Whitney Steele balances love of fish, plants, business and family

  • Whitney maintains a stock of small koi to offer to her pond clients.
  • Water hyacinth blossoms add a lovely lavender accent to a pond.
  • Many native taro species are wonderful water plants.
  • One of Whitney’s favorite water plants is the beautiful water lily.
  • Whitney truly enjoys her children Zander and Zoey and manages to work their care into her busy work life. (Photos by Diana Duff / Special to West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Whitney Steele’s love of aquaculture is just a small part of her life. In addition to the ponds, fish and water plants she enjoys working with, she recently purchased a landscaping business and gave birth to her second child. Despite an activity overload, Whitney has an ebullient nature and wears a constant and sincere smile.

Whitney started learning about plants as a child growing up on an 800-acre farm in central Washington state. Though the family farm raised mostly hay, grains, cattle and hogs, she became fascinated with fish. When she was given a swimming pool as a youngster, she immediately turned it into a pond and started raising fish. In high school she became an active 4H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) member but continued breeding fish. She soon started a small business with a local fish store trading her young fry for larger and more prized specimens.

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Still a farmer and plant lover at heart, Whitney pursued a degree in landscape architecture at Washington State University. At a local nursery in Washington state, she started building ponds and owned her own business maintaining ponds. She soon decided to round out her education and pursue her interest in aquaculture. While studying aquarium science at the Oregon Coast Community College, Whitney met her future husband, Zeke, who held a degree in marine biology from UH Hilo.

In 2012, they came to Kona to get married and decided they needed to live here. The two were working at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, when they finally made the decision to leave their jobs and come to Kona. They delighted in the idea of living in a tropical climate where they could pursue their interests in aquaculture and plants year round.

Whitney was also able to indulge her love of orchids here. Her back wall at home is loaded with some unique orchid specimens. Her pitcher orchid was in full bloom during my visit and was fun to see. Her love of orchids got her involved with the local Kona Orchid Society, where she now serves as a member of their board.

For the Steeles, work life in Kona began when they met Greg Smith who was the fish manager at Petco. He would send them to help people needing information about their ponds and fish. Whitney soon found work with Chris Yeaton at Pool Brite. She started as a member of his landscape crew and eventually became the foreman. Whitney then started her own aquaculture business, Play’n in the Pond. She thoroughly enjoyed helping design and maintain ponds and stocking them with healthy fish and plants.

As their careers were expanding, the Steeles decided to start a family. Their son Zander is now 3 and their daughter Zoey is 3 months old. After less than five years in Kona, the duo is already learning to juggle family life with their careers.

“My advice to women trying to combine motherhood with a career is to seek and ask for help when you need it,” Whitney said.

She finds that while her kids are still young she can often take them on some of her jobs or find a play group or sitter for a few hours. Zander and Zoey are learning early to adapt to their mom’s busy schedule.

Recently, Chris offered Whitney the opportunity to take over his landscaping clients. She jumped at the chance to expand her own business beyond aquaculture and expand on her background in landscape architecture. Play’n in the Pond LLC now includes playing in the field.

“It’s a day by day process, figuring out ways to make my work into a fun learning experience for the kids,” she said. “When I’m having fun, hopefully that translates to them as well.”

As part of her expanded business, Whitney serves as a broker for water plants and is still diagnosing and advising on fish and plant problems. Without a local lab or a degree in veterinary medicine, she is somewhat limited. Armed with her knowledge, her experience and a good microscope, however, she is definitely a good pond advisor.

I learned a lot about ways to maintain a healthy pond during my visit.

“Pond health is dependent on a proper balance of fish and plants; food and filtration,” was her first declaration.

She finds that overstocking fish or plants can tip the balance and cause diseases or death of either or both species.

“Here in Hawaii, without a winter freeze, algae grows year round and can easily get out of control,” she said.

According to Whitney you can control algae growth by attention to a few basic principles:

1. Install aquatic plants that consume excess nutrients to limit algae growth and include plant varieties that offer shade from the sun to keep algae from starting.

2. Avoid excessive organic matter in the pond. The nutrients in fish food, fish sludge, plant fertilizers and runoff are great food for algae and encourage its growth.

3. Set up a good biological filter system and run it regularly.

Whitney adds, “I know you can get a lot of chemical help these days with this and other pond issues but I prefer to use IPM (integrated pest management) principles when I can.”

Whitney waxed eloquent on some of her favorite water plants. Of course, she loves water lilies. One in her holding pond was blooming a beautiful magenta the morning I was there. She also likes installing water hyacinth to shade pond surfaces. The blooms on her plants are an attractive light lavender-blue. This plant is considered an invasive species in many other places, but she was quick to point out that it cannot survive in salt water and we don’t have many running streams or freshwater lakes for it to escape into in Kona.

A lovely stripped rush (Baumea rubiginosa Variegata) was growing in one of her holding ponds with many delicate, long reeds holding a cluster of seeds. Another of Whitney’s favorites is the native taro. Many varieties in the Colocasia genus do very well in ponds. The variegated plant she had in stock was particularly attractive.

She had a few water lettuce samples on hand and reported that they were great at offering shade to ponds in full sun. Although she didn’t have any duckweed in her holding tanks, she did report that it was not as invasive as many think. Many fish, including koi, will consume duckweed and keep it under control as long as they are not overfed.

She did point out that many plants that we consider land plants also have varieties that do well in ponds. Cannas, crinums (spider lilies), sedges (Cyperus genus), rushes (Juncus genus), irises and well-known water plants like cattails and horsetails can all add beauty and interest to a tropical pond.

Since the Steeles are still connected with Pool Brite, you can learn more about them at https://www.poolbrite.org/about-us/ or contact Whitney through her number 895-3321.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.

Gardening Events

Monday: “Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Monthly Meeting” from 7-9 p.m. at West Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers office 81-6393 Mamalahoa Highway in Kealakekua. White wooden building on makai side across from the Department of Transportation yard. Park in front or on the north side. Contact Brian Lievens, president West Hawaii chapter at 895-8753 or greenwizard@hawaii.rr.com for more information.

Thursday: “Grafting Coffee for Root-knot Nematode Management” from 8:30-11:30 p.m. or 1-4 p.m. at UH Cooperative Extension Service in Kainaliu with a demo by Kraig Lee followed by hands on practice. Other speakers include: Dr. Roxana Myers of USDA, Dr. Alyssa Cho, Dr. Stuart T. Nakamoto and Andrea Kawabata of CTAHR. $20 registration is required. Classes are limited to 15 participants. RSVP at https://bit.ly/2xQZ5vQ or by contacting Gina at 322-4892 by June 19.

Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Volunteers will be able to help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.

Farmer Direct Markets

Wednesday: “Sunset Farmers Market” 2-6 p.m. in the HPM parking lot at 74-5511 Luhia Street in Kailua-Kona (across from Target)

“Hooulu Farmers Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon in front of Parker School

“Waimea Homestead Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at the Waimea Middle and Elementary School Playground

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

Plant Advice Lines

Anytime: konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu

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Tuesdays &Thursdays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH-CES in Kainaliu – 322-4892

Mon., Tues. &Fri: 9 a.m. to noon at UH CES at Komohana in Hilo 981-5199 or himga@hawaii.edu