Wednesday, December 30, 2015

How to Build a Raised Garden Bed + Lessons Learned

Last summer marked the one year anniversary of K and I buying a house together. We moved into a home after residing in several apartments {separately and then together} in various neighborhoods. We are thrilled to have a tiny Chicago backyard to call our own, but we moved too late in the summer of 2014 to make any significant yard updates until this year. Our biggest do it yourself {DIY} project so far has been building and planting a raised bed vegetable garden. I'm excited to finally share our "how to" and lessons learned as we make plans for next year.

A few details to start:
  • Our garden bed is 12 feet long and 4.5 feet deep. 
  • The entire project took about 3 days {over two weekends}. We finished building and preparing the garden bed in one weekend in late April, and planted the garden the following weekend.
  • We purchased materials from Menards, for a total cost of approximately $375 {including wood, dirt, accessories, seeds, seed tags, and plants}. 

    We decided not to purchase a garden bed kit. Instead, we selected our own wood from Menards and purchased dirt from a few different stores.

    Materials list:
      • Wood -> Untreated cedar = four 2x6 12 foot planks; four 2x6 six foot planks; and six 4x4 2.5 foot posts. Note that we stacked two 2x6 six foot long boards on top of each other to create a 1-foot tall garden bed.
      • Dirt -> Sixty 40-pound bags of topsoil; 2 bags of peat moss; and 2 bags of organic manure compost.
      • Other materials -> Garden gloves; pitchfork; shovel; garden hoe; spades; 1 box of nails; mulch; rabbit garden fence; seeds; and seed tags.

            We cleared a spot in our yard for the raised garden bed that previously was covered in wood chips / mulch with an aging fire pit. We removed all of the wood chips and used the double digging method to prepare the ground. Double digging is a way to improve aeration in the soil and is beneficial to new garden beds. In brief, we dug down approximately one foot and mixed in 1 bag of compost and 1/3 bag of peet moss. It is a somewhat controversial digging technique, but we thought it was a good idea to work up the soil since the area hadn't been planted as a garden in many years, if ever. We flattened the ground gently to prepare for placing the garden bed.

            We didn't have any specific plans for how to build the actual structure; K came up with a plan as shown in the photo above, and it ended up working well. He added six 4x4 cedar posts, one and each corner and two in the middle, in order to anchor the garden bed in the ground. Note that in the photo above, the garden bed is upside down as it is still being nailed together.

            Flipping the garden bed to place it in the ground is definitely a two person job. In retrospect, we recommend using a rubber mallet instead of a hammer to avoid damaging the cedar. Once the bed is placed and flush with the ground, it's time to add the rest of your dirt.

            Our garden was full with sixty 40-pound pages of topsoil. This soil was added on top of the flat surface of topsoil that we prepared using the double digging method. We also mixed in one bag of manure compost and one bag of peet moss while filling in the garden bed. Keep in mind that a lot of extra soil was needed since we built a 1-foot high raised bed. You will need less soil if you build a shorter bed; another option is to build one only six inches tall.

            In the garden bed, we planted spinach, kale, snow peas, leeks, carrots, turnips, beets, and butternut squash. In planters on the deck, we also planted mini bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs.

            Lessons Learned 

            We had a great experience gardening for this first time together this year, but we definitely learned a few things that will make for a better planned garden in 2016:
            1. The lumber we purchased ended up being too long to bring home in the car, so we had to cut the 12 foot pieces in half and brace it when building the garden bed.
            2. Pay close attention to the planting guidelines on your seed packets, especially if you're planting kale. We planted a few vegetables too close together, and learned that kale is a very hearty plant. The kale ended up taking over and our spinach, leeks and carrot plants didn't reach maturity as a result. Our best plants in the garden bed were the kale, radishes, and snow peas. The cherry tomatoes and mini bell peppers grew very well on the deck garden.
            3. Add a fence if you want to keep critters at bay. We have a yard bunny that lives under our deck, so we knew it was important to add a fence before planting any seeds. We used a 2-foot tall "rabbit fence", purchased at Menards. The fence was also useful for snow peas to climb. The fence height was low enough that we were still able to plant and tend the garden.
            4. A smaller raised bed likely won't be able to contain growing squash plants. We planted two zucchini and two butternut squash plants, and they didn't survive one month. Next year we will stick to smaller vegetables and greens!
            5. Plan your garden year in early spring. Make sure to take advantage of multiple planting seasons. For example, we planted mesclun greens and snow peas in September for a fall harvest. Next year we will focus on planting a second crop earlier, in August.
            6. Lifting and moving sixty 40-pound bags of dirt is a very good workout!
            As part of our first garden experience, we also purchased a rat-friendly {aka off the ground} compost bin. We bought the Yimby Tumbler Composter and loved using it this summer. We started composting in May, and already had homemade compost dirt to add to the fall garden in November after harvesting our final plants. If you have a smaller yard and are looking for a composter, I highly recommend this one. We plan to continue composting through the winter months.

