An Onion Patch, a Scratchy Vinyl Record … & Gooey Marmalade

When I was young my mother used to sing a song to my brothers and me called, “I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch. …” Even though I could never remember all the words, I’ve never forgotten the chorus. When I find myself among the onions in our vegetable garden, or in the kitchen crying my eyes out, this song somehow stumbles out of my brain on to my vocal chords, setting them off. Over and over. Like a stuck record.

I found a copy of the song on YouTube that I have shared with you at the end of this post. I add a disclaimer now: play it at your own risk! Once it’s in your head, it’s there for a lifetime.

We plant our onions between other vegetables to discourage the bad bugs.
We plant our onions between other vegetables to discourage the bad bugs.

There is hardly a day that goes by when I don’t use an onion in my food. From the pungent taste of a raw spring onion in a green salad, to the sweet, gooey, caramelized red onions in marmalade (see the recipe below), it’s an easy-to-grow workhorse I would never be without.

Chris wasn’t sure I should grow onions after I first suggested it. He thought they were so accessible and cheap to buy in Livingstone, that they took up such a lot of space in the garden, it wouldn’t be worth it. I disagreed, ordered some seed on the sly, planted them everywhere, and we harvested a crop that surpassed even my expectations.

Hundreds and hundreds of red onions.
Hundreds and hundreds of red onions.

Onions are not only a workhorse in the kitchen, they are a terrific companion plant in the vegetable garden, too. We planted them together with the brassicas, beetroot, tomatoes and peppers, and harvested a substantial crop from each at the end of last winter. The onions stayed in the ground for longer, allowing us to replace our winter vegetables with new summer plantings, which have also benefited.

Onions not only repel bad bugs with their strong smell, their roots, or bulbs, grow at different depths to other vegetables, making them a “physical” companion for, say, carrots and lettuce. I plan on planting them side by side with our lettuce seedlings as soon as the rain has abated.

Until we can find a more suitable storage space, we hang our onions in pairs of tights from the roof. It helps to keep them aired and dry during the wet season.
Until we can find a more suitable storage space, we hang our onions in pairs of tights from the roof!

To date, we’ve grown red onions, Australian brown onions, shallots, and spring onions. All of them have thrived in their first year here. We will start to sow again in February, the month which normally sees in the beginning of the end of the wet season.

I found out recently that chamomile, the herb out of which one makes a sleep-inducing tea, improves the flavor of onions when planted as a companion. I never knew this, and quite by chance, remembered we’d planted them together last season. No wonder our onions tasted so good!

Chamomile, as a companion plant, improves the flavor of onions.
Chamomile, as a companion plant, improves the flavor of onions.

We nearly always have a jar of onion marmalade on hand. We eat gobs of it on chicken liver pâté, grilled meats, and whatever cheese we happen to have in the fridge. Sarah Raven, whose Garden Cookbook I turn to often, led me to the best onion marmalade recipe I’ve ever eaten. She also recommends it alongside the potato salad I adapted from her recipe a few months ago.

Sarah Raven’s Red Onion Marmalade

Yield: 3-4 jars

Ingredients:

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 450g/1 pound red onions, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 4 tablespoons red wine
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Method:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan.
  2. Add the onions and garlic and sweat until they are translucent and soft, about 20 minutes. (Don’t allow them to brown.)
  3. Add the red wine, balsamic vinegar, and brown sugar. Simmer gently until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Add the thyme, season with salt and pepper, and cook for a further 5 minutes.
  5. Put into warm sterilized jars and cover while still hot.

 

Onion Marmalade.
Sarah Raven’s Red Onion Marmalade.

Arthur Godfrey’s “I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch”:

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.

20 Comments

  • Great piece! I can remember Mum’s onions hanging from our rondavel roof – love the thought of camomile saving the onion from himself … and the song is with us!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Georgie … there’s something very reassuring about being surrounded by food in your home!

      Reply
  • lovely Annabel! I remember that song too – must have been a generational thing as I seem to recall my Mum singing it. Am dying to try your onion marmalade recipe… Although am sure the taste won’t be quite the same with pristine onions from Waitrose!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Zsa Zsa! Yes, the song probably was a generational thing. I’d love to know how your onion marmalade turns out … thanks again for your interest and support. xo

      Reply
  • Nothing beats onio
    ns in a kitchen!
    Love your oh so totally ‘down to earth’ blog.
    My roots is also down there somewhere right in the middle of your vegetables… x

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your kind comment, Valerie. I appreciate your support. The lowly onion is much more than the sum of its parts! All the best to you, Annabel

      Reply
  • Oh what a lot of memories you have invoked for me in this post! Long car journeys and my father singing lonely little petunia.

    But new is the most delicious sounding and looking red onion marmalade. Will be making that one. How long does it last?

    Another for me too is chamomile with onions. Will have to cast around for some plants or seed. I grow chive as a ground cover under my roses. Said to enhance the roses’ scent and also keep the bugs off them. The latter definitely works but best for me is having a year round supply of chives.

    Reply
    • I loved your comment, thank you, Dal! I store the onion marmalade in the fridge because of the heat here in the Zambezi Valley, but it can be stored in the pantry if canned correctly. Once it’s unsealed, however, keep it refrigerated. The marmalade should last for months (but probably won’t because of being demolished!). All the best to you, Annabel

      Reply
  • Red onions are my favourite! I use them when roasting a chicken and with orange juice poured over everything it makes a yummy sauce. Great song! Xx

    Reply
    • YUMMY, Kate! That sounds delicious. Thank you for your kind comment … xo

      Reply
  • So Savannabel, this one will be forwarded to my nostalgic sister, Rosalind née Jay, this time (she was also born and brought up in Zambia. She married an American man, 40+ years ago. She will love this and we also used to sing “I’m a lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch”

    Love Carrie née Jay

    Caroline Lapham 31a Willowmead Lane PO Chisipite +263(0)4885013 +263(0)772238685

    >

    Reply
    • Okay, Carrie! Thank you so much for sharing the story. As children we loved the song … and hearing it again on YouTube was such a boon! Lots of love to you … xo

      Reply
  • Just found this recipe through Dee Slater – a good family friend of ours! Thanks so much for sharing! It’s a cold day here so I’ve got a potful of this bubbling on the stove! Smells incredible 🙂

    Reply
    • You have made my day, Zoe! Thank you for commenting WHILE the marmalade is on the stove. By now it should be done, and I hope you’re heaping it on to a piece of cheese, or alongside a hot, yummy stew! All the best to you, Annabel

      Reply
  • Really enjoyed this article. Thanks. Xles

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Les! That makes me happy … xo

      Reply
  • I just LOVE the way you write! I live in gardens and so appreciate your posts

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your kind comment! Aren’t we the lucky ones living in amongst our gardens? They provide such pleasure …. and, in my instance, keep me sane! All the best to you, Annabel

      Reply
  • I am totally hopeless in the kitchen but I love reading your stuff – I can be a sort of vicarious foodie

    Reply
    • Thank you for your kind comment, Rox. A vicarious foodie may, just may, uncover a path to the kitchen one day. It’s fun, I swear! xo

      Reply

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