2006. In 2013, she became the 40th president of the club, a singular honor.

Ms. Heins’s ability to contribute, coordinate, and lead in all these positions has been recognized by those who work with her. “Katie is a go-getter, whether it’s designing her own garden or leading the Garden Club of America,” points out Dede Petri, Ms. Heins longtime colleague, who now serves on the board as GCA first vice president.

“Under her watch, the GCA advanced conservation, civic improvement, and education initiatives. Visitors to the GCA Redwood Grove in California can now gain access because of a successful fund-raising effort to restore the trail; the GCA has renewed its long-standing opposition to unsightly billboards by opposing the proliferation of digital flashing signs; and clubs have been empowered to pursue projects supporting native plants, pollinators, youth education, and more.”

Adds Susan Levy: “The GCA is a complex organization whose influence extends across our nation and beyond. As such, it requires a visionary who understands the whole and its parts, and is committed to helping them flourish. Katie was just that person.”

As president, Ms. Heins was instrumental in achieving a number of goals. Importantly, she served as a respected and admired leader and motivator of the many volunteers and officers accomplishing the work of the GCA through more than 40 national committees and 12 geographic zones.

Also during her tenure as president, the GCA advocated at the federal, state, and local levels regarding issues relating to sustainable agriculture, seed diversity, and food security. In addition, the GCA raised the subjects of climate change, the national park system, preservation of native plants and national public lands, and environmentally-responsible transportation.

Wonderful Experience

These were just some of the major initiatives undertaken and advanced during Ms. Heins’s watch. Her role as president entailed a comprehensive array of responsibilities. As  she explains, “It involved a real mix, including public speaking, administration, finance, and travel. I didn’t like public speaking at first, but I did become more comfortable with it over time.”

The opportunity to travel across the county on club projects was one she particularly enjoyed. “Seeing different parts of the country and all the differences in culture and topography was a wonderful experience.”

Proud of her two-year tenure as president, Ms. Heins makes another important observation. “What I especially enjoyed as president was to see the power of women make a difference. The women involved in GCA are lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. it is the women and members of the clubs who really do the work.”

Further, she adds, “I believe that the most important quality for someone to be successful both professionally and personally is the ability to listen. I have always felt this way. You really have to hear what someone is saying.”

Although her tenure as president ended June 30th this year, Ms. Heins remains active in the organization and will serve as a horticulture judge at flower shows, including the Philadelphia Flower Show. And, she adds, she looks forward to spending time working on her own garden in her new home. With the demands of the GCA presidency, she has not had time to focus on this. “Now, I plan to create a new garden and work on it.”

She will no doubt be busy in many ways. As she says, “I never seem to fail to fill my vacant hours!”


After 35 years in Princeton, Ms. Heins remains a fan. “We did like it right away, and we still do. What I especially like about Princeton are the people and the cultural opportunities. There is so much diversity. I enjoy going to McCarter and events at the University. I l have also audited classes at the University in the history of architecture and comparative literature. This is really a wonderful community, and I also love the accessibility to New York.”

Her interests are wide-ranging — from travel (summers in Sun Valley and visits to Italy) to the books of John Steinbeck to the symphony, and according to her friend Susan Levy — cooking.

“Katie is a fabulous cook, a passion she now shares with her children — and her friends love it too. She approaches cooking as she approaches flower arranging and horticulture, as an art form, and of course, she does it well. As I grew to know her socially, I learned that whatever Katie did, she did well. That’s the thread she pulls through her life.”

Ms. Levy cites another example. “30 years ago, I met Katie at a mutual friend’s dinner party. It seems like yesterday! She arrived with the quintessential hostess present, a small, charming flower arrangement she had made specifically for our hostess. Beautifully conceived, with bits of fern and wild flowers, it focused on our hostess’s preferences while representing Katie to a ‘T’.  As tiny as it was, it was filled with gratitude for the invitation, and a palpable appreciation for the plant material and floral design.”

Spending time with her family — four children and now 10 grandchildren — is a priority for Ms. Heins, and she sees them as often as possible. “I am very proud of them,” she explains, “My family is what is most important to me.”

And this includes memories of her grandmother, who perhaps, even unknown to Katie at the time, instilled a love and appreciation of a garden and what it can mean.

“I have thought of my grandmother constantly through my GCA journey,” reflects Ms. Heins. “I think she would be simply amazed to think her beautiful gardens were my initial inspiration to become interested in plants and gardening and to take it to a whole new level of education and leadership that she never dreamed about. She just did what she loved to do, and so have I, but in a different way. However, my interests remain rooted in the garden both literally and figuratively.”