            Affiliate link:

            Do you garden? Are you ready for spring yet? :)

            Tuesday, December 29, 2015

            Favorite Things 2015

            As a kid, I loved end of year stories - remember the "top 100" pop song countdown on New Years Eve? Yep, that was my jam. I'm easy to please. These days I'm more likely to read or listen to a year-end overview of news highlights or review a "best of" list of books {like this one from The Guardian - I need to read for pleasure more often in 2016}.

            The end of the year is a wonderful time to practice gratitude and think about goals for the year to come. This is not an exhaustive list of the best things that happened this year, but only a few highlights. Here are ten of my favorite things in 2015!

            Hosting Thanksgiving

            My parents' and brother visited Chicago for Thanksgiving this year, which gave K and I our first opportunity to host a holiday event at our house. We had a great time, and managed to squeeze in a visit to the first week of the Christkindlmarket Chicago downtown on Thanksgiving morning, a traditional German Christmas market. Our parents also met up for dinner one evening for Peruvian food and we spend the night before Thanksgiving trying a new ramen restaurant {wasabi in Logan Square - so good!} My favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal itself was the local turkey from HoKa Turkey Farm, located in Waterman, IL. We used the Citrus and Peppercorn Dry Brine recipe from bon appetit magazine and it worked really well. Pepper and citrus smells {and tastes} amazing.

            Holiday Tea


            I fell in love with this holiday tea - Candy Cane Green Tea - from Trader Joe's last year, and I made sure to stock up before the festive goods are gone until next season. I may have purchased a few too many boxes last week shopping with my sister-in-law and mother-in-law before K's family Christmas. It looks like I'll have plenty to sip on until spring!

            Traveling to Door County

            K and I made two trips to Door County {Wisconsin} this year, spending a week there with family over the 4th of July holiday as well as a short weekend trip in October. We ran two races and enjoyed endless cherry goods. Door County Cherry Cobbler anyone? Here is a list of my Door County posts this year:

            24 Hours in Door County | Run Wild Race Recap: Quarter Marathon | Scandinavian White Fish Packets | 4 Running Tips for Vacation | Door County Hairpin 5k Race Recap


            I attended a few Sweatworking events this year, which was a really fun way to try out new fitness classes. Sweatworking is a monthly fitness "networking" event hosted by a Sweat Life, a website founded by one of my favorite fitness bloggers Jeana Anderson. The October Sweatworking event was held at the Chicago Athletic Association, featuring On Your Mark. It was a huge workout {100 people!} in the beautiful boutique hotel. I took my friend S to try Sweatworking for the first time, and it was a fun and sweaty morning. The Chicago Athletic Association opened in May 2015 - check out a virtual tour from Curbed Chicago.

            Fall Pumpkin Recipes

            I went crazy for pumpkin recipes this year, posting six new recipes and two recipe round-ups. Chocolate Pumpkin Energy Bites turned out to be my favorite snack this year {pictured above}. Here is the rest of this year's pumpkin goodies:

            Chocolate Pumpkin Energy Bites | 3-Ingredient Pumpkin Spice Almond Butter | 15 Healthy Pumpkin Recipes: Sweet | Pumpkin Latte Smoothie | Flourless Pumpkin Spice Muffins | Pumpkin Chia Breakfast Cookies | Healthy Mini Pumpkin Pies | 15 Healthy Pumpkin Recipes: Savory

            Porch Upgrade

            In late summer, I decided to paint the trim in our front porch from the {hideous} orange-gold color we inherited from the sellers to a light gray color that matches our home's interior. The project took a lot longer than anticipated {K jokes that I paint trim like it's a piece of art} but I love the result. We also upgraded the porch furnishings and decor. We spend so much time in the porch, especially in the late spring, summer and fall months. It's an unheated space, but comfortable as long as the temperature outdoors is at least 45 degrees {the porch is completely enclosed}. I have two tips from painting porch trim for the first time: 1) use semi-gloss or gloss paint, as it's much easier to clean, and 2) select a neutral color.

