From organic garden sprouts healthier lifestyle

It started with a book recommendation. La Cañada Flintridge resident Janet McNiff, 69, was at a spring check-up when her doctor suggested some dietary changes, and referred her to "Living Beyond Organic," by Christina Avaness.

She and her husband Frank McNiff, 70, pored through its pages, experimenting with how to implement the many nutritional recommendations. And soon they were scouting their yard, at the corner of Vineta Avenue and Houseman Street, for an appropriate spot for a vegetable patch.

It was a new venture for both.

"I had planted tomatoes in pots," Frank said. "And I mowed lawns as a kid, but I have never been a gardener per se."

For his new garden Frank settled on an unused sports court and, despite his lack of contracting experience, got to work. Using a saw, he cut from the court's cement some 6-inch-thick rectangular slabs, which he propped up on their sides, creating what looked like four enormous sarcophaguses. He then lined the slabs with pieces of lumber that he bought at Home Depot.

One truck load of organic soil, one custom sprinkler system and six months of sun later, the McNiffs have blooming in their backyard an organic garden, overflowing with a variety of vegetables and flowers, rivaling any produce section in any grocery store in town.

"It is so much fun," Janet said. "We never know what vegetables are going to be served that night. We just go out and pick it."

Currently, the garden is stocked with spinach, string beans, Swiss chard, cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes, mint, basil and radishes, among others. Next year the McNiffs plan to plant pumpkins to coincide with autumn.

There have been a few mishaps. Initially, the soil was too sandy, Frank said. It wasn't until he added a good dose of potting soil that buds began to sprout. And a half dozen stalks of corn, planted in heavy shade, are struggling.

But the experiment has largely been a success, the McNiffs said. The raised planters save them from having to bend over or kneel to tend to the soil. The plants are so fruitful that they often find themselves giving produce away to neighbors, friends and family (there are seven children and 11 grandchildren between them).

Their efforts even produced a new nickname — Farmer Frank. And dinner time has gotten a lot more interesting. A recent meal included a frittata made with duck eggs, squash and red onion.

"We are healthy, healthy, healthy," Janet said. "We have lost weight, both of us, and never felt better."

"And never eaten more," Frank added.

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