Schichtel’s Nursery scion George Schichtel passed away on December 31, 2021 at age 93. Here, Nina Bassuk and Andy Hillman share their histories with George, reflect on what made George so beloved, and lay out how consequential and positive George and Schichtel’s Nursery’s contributions have been to urban and community forestry in New York and beyond. If you have a story to share about how your life intersected with George Schichtel’s, kindly leave it in the Comments section.
Located in greater Buffalo, Schichtel’s Nursery started out in 1954 in Orchard Park but relocated to Springville, New York in the 1980s. The Nursery has nearly two thousand acres in tree production.
Andy Hillman: How I met George was that in the 1980s, I had been invited to a barbeque at Schichtel’s because I was working as the supervisor of trees and parks for Oswego and at my urging, the City starting buying trees from them. While nursery tours were underway at the barbeque I couldn’t resist the urge to wander around the place, and somehow meandered right into George’s office. I was so embarrassed, but he smiled and said, “Hey, have a seat. Where are you from?” Just so friendly right from the jump. Nina and I joke that the Schichtels—and our friend Jim Kisker, the longtime sales manager there—have an “extra nice” gene.
Nina Bassuk: As director of the Urban Horticulture Institute, I’ve collaborated with George and Schichtel’s for 40 years on research and teaching, and he and his family—many of whom are running the business—have always been so warm. I have to say his passing is hitting me hard.
Hundreds of my students have gone to Schichtel’s to learn about nursery production, and George really delighted in meeting the young people and likewise, they really listened to what he had to say. It always seemed a pleasure to him and his family, not a bother, when the students and I went there. He was super generous with his time. While Jim Kisker took the students around, George would drive me around the nursery acreage and show me the species and cultivars they were trying out.
Andy: My crew at the Ithaca DPW loved the spring and fall trips to Schichtel’s, because we were treated so graciously by George and family and Jim and then we’d go to Julie’s in Springville for beef on weck, a Buffalo classic.
Nina: Schichtel’s let us keep our plastic horse troughs at the nursery when we were doing a bare root trial there in the 90s. We’d make up the dip, cover the bare roots in a hydrogel slurry and take them back to Ithaca. Based on our collaborative research findings, bare root (with the hydrogel dipping method) became a real production standard for them, to the point where they are THE bare root tree people. The bare root method made it possible for countless municipalities in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and elsewhere to afford to buy and plant trees. And along the way, Schichtel’s starting offering the hydrogel dipping and bagging for just $5 a tree.
Andy: Yes, just last year the Town of Ulysses, where I live, bought two bare root swamp white oaks (Quercus bicolor) for Arbor Day planting. My son Erik and I drove from the Finger Lakes to Schichtel’s in Springville to pick them up. The Nursery had dipped and bagged them for us, so we put them in the back of my truck, covered them, and headed home. At 1.5-inch caliper, bare root trees are light (25-30 lbs) and easy for most folks to carry and plant.
I love to drive around Ithaca and see how big the B&B and bare root paired trees from the study that Nina and her grad student Michelle (Buckstrup) Sutton did in the late 1990s. Those swamp white oaks, hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) and hophornbeams (Ostrya virginiana) are huge! There’s a row of swamp white oaks on West Hill that are spectacular. And one bare root specimen from Schichtel’s that really stands out is a ‘Skymaster’ English oak (Quercus robur) near Cascadilla Creek. It was a 1 ¼ inch caliper tree that cost $80—and now it’s toweringly tall and robustly healthy.
Nina: Schichtel’s has introduced cultivars that we’ve had great success with in Ithaca and have become widely popular, like ‘Sugar Cone’ sugar maple (Acer saccharum); ‘Karpick’ red maple (A. rubrum) (named for Buffalo’s longtime city forester, Frank Karpick); ‘Scarlet Sentinel’ red maple; ‘Seneca Chief’ sugar maple; ‘Summer Snow’ tree lilac (Syringa reticulata); and ‘MaacNificient’ Amur maackia (Maackia amurensis).
George used to take me and Andy out around the farms to point out straight-species trees with characteristics he thought worth propagating. He was really progressive about new species and cultivars; diversity of trees was always on his mind; the Schichtel’s catalog is notably diverse. Ithaca’s diverse urban forest owes so much to our strong relationship with George and Schichtel’s Nursery.
George was particularly fond of oaks and later in life had a burst of energy around evergreens for the landscape.
Andy: I love that quote from his obituary, “I never worked a day in my life.” He’d always say that. And he served on the Orchard Park Tree Board. Can you imagine having George Schichtel on your tree board? That is the dream. He once invited me to come to the Orchard Park Tree board meeting and talk about tree inventory, plant selection, things like that. He was always bringing people in to educate himself and the Board. Schichtel’s donated two “park grade” ‘Seneca Chief’ sugar maples to the little hamlet of Jacksonville near where I live. Man, that is a great selection; the fall color is beautiful on these trees that function as a welcoming presence for the local park.
Nina: He really enjoyed his work. Of course there were ups and downs with market, but he always kept this incredible optimistic viewpoint. His big loving family are all in the business, even George’s grandkids in some cases. A labor of love for him. Mark Schichtel has been wonderful to collaborate with, too. We worked with Mark and Jim Kisker on a transplanting study were some trees were left in the nursery as a control while others were transplanted into the Ithaca urban forest. Once every few weeks we’d take data to measure hydraulic conductivity from the roots up and to scan for embolisms. It was an incredibly rigorous project, for which we appreciated Mark’s support and Jim’s faithful involvement. We’ve also worked with them on hybrid oak trials and on hickory propagation studies.
Andy: George always liked a fresh roll and cup of coffee, he’d provide snacks to greet us and shot the breeze with us. There’s a lot of us whose lives have been greatly impacted by George, and we are really going to miss him.