            The details:
            • Paint: Benjamin Moore {Horizon 1478; semi-gloss}
            • Rug: West Elm
            • Pillows + throw: West Elm 
            • Ottoman: Target
            • Furniture: Menards
            • Curtains: IKEA

            To date, I have run 532 miles in 2015 {according to my Nike+ app}. I'm hoping to squeeze in a few more before 2016 begins, but I'm still fighting a bad cold today so we'll see if that happens. My original goal was to hit 600 miles this year, but it's clear that's not going to happen. I'm still happy with how this running year ended, with no injuries and lots of fun miles. Here are my favorite race recap highlight posts:

            Santa Hustle Chicago 5k | Hot Chocolate Chicago 5k | Women's Health Run 10 Feed 10 10k {Chicago} | Run Wild Quarter Marathon {Wisconsin} | Humboldt Park 5k Chicago Race | Door County Hairpin 5k Race {Wisconsin} | Hot Chocolate Seattle 5k Race

            Making Zoodles

            I spiralized many zucchinis over the summer, to make zucchini "noodles" {zoodles} for a healthier dinner dish. I only posted two recipes on the blog, but I have so many ideas - check out my Taco Zoodle Bowls and Caprese Chicken Zoodle Bowls for recipe options. I think there are many more vegetable "noodle" recipes to come in the new year!

            Seattle Trip

            I was a Hot Chocolate Race Ambassador last year, which gave me the amazing opportunity to earn a complimentary trip for two to Seattle to run the Hot Chocolate race in March. K and I have good friends that live in Seattle and we had a wonderful time hiking, exploring the city, and learning how to make Dungeness Crab. The photo above is from a hike to Lake Serene in the Cascade Mountain Range. Check out Part I and Part II of my Seattle trip recaps.

            New Workout Studio

            One of my goals in 2015 was to get out of my comfort zone with workout classes. Besides trying a few Sweatworking events, I also purchased a Groupon for 20 classes at a new fitness studio on the northwest side of the city - Dovetail Studios. Dovetail offers dance and variety of fitness classes. Taking a Cardio Barre class has become a weekly habit, and I have also tried the weekend Pilates class. I'm excited to see this studio grow and try a few more new workout opportunities!

            What was your favorite thing in 2015? Any resolutions for 2016?

            Wednesday, December 23, 2015

            No Bake Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

            This healthy, clean eating recipe for No Bake Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies contains no refined sugar and is easy to make in a food processor.

            I did a bit of shopping with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law earlier this week, after celebrating Christmas with K's family.  I couldn't resist picking up a few new spices and flavors for sweet recipes at William's Sonoma, including espresso powder and ground vanilla beans.

            I came right home and made these No Bake Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies for a healthier snack to nibble on during this holiday week. Bonus: I think they make great road trip cookies with the extra kick from espresso powder {though adding it is optional}! I also snacked on these cookies after running a 10k on my own yesterday afternoon - I love running in the middle of the day during holiday vacation.

            This summer I posted a recipe for No Bake Chocolate Orange Cookies, and it's still K's favorite version of "energy bites" from my growing snack recipe collection. I thought hazelnuts made a better wintry or holiday snack for this updated no bake cookie recipe. I started by toasting one cup of raw hazelnuts on the stove top for a few minutes, in coconut oil.

            Next I added toasted hazelnuts and the remainder of ingredients to a food processor - unsweetened cocoa powder {Ghirardelli is my favorite}, dates, vanilla powder and espresso powder.

            One extra step makes these no bake cookies come together so easily - soak your dates in almond or cashew milk for 1-2 hours before processing. This adds the perfect amount of moisture to the recipe and makes the cookies easy to scoop up. {Make sure to drain the dates before adding to the food processor}.

            After the mix comes together in the food processor, pack a medium cookie scoop and form the cookies into balls with your hands. To make a "cookie" shape, press down gently on each cookie ball with a fork, in a criss-cross pattern.

            I think it's snack time again. Have a great holiday week and Merry Christmas if you celebrate!

