Ideas, tips, and tricks for hosting a gorgeous event

Outdoor garden parties elevate the backyard barbecue into something a bit more … magical. The difference often comes down to a bigger focus on decór, with whimsical tablescapes and elaborate lighting schemes. Instead of serving burgers and hot dogs, a typical outdoor garden party might have finger foods, or tapas, or a family-style smorgasbord. It may sound like a lot more work than your average summer gathering, but with a few tips and tricks you can pull off a memorable event without breaking the bank (or your back).

Michelle Dischiavo, event coordinator and designer at Intuition Events in Albany, offers some pointers for planning the perfect garden party.

Table topper
Place card
Candy display
Popcorn display
Table numbers
Floral arrangement
Floral arrangement across tables
Candles floating in glasses
Cider doughnut display
Snapchat instructions
Fruits and flowers
Floral arrangement
Beverage station

It’s the details, says event coordinator and designer Michelle Dischiavo, that can take an outdoor event to the next level. These photos offer examples of parties she has created for different people and events. All photos courtesy Michelle Dischiavo.

Choose an Aesthetic

It’s easy to go a bit overboard when planning an outdoor garden party, so the first step is to decide on a theme. What kind of mood do you want to set? For example, are you going for bright colors and playful place settings for an afternoon tea, or are you going for more of a woodland fairy-tale evening, with natural hues and tons of lights? 

When making this decision, consider your intended guests and the purpose of the gathering, as well as what kinds of items you might already have that you can use or repurpose. For example, a bunch of mismatching table linens can lend themselves well to a quirky and colorful theme. Or maybe you’ve accumulated a bunch of decorative lanterns and can use them to light up an evening of wine and charcuterie.

Consider the kind of food you want to serve when choosing your overall aesthetic. “You want to focus on what type of party you want to have, and then what type of food you have will either elevate it or bring it down to something more basic,” says Dischiavo. This can be the difference between cucumber sandwiches and sliders; they’re both petite and delicious but create very different vibes.

Foundations First

You can have the cutest place settings and most adorable decorations available, but if the table legs are sinking into soggy turf you’ll be in for a disaster. If you’ve had a lot of wet weather leading up to the party, it’s a good idea to consider keeping the essential furniture on a porch or patio — or if you’re really gung-ho, you can create a temporary platform out of pallets or repurposed plywood. (Dress this up with layered throw rugs, or even sheets or blankets for a boho feel.)

Conversely, if you’re expecting hot weather, try to place your seating area in a shaded spot under a leafy canopy, an awning, or gazebo. This will keep your food, decorations, and your guests from wilting in direct sunlight. 

Divide Food and Drinks into Stations

As the host, it can be challenging to balance serving your guests with socializing. If you are able to “delegate” the serving duties, you’ll be freed up to enjoy more of your party. By separating all the comestibles into different areas, your guests can spread out and help themselves. For example, instead of playing bartender the whole time, create a bar or drinks station with all the beverages, ice, and drinkware on display. Have a signature cocktail already made in a pitcher or decorative urn, or make little cards with suggested recipes guests can make themselves.

The food station will depend on what you’re planning to serve, but it will either be your main table (for a family-style gathering) or a separate station. Family-style is wonderful, but will mean fewer decorations to allow room for the food to be kept on the table. A buffet-style food area, on the other hand, opens up a world of possibilities. This brings us to another consideration: What kind of food will you offer? 

The breakaway area can be whatever you want to make it: a makeshift awning over chaise lounges for people to sit and chat; an area with lawn games like cornhole or croquet; a pile of blankets spread out on the grass with cushions and parasols; or a circle of Adirondack chairs around a fire pit. Whatever your aesthetic, it should be a slightly separate place for people to socialize.

Set the Stage

Now, for the fun part! Decorating for a garden party is one instance where more is better. Go a bit overboard. Layer tablecloths to add color and texture to an otherwise drab table. And when in doubt — add a string of lights. Most importantly, Dischiavo says, is not to forget music. “I don’t know if that’s obvious, but you have to have some type of music,” she says. “Even if it’s classical music or jazz, you want some sort of background to set the stage for the event. It makes people feel more comfortable, you know, to fill in the dead air.”

Here are some more ideas to consider:

  • The local thrift store is your oyster, so to speak. Whip up a whimsical tablescape by finding vintage flatware that share a similar color scheme. You can make unmatched silverware “match” by spray-painting the handles bright colors. You can buy a few old dresses in fun patterns and cut them into ribbons to tie onto the backs of chairs.
  • Make garden chairs extra cozy by adding pillows, cushions, and throws.
  • Candles are always a fun decorative addition; citronella candles go the extra mile to help stave off predatory mosquitoes.
  • You can make your guests feel special by adding personalized place settings: Write their name on a card and tie it onto their napkin, or design little card holders.
  • It’s called a garden party for a reason: put in-season flowers everywhere. It’s also very on-trend to include a ton of greenery mixed with florals, according to Dischiavo; it gives you “that boho-chic kind of feel, like a lot of plants and foliage, with color integrated using your linens or napkins.” You could serve cocktails with edible flowers as a garnish, as well.
  • If your garden isn’t as lush as you’d like, potted plants can create the illusion of a floral wonderland without costing a fortune. Dischiavo particularly loves getting potted plants at Felthousen’s, and mentioned that smaller potted plants make excellent party favors. 
  • Trader Joe’s is a fantastic option for buying cut flowers at a low price, but Dischiavo is also an advocate of visiting pick-your-own flower fields at local farms. “It’s a great way to save money, the plants are seasonal, and it keeps it local, you know?”
  • Place a few baskets of rolled-up blankets or throws around the yard to up the cozy factor.
  • String lights and lanterns are perfect for making your garden look magical. Drape them over tree limbs, through bushes, or between poles for a makeshift arbor. You can place clusters of lanterns in areas you’d like to be well-lit, or hang them like a deconstructed chandelier.
  • Make bunting from old wrapping paper or fabric swatches for an old-timey British feel.
  • Craft your own table runners using butcher paper and stamps. (You can even make your own stamp by carving a design into a halved potato!)
  • Add some pizzazz with a balloon arch kit; they’re relatively cheap and easy to construct. 
  • Dischiavo encourages hosts to find a common activity for the guests to engage in that is low pressure. “I’m a big fan of the Polaroid camera, to have it out for guests to use,” she says. “It’s fun, and it’s something to do, like a conversation piece that will connect people.”
  • Everyone loves sparklers.

Main photo: Tan.

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