Bob Sandoz, OFM (left) and Gregory Gebbia, OFM, examine one of the six raised beds in their vegetable garden.

A Garden Grows at Siena
Green-Thumb Friars Have a Very Franciscan Hobby

HNP Communications HNPNow

Special fencing keeps out the critters.

Some people read novels. Others give amateur photography a spin, or they do paint-by-number art. But when Gregory Gebbia, OFM, and Robert (Bob) Sandoz, OFM, thought about collaborating on a hobby, they decided on something very Franciscan. They connected with nature and the environment – and, in the process, reconnected with a part of their past that today still holds fond memories. They created a vegetable garden! And from the looks of the neatly fenced plot of real estate nestled behind the St. Bernardine of Siena Friary on the campus of Siena College in upstate Loudonville, New York, Gregory and Bob aren’t your garden-variety horticulturists.

Using a popular method of gardening called square foot, which enables intense growing in small space, their garden is producing a bounteous harvest of 23 different vegetables springing from the soil of a half-dozen 8’x4’ raised beds in the 25-foot-wide, 50-foot-long space that contains 225 plantings of more than 700 plants – all of them started from seeds that were germinated in cups under 10-hours-a-day of bright lamps in a friary office that doubled as a growing room.

Gregory Gebbia, OFM, looks over some of the growbag pots that contain potato plants.

The abundant yield has included deep orange carrots, bouquets of cauliflower and broccoli, shiny purple eggplant, harmonizing green shades of spinach, lettuce and cabbage – and, of course, the star of every garden, red plump tomatoes (and plenty of sweet basil to serve with those juicy ripened tomatoes) – just to name a few fruits of their labor. The harvest is so plentiful that Gregory and Bob, and other friars of the Siena fraternity, have been bypassing the produce aisle of the local grocery store.

For these green-thumb gurus, gardening is a familiar exercise. As adolescents, they got their hands dirty toiling in the earth – Gregory in his father’s garden next to the garage of the family home in Chicago, and Bob when he worked at a greenhouse as a high school student.

Bob Sandoz, OFM (left), and Gregory Gebbia, OFM, make sure St. Francis of Assisi gets some credit for their flourishing garden.

“Both of us worked in schools where we had more parking lots and pavement than green space, so having an opportunity to develop a garden and use the experiences we had growing up is a blessing. For me, this has been 45 years in the making. All of my ministry assignments have been in urban environments. This garden has been like an awakening, being able to do things that I couldn’t do before – and bringing back those memories of my father growing tomatoes and Swiss chard in his modest garden,” said Gregory, director of enrollment management strategic partnerships at Siena College.

Bob Sandoz, OFM, explains how the irrigation system works. He and Gregory Gebbia, OFM, constructed it with PVC pipe and valves.

“It comes back to you right away – the growing pattern, the planting and waiting, the patience required (especially not to harvest too soon), all of the watering and constant weeding. It’s a process I learned a long time ago as a kid, so being able to do this is a gift,” said Bob, assistant director of Siena’s academic success center.

“It’s very Franciscan – a wonderful witness to caring for creation and a tangible response to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ encyclical, imploring us to take responsibility for caring for the environment and our common home. We have these magnificent natural resources and beautiful property on this gorgeous campus. In some way, you have to ask, why wouldn’t we do this?” added Bob.

“Most friaries have some green space. You don’t need a large area to have a thriving garden. We hope this will inspire friars around the country,” said Gregory, who noted that friars of the Siena fraternity have been surprised – even shocked – by the garden’s extraordinary yield!

“The tomato crop is so bountiful, we are planning to jar tomatoes so we can use them over the winter,” added Gregory, who counts baking and cooking among his other hobbies.

Among the vegetables are six varieties of flowers, including marigolds and sunflowers, to attract honey bees.

Each of the six beds measures 32 square feet, for a total of 192 square feet, flourishing with a smorgasbord of vegetables – (in addition to the previously mentioned) celery, pole and bush beans, zucchini, beets, peas, butter crunch, onions, Swiss chard, and romaine lettuce. Each bed is subdivided into squares separated with 2x4s.  They also planted potatoes and red and green bell peppers in growbag pots.

It helped that part of the garden’s footprint was already there, but it had been left dormant and barren when its previous caretaker, Ignatius Smith, OFM, who grew vegetables on a smaller plot, left the Siena friary. Gregory and Bob expanded the footprint, building the raised beds and filling them with a special nutrient-rich soil, and then purchasing PVC pipe and valves to install a water irrigation system that makes watering an effort-free task.

These beautiful bouquets of broccoli and greens is just some of the bounteous yield of the thriving vegetable garden behind the St. Bernardine of Siena Friary that was planted by Gregory Gebbia, OFM, and Bob Sandoz, OFM.

Among the vegetables are six varieties of flowers, including marigolds and sunflowers, to attract honey bees, ward off destructive insects and hornets, and provide a pop of summer’s palette. As a precaution, a couple of the raised beds are covered with netting to protect certain crops that are susceptible to invasive pests.

Both Gregory and Bob admit there’s some hard work to be done on the front end of building a garden. But all of the construction, labor and related expenses – such as the raised beds and watering system, which they built last October – are one-time occurrences. They were also fortunate to keep expenses down as a result of the Sisters for Life providing them with the wire fencing (which keeps out the critters) and other unused materials the nuns had in storage. They began the germination and indoor growing process on March 15 and put the plants in the ground two months later. With the exception of a single basil plant, the plantings survived an unusual late-May frost.

What would a garden be without a little divine intervention – as Gregory Gebbia, OFM (Left), and Bob Sandoz, OFM, set aside a portion of their garden for a small shrine to the Blessed Mother.

“We thought we were going to lose a lot of the plants, but God was good!” said Gregory.

A small shrine to the Blessed Mother is prominently positioned on one end of the garden, and a St. Francis of Assisi statue is watching over the garden’s opposite end. With that kind of divine intervention, how could Gregory and Bob’s vegetable garden be anything less than lush and thriving!