            No Bake Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

            Yields: 14 cookies

            25 dates*
            1 cup unsweetened almond or cashew milk
            1 cup raw hazelnuts
            2 teaspoons coconut oil
            2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
            1 teaspoon vanilla powder**

            Optional: 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder

            How to~
            *Soak dates in almond or cashew milk for 1-2 hours. Drain liquid from dates.
            *Saute hazelnuts in coconut oil for ~3 minutes on the stove top, on medium-low heat.
            *Add toasted hazelnuts and the rest of the ingredients to a food processor - dates, cocoa powder, vanilla powder, and espresso powder.
            *Process until the ingredients are evenly combined {20-30 seconds}, using the "pulse" function.
            *Remove the cookie mix from the food processor and use a medium cookie scoop and your hands to form the mix into balls. Create a "criss cross" pattern with a fork to make a cookie shape.
            *Cookies will last chilled in the refrigerator for one week, and a few months if stored in the freezer.

            *I used California dates, which are quite a bit smaller than Medjool dates.
            **You can substitute vanilla extract.

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            Friday, December 18, 2015

            Hosting a Holiday Cookie Party

            Baking is one of my favorite parts of the holiday season, but I struggle with self control with too many cookies around the house ;) This year I decided to host a cookie decorating brunch for a few friends instead of baking on my own, so we could all share in the cookie love.

            We started with mimosas, coffee, and sweets from Bittersweet Pastry Shop & Cafe that my friend S brought to share. Everything was delicious, but the apricot scone in particular was crazy good. For coffee, I am loving the dark roast from Lavazza and the gingerbread flavor from Trader Joe's right now.

            I made two quiches and a frittata - Julia Child's recipe for Quiche Lorraine and the Vegetarian Times magazine recipe for a Mushroom and Spinach Quiche. I may have burnt the crust on the Julia Child quiche {shh} but we still ate it, so the filling must have been decent! I loved the Mushroom and Spinach Quiche recipe - I used smoked gouda instead of Gruyere cheese and it was delicious.

             I also made a version of my Rosemary Roasted Vegetables as a side dish, substituting potatoes for winter vegetables - I used red potatoes, sweet potatoes and purple Stokes sweet potatoes.

            I think the best thing you can do when hosting a cookie decorating party is make the cookies in advance. I made two different cookies - Spice Cookie Cutouts from Good Housekeeping and The Best Rolled Sugar Cookies from allrecipes. I made the dough for both the night before baking, and refrigerated it overnight. However - I do NOT recommend refrigerating the Spice Cookie Cutout dough in advance! It doesn't need it, and I actually barely salvaged the incredibly hard dough the next morning. The Rolled Sugar Cookie recipe works really well refrigerated overnight.

            I picked up new cookie cutouts this year, including the cutest mini cookie shapes. I found cookie cutouts at The Container Store, World Market, and JoAnn Fabrics. Yes, the fabric store sells cookie decor! These are just a few of my favorites - the bow and snowflake cookie shapes are at the top of my list. I had grand plans to make cookies at least one day in advance, but I stayed out too late running Christmas errands. I ended up waking up up super early the morning of my brunch party and made all of the cookies before my friends came over.

            The most important part of any cookie decorating is the frosting and cookie decor, right? I used a simple frosting recipe from The Kitchn - just milk, powdered sugar, and extract. I used almond extract instead of vanilla because I love almond flavor in cookies! Sprinkles, crushed candy canes, sugar shapes, and extra bags of cookie frosting rounded out the decor.

            Decorating in-process...

            And the finished products!

            I think the cookies turned out beautifully. The more color and sprinkles, the better the cookie :) Even the mini cookies got plenty of toppings.

            I asked friends to bring containers to take cookies home, so we all had a chance to share in our hard work. It was a lovely, festive morning!

            Are you doing any holiday baking this year? If so, what's your favorite recipe?

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            Sunday, December 13, 2015

            Pistachio Frozen Yogurt Bark

            Good morning and happy Sunday! I'm writing this recipe on my {unheated} front porch because it's currently 60 degrees outdoors {and raining}. 60 in mid-December! It will be time to break out the sweaters soon enough, but for now I"m going to enjoy a chilled snack or dessert recipe that happens to have several holiday colors + flavors: Pistachio Frozen Yogurt Bark.

            I have been thinking about this snack for a few weeks, because I wanted a reason to try siggi's drinkable yogurt in a recipe. This Pistachio Frozen Yogurt Bark combines vanilla siggi's drinkable yogurt with chopped pistachios, dried cranberries, and unsweetened coconut flakes.

