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Touring the garden of “Eating on the Wild Side” with Jo Robinson

August 9th, 2013 at Fri, 9th, 2013 at 2:34 pm by Karen Dale

The book by Islander Jo Robinson, “Eating on the Wild Side,” has spent several weeks this summer on the New York Times’ bestseller list. “60 Minutes” will be visiting next week. But Jo opened her Piner Point garden first to the Vashon Garden Club, so we Islanders got to see first-hand some of the oh-so nutritious plants she discusses in her latest book. 

“Eating on the Wild Side” is a tale of nutrients lost from our fruits & vegetables—whether by human preference or by breeding for market values like transportability & storage—and how we can get those nutrients back by choosing or growing the right varieties of produce.  Those bred-out nutrients aren’t vitamins & minerals, but something called phytonutrients—chemicals that plants produce to protect themselves from too much sunlight, predators, or diseases. Phytonutrients benefit the plants and can benefit us, too, if we make those plants part of our diet. 

Take, for example, looseleaf lettuce. Jo writes, “all leaves have a love-hate relationship with the sun: they need sunlight to grow and produce carbohydrates, but the sun’s UV rays can destroy them. In order to survive, they have to manufacture their own botanical sunscreen—pigmented antioxidants that block the harmful effects of UV light. Looseleaf lettuce is the most vulnerable to UV rays because most of its leaves are exposed to direct sunlight. As a result, the leaves have to produce extra quantities of phytonutrients. When we eat looseleaf lettuce, we absorb those compounds, which then become part of our own self-defense system—not only against UV rays but against cancer, chronic inflammation, and cardiovascular disease as well. The plant’s protection becomes our protection.”

So Jo grows, not Iceberg Lettuce—that pale, compact head so easily transported, eaten by Americans more than all other vegetables combined but with 1/40th of the nutrition of parsley or dandelion leaves—but RED Iceberg, here pictured, as well as red Merlot, red Continuity, and other red-leafed lettuces. The healthiest lettuces are loose-leafed with tints of red, bronze, and deep green that reveal the presence of those health-giving phytonutrients. 

Red Iceberg growing in Jo Robinson’s garden. Note how sturdily it’s resisting the midday August sunlight. Back in my home garden, my green looseleaf, at this hour, is tissue paper.

Each chapter of her book describes a category of produce—greens, brassicas, melons, apples, berries—and tells you how to select the most nutritious varieties. She also describes how to store these fruits and veg to retain nutrients the longest, shares recipes, describes good garden varieties—even tells you what kind of bag to put your produce in. There’s also recommendations for gardeners, many of which we saw in her garden. Here’s an Indigo Rose tomato, so obviously full of anthrocyanins that it really should be called ‘InkSpot.”


Lycopene is the phytonutrient that gives a tomato both its latin name  (lycopersicon) and its deep red color. For humans, lycopene’s antioxident power works to strength cell walls, which helps prevent sun damage and skin cancers, macular degeneration and aging skin, and the effects of diabetes. Jo has found that cherry tomatoes are more nearly like the original wild tomato in nutrient load, so she grows ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ and a grape variety called ‘Juliet’ that has 3x more lycopene than another Island favorite, Stupice from Czechoslovakia. I’ve grown a ‘Juliet’ bought at Pacific Potager, and I can attest it just keeps going all season with wonderfully sweet little fruits.


On the right is an old-fashioned apple, the ‘Newton Pippin,” a favorite of Thomas Jefferson and Queen Victoria. “Eat Your Fence,” said Jo, whose fence supports two espalier apples, the grape ‘Glenora’ and a thornless blackberry.

The old adage that “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away” depends, Jo has found, on what varieties of apple you’re eating. In her garden, she has planted an object lesson—the popular ‘Fuji’ apple that, in our climate, she says “Must be sprayed 15 times to prevent apple scab.” Her tree, not so heavily sprayed, showed the telltale dark pits of scab on the skin of nearly every fruit. Fuji is popular, but it’s not particularly high in phytonutrients and not a good variety to plant here. 

But just a few yards away is ‘Liberty,’ an apple scab-free in our climate that’s higher in phytonutrients than any of the supermarket varieties. She also grows ‘Golden Russet,’ ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ for cooking, and on her fence the Reine des Reinettes, “France’s favorite apple.” She told us that she chooses plants for their nutrient load and anti-cancer properties—though it’s obvious she also chooses plants that do well in our maritime climate.

Her backyard, with its anti-cancer garden, purple garden, berry cage, lettuce line-up, and eatable fence, looked practically perfect in the hot August sun. Then she told us that, since “60 Minutes” told her they would be coming in mid-August, she tore up her June garden and replanted so things would look great in late summer. Jo, it did. Congratulations on your success and your book.

For you that haven’t read the book, go get “Eating on the Wild Side” in your local bookshop, then  read it, practice it. Your body will be glad you did.



gardens on the south end of Vashon Island, on a sandy hilltop overlooking Quartermaster Harbor. "Garden On, Vashon" shares what the Island has to teach us about gardening HERE—from making soils to sowing seeds to raising plants to harvest, cooking, preserving, and designing new ways to cultivate your little chunk of Vashon Island. To contact me, email, or leave a comment.

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