Stephen Behee: Kona’s self-taught plant expert

  • Chambers Nursery now special orders their own soil mix which they use for their plants and sell to the public.
  • Long propagation tables at the nursery hold seedling liners as well as cuttings propagated by nursery staff. (Photos courtesy /Diana Duff, Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • With increased demand for plants, Stephen often buys liners of plant seedlings or plugs to save time and labor.

  • Michael Schloffel and Stephen Behee serve as assistant manager and manager keeping Craig Chambers Landscape Nursery running smoothly.

  • A black mailbox with the address 78-7169 marks the entrance on Pu’uloa Road to Craig Chambers Landscape Nursery. (Photos courtesy /Diana Duff, Special to West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Kona abounds with hidden treasures.

One of these is Stephen Behee, a longtime fixture in the landscape industry with years of experience working with plants. These days he is hiding out at Craig Chambers Landscape Nursery at 78-7169 Puu Loa Road in Kona.

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His chronology of experience working with plants is stunning. He actually started as a kid, growing up in Southern California. He often worked with his mom in the family garden. His fascination with tropical plants also started early. He would save his milk money, walk to a plant nursery a mile away and buy tropical exotics.

Stephen’s early love of plants took him to many places and lots of different experiences, including Kona where he decided to settle.

His last job before leaving California for Kona was a four-year stint on a 340-acre property in the Sierras. The owner had restored steam locomotives and out buildings to their original specs from the late 1800s as a hobby. Stephen started working there as part of the large irrigation crew. Four years later he had become the landscape supervisor.

“The property was owned by Glen Bell of Taco Bell fame and was a fun place to work,” he said. “Part of the landscape included a hundred-year-old narrow gauge railroad that was used on the property.”

SELF-TAUGHT EXPERT

Stephen continued working in landscaping without stopping to get a degree. He proceeded to log years of experience making him a self-taught plant expert with a wider variety of plant knowledge than some of those with advanced degrees in horticultural sciences.

When they tired of the snow and the wet, cold weather in the Sierras, Stephen and his wife Regina decided to live where they could garden year-round and could indulge their new love of orchids, Kona was a perfect choice for them.

Upon arriving in Kona In 1981, Stephen became the Landscape Maintenance Crew Supervisor at Kona Krafts. Though this gig didn’t last long, it launched his Kona landscaping career.

Local landscape contractor Gene Shaner hired him to work on his landscape maintenance crew. Later, he did landscape maintenance at Magic Sands Condominiums. This led to a job with George Broderson developing the new Hualalai Subdivision off Hualalai Road.

“They taught me the exacting art of successful plant propagation,” he said about working with Kaz Shigizawa, Kats Aoki and Chris Akiyama.

He has carried this skill with him throughout the 25 years since working at Kona Nursery. His next job was in landscape maintenance at the Kona Surf followed by nearly six years in sales at Farm and Garden in Captain Cook.

In that position, he helped Take and Mike Kudo open their downtown store in Kona’s new industrial area. There, Stephan offered expert advice while selling equipment and supplies to local landscapers, gardeners and farmers. As a farmer, I often relied on his recommendations for purchasing the right product for the task at hand.

I also remember getting advice from Stephen during his decade-long stint at Jerry Walsh’s Kainaliu Gardens. He was always very knowledgeable and offered lots of helpful information.

ONE OF THE FEW COMPLETE NURSERIES REMAINING IN KONA

After years of working with Jerry, Stephen and Regina decided to make a change and moved back to California.

He immediately went to work for the largest interior plant business in southern California. Within six months the owner sold the business, placing Stephen in charge of the company. During a conversation with Jerry Walsh that year, he made the choice to return to Kona and his position at Kainaliu Gardens. Soon after, Jerry decided to sell the business and Stephen took it on, renaming it Anuenue Gardens. He and his wife Regina tried to make a go of it during a deep recession but finally decided it was time to close the business.

After closing Anuenue Gardens, Stephen worked with Bill and Debbie Downs at Kona Quality Gardens before landing his current managerial position at Craig Chambers Landscape Nursery. That’s a long and varied history in our local landscape industry.

Managing Craig’s two 5-acre nurseries gives Stephen the opportunity to apply many of the skills and lots of the information he’s gleaned in his 55 years working in horticulture.

Chamber’s nursery was founded about 12 years ago when Craig wanted a dependable supply of plants for his clients. The nursery now has hundreds of plants and carries varieties from small plugs to large specimen trees. This remains one of the few complete nurseries left in Kona.

Though the nursery was started to serve Craig and other landscape contractors, it has recently opened for retail sales to the public. Gardeners are now welcome to visit by appointment during business hours from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

If you are looking for something in particular or want to set up an appointment, give Stephen a call at 323-3908 or e mail him at behee808@gmail.com.

INSIDE THE OPERATION

He and his assistant manager, Michael Schloffel work well at overseeing operations and maintaining their large computerized inventory.

The nursery now has more than a dozen full time employees who manage the watering, weeding, pest control and propagation as well as filling plant requests. The managerial pair are dedicated to running the nursery sustainably by using as few pesticides as possible and monitoring water use as well.

I asked each of them to identify their favorite plants. Michael proudly pointed out the nursery’s large collection of ti plants. Among them was one of his favorites, the bronze colored “Peter Buck” variety.

Stephen then began waxing eloquent on his beloved orchids. He and his wife have a large collection including many that were collected in Mexico, Belize, Thailand and Venezuela. The nursery, however, does not usually carry orchids for sale.

When I asked Stephen to tell me what personal principles have guided him in his work, he was quick to respond, “Be honest.”

Honesty comes naturally to Stephen though he has seen some less-than-honest dealings in landscaping over the years. He has also seen the problems that can arise from broken promises and dishonest behavior in the industry and is dedicated to maintaining integrity in all of his business dealings.

Touring the grounds with Stephen and Michael, we passed many propagation tables where they start lots of plants. They did most of their own propagation in the past, but now the volume of plants required necessitates them buying stock as liner trays filled with hundreds of seedlings.

Several roadways crisscross through the nursery offering easy access for plant and soil pickup and delivery. Though most of the nursery is in full sun their propagation area and shade loving plants are protected with a large area of shade cloth. On our tour we also passed a huge pile of soil which is a special blend they ordered for their use as well as for a new nursery offering.

Several large areas are fenced to protect plants from pig damage. The wild pigs in the neighborhood are fond of many nursery plants including green ti plants. All the pig’s favorite are now housed inside fenced areas.

When I asked which plants are in high demand, Stephen responded, “Our ti varieties are very popular. Hibiscus and heleconia varieties are also big sellers.”

He also noted that plants with fragrant flowers sell well, like the heaven scent gardenia that perfumed the air as we passed. The roadways are lined with some other popular shrubs like the snowflake plant and the hula girl hibiscus.

According to Stephen, the trend to plant natives is diminishing as landscape designers often specify plants with green or variegated leaves for a green and white color scheme rather than featuring natives or showy flowers. Some designers are also specifying profusions of tropical plants to create jungle-like gardens.

As trends come and go, Stephen and Michael are charged with being ahead of the game in order to meet the demand.

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Luckily, with an experienced plant person like Stephen at the helm, this nursery is likely to continue to grow and serve Kona landscapers and gardeners well.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.

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