            I like using siggi's yogurt in recipes and for my daily breakfast because it has a delicious creamy texture. siggi's is an Icelandic style yogurt, called "skyr." I actually had the chance to meet Siggi Hilmarsson at an educational event a few months ago, and learned so much about the yogurt - for example, siggi's yogurt is higher in protein and lower in sugar than most other brands. I recently joined the siggi's Ambassador Program {though this post is not sponsored!} so I'm excited to try my favorite yogurt in new, healthy recipes in the coming year.

            To make this frozen yogurt bark requires only a few simple steps. First, pour the siggi's drinkable yogurt onto a covered cookie sheet. I used waxed paper.

            Next, add chopped pistachios.

            Lastly, add dried cranberries and coconut flakes. I used unsweetened coconut flakes, but sweetened works too if you can't find the unsweetened version.

            Freeze your bark for at least 3 hours. Break it up into pieces and you're ready to snack!

            This also makes a fantastic healthy dessert recipe. I love the pops of holiday color through the cranberries and pistachios.

            If you like frozen yogurt, you will love this bark! It's tart, creamy, and crunchy from the pistachios. If you want your bark sweeter, I recommend adding a few tablespoons of honey to the yogurt.

            Pistachio Frozen Yogurt Bark
            Yields: 20+ pieces of frozen yogurt bark

            1 cup pistachios
            1 bottle {32 ounces} siggi's vanilla drinkable yogurt
            1/2 cup dried cranberries
            1/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

            Optional: 4 Tablespoons honey

            How to~
            *Shake the yogurt to ensure there is no separation.
            *Shell the pistachios. Once all shells are remove, chop in a food processor for ~10 seconds.
            *Pour yogurt onto a lined cookie sheet {I used waxed paper}. Add toppings - chopped pistachios, dried cranberries, and coconut flakes.
            *Freeze for at least 3 hours.
            *Remove from the freezer and break up the frozen yogurt into pieces. Store in the freezer in a covered container, with waxed paper between each layer.

            Tuesday, December 8, 2015

            Santa Hustle Chicago Race + TrailHeads Giveaway

            Are you running any festive races to stay healthy during the holidays this year? My friend S and I ran the Santa Hustle 5k race on Saturday morning at Soldier Field. It was a chilly morning, but a great run to start the holiday season in the first full week of December. Thanks to TrailHeads for sending me new winter running gear to review and giveaway today - the TrailHeads ponytail headband and convertible mittens. Scroll to the end of this post to enter {giveaway closes at midnight on December 19}!

            The Santa Hustle is an extra festive race, with red shirts, Santa hats, and beards for all. I opted not to run with the Santa headgear, but most of the other runners stayed in the holiday spirit.

            The 5k race started and ended south of Soldier Field and looped back north along the lakefront path. More than 4,000 runners finished this year! The race featured huge blow-up holiday favorites and even a pair of reindeer.

            Real reindeer and pretend. S and I obviously posed with this:

            Even though we skipped the hats and beards for the run, we did wear matching holiday socks {which were thin and freezing - note to self}.

            5k Race Results:
            Time: 29:36
            Pace: 9:32/mile
            Place: 780 out of 4,160 runners

            It was a great race, and I would run it again. My only criticism from the morning is the packet pickup. We waited in line for over 40 minutes - I hope they add more packet pickup options and volunteers next year. We finished the morning with breakfast sandwiches and coffee at Starbucks. I tried the Holiday Spice Flat White with coconut milk and I'm hooked!

            Temps were in the low 30s to start the race, so I was glad to have new warm gear from TrailHeads to try. The ponytail headband is snug and keeps your ears warm + hair in place while running. I just got a shorter haircut last week with a bang trim, so this headband was perfect for the race. The convertible mittens also kept my hands super warm. My favorite part of these mittens is the thumb sleeve and finger sleeve - simply flip the sleeve back and your fingers are free to change music, find your keys, etc. There is even a magnet on the thumb sleeve to keep it in place.

            Because I loved trying the TrailHeads gear, I'm hosting a holiday giveaway for one reader to win a set of winter gear from TrailHeads - one ponytail headband and one pair of convertible mittens! This giveaway is open from December 8 to midnight on December 19 for U.S. residents only. The winner will be contacted by email on December 19 for sizes and a mailing address, and TrailHeads will mail the products directly from their office.

            a Rafflecopter giveaway

            For more information on TrailHeads, visit the company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest

             {Disclosure: As I mentioned above, I received a free TrailHeads ponytail headband and pair of convertible mittens to review and giveaway to readers. All opinions / text are my own.}