During the height of summer, it's easy to forget that autumn will ever come around again. But it surely will, so a little planning ahead can be a garden saver when the days get shorter and chillier. Right now in July, you can prepare to make the damp, dark days of fall a little brighter with turnip lanterns, a Swiss tradition: children carve fanciful designs into turnips (with a little help from adults), allowing the light to glow through. Called Räebelichtli, they are carried in a parade on November 11th to celebrate St. Martin's Day, but they're festive all season long. Everyone will have carved pumpkins this fall, but if you get to work now your fabulous Räebelichtli will be the envy of the neighborhood. Plus, you'll have plenty of turnips and turnip greens to eat!
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, located in a beautiful old bank building in Petaluma, has an excellent selection of turnip seeds. If you're gardening by the moon calendar (and I don't see why you wouldn't, because that sounds really fun), the Farmers' Almanac recommends July 25-27 and August 4-5 as ideal days for planting turnips. According to the National Gardening Association, turnips planted from seed will be ready to harvest in approximately two months, so plant accordingly. You'll want to sow the seeds in a well-drained spot with full sun and tilled, compost-enriched soil. Sprinkle the seeds and cover with 1/2 inch of dirt, then water generously once a week. Though our focus is optimum autumn turnips, Farmgirl Fare has some great tips for extending your turnip season year-round.
If you plant today, you're a couple months away from making lanterns, but it's never too early to start planing your design. Zoë Zürich Zlog created a snowflake-like design, with strings for easy hanging.
The Mucky MacBook, written by a New Zealand ex-pat living in Switzerland, features some delicately carved New Zealand-inspired turnips including a kiwi bird, a Pohutukawa flower (above), a silver fern (below), and the country itself. There's also a short-and-sweet tutorial for carving the lanterns.
For a bit more guidance, MAKE has an elaborate how-to for turnip lanterns, including the valuable tip that battery-operated tea lights work better for turnips, as their small size makes it difficult for oxygen to enter and keep a traditional candle lit. Lou Cuthbertson of Fathom's Expat Chronicles helped carve lanterns for her children's first Räebelichtli Umzug. She couldn't acquire the hoped-for linocutter, "so I had to make do with a potato peeler and an apple corer. Which both broke by the way. Eventually I asked the school headmaster for help. He gave me a melon baller. Turns out, this is the tool of the trade." Get yourself a melon baller!
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