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Gardener at St. Francis Hospital retires after nearly 30 years

After 28 years of transforming the grounds of

After 28 years of transforming the grounds of St. Francis Hospital — from planting a full vegetable garden to helping create a sense of serenity and beauty where patients and visitors can take a moment away from their worries — Pat Sblendorio 76, is hanging up his shovel Monday. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Daffodils dance by the hospital entrance. The blooming Bradford pear trees look like they’re swaddled in white lace. Soon, the gardens of St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn will be decked out in all their flowered finery.

That explosion of colors will be the last creation of what Pat Sblendorio has coaxed from barren ground for nearly 30 years. On Monday, the 76-year-old gardener is putting down his shovel for good.

To St. Francis employees, Sblendorio is much more than a landscaper. He is a force of nature — charming and cheerful, always wearing a smile and offering up a warm “hello.”

“No one will ever replace him,” said security officer Mark Kilmnick, standing in front of the hospital’s entranceway.

Sblendorio endeared himself to cardiologist Louise Spadaro with what might seem like a little thing. It wasn’t to her, though.

For years, Spadaro saw a white fence and gravel when she looked out at the grounds from her office. Then, Sblendorio worked his magic, planting vegetables in a big pot by the fence.

“Now I can open my window and pull off some cucumbers and tomatoes,” Spadaro said. “It’s very calming for me and my patients.”

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Growing up in Italy, Sblendorio didn’t enjoy working with the earth. He recalled how, as a 15-year-old, he pushed a plow behind horses. Six years later, he moved to the United States in 1963. His father, already here, started a landscaping business, but the younger Sblendorio didn’t want to be a “grasshopper,” his name for a gardener.

Years of various jobs — Sblendorio has always worked with his hands, from making cabinets to building garage doors — led to an offer to care for the St. Francis campus. He arrived in 1989 and remembers what he thought when he first saw the 15-acre grounds.

“This place needs a haircut and a shave,” he recalled.

After tending to the gardening basics, Sblendorio set about planting fig trees, purple crape myrtle, Kwanzan cherry trees, lilies, evergreens galore and the Bradford pears. He advocated successfully for an irrigation system and crafted topiary outside the chapel building.

Sblendorio’s gardens create a sense of serenity and beauty, places where patients and visitors can take a moment away from their worries.

Just the other day, Karen Gerdts was taking a stroll in the gardens. Her husband was having knee surgery.

“It’s really a peaceful place,” said Gerdts, 59, of Queens. The stroll did her good. “He’ll walk out better than he walked in.”

Even as more institutions turned to landscape services, St. Francis kept its grounds in the hands of one caretaker.

“It’s not just a job to him,” Tony Freda, director of plant operations, said of Sblendorio. “He treats this campus like it belongs to him.”

And Sblendorio talks about work the way he talks about life:

“Always improve.”

Come Tuesday, Sblendorio’s two assistants — they call him Poppa — will take over the workload.

For now, Sblendorio plans to travel and spend more time with family. After a time, he expects to come back to the hospital, if only to say hello to folks and get a glimpse of the gardens that are his legacy.

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