Host a garden party

We love our casual barbeques and picnics, but the elegance and formality of a garden party is the perfect way to let Mother Nature strut her stuff. After all, our gardens are bursting with blooms and teeming with fresh fruit and vegetables — what better time to entertain en plein air?

The idea of a “garden party” may have you imagining lords and ladies in all their finery, but you can evoke the ambiance without all the fuss and expense. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Work with your garden

What kind of gathering will it be — an intimate dinner party on the terrace or an open house to celebrate an anniversary? A brunch for the ladies, or an afternoon tea? A shower for a new bride or new mother?

In addition to considering your budget and guest list, take your cues from your yard early in the planning stages. Consider: how much space do you have for seating and to set up refreshments? Which times of day offer the most shade? What special features do you want to highlight, and at what time of day does your garden look its best? Do you want to dodge the bugs that come out at dusk? Which activities or games are best suited to your space?

Think about your own daily habits to help you plan. What times of day you sit outside, what activities do you enjoy and which features of your outdoor space do your friends and family compliment?

Let nature help select the menu

The type of gathering will dictate the selection, but here are some tips for planning a menu:

Lighten up. Keep your menu cool and light to offset summer heat. Let foods that are fresh and in season be your inspiration and foundation, like cool summer salads, finger foods, cold meats and tangy, fruity flavours. You don’t have to raid your garden — fake it with a trip to the farmers’ market or local produce stand.

For dessert, think light, airy textures like chiffon or angel food cake, meringue or pavlova, fruit tarts or pie, squares or sorbets. Biscotti, scones, healthy muffins, quick breads and fancy cookies can grace the table for a shower or afternoon tea.

Go for a dip. ‘Tis the season for fruit and vegetable trays, and you can up the interest with a simple dip. Try mixing your favourite yoghurt or pudding with some whipped topping for an airy treat for fruit, or prepare a simple no-cook tomato sauce for the veggies. (Hint: offer a serving spoon to discourage double dipping.)

Keep the drinks simple. Depending on the occasion and your theme, a few “adult” beverages may be in order, but serve them as a highlight rather than the main attraction. (See Fun summer cocktails.) Easy drink ideas — like homemade iced tea, punch and juices — can keep everyone refreshed, and they’re just as attractive with right garnishes.

Be sure to have plenty of iced water on hand. You can dress it up with slices of cucumber, strawberry, lemon or lime.

Garnish with colour. Herbs and edible flowers add a decorative touch to any plate. Play with the colours and textures to complement your food and drink. (See A feast of flowers for ideas.)

Need some more ideas? Check out Cool summer snacks and An elegant afternoon tea.

Set the stage

Don’t be shy about offering nature a little help:

Tidy up. Show off your yard with a little grooming — like mowing a day ahead, weeding the gardens and deadheading the flowers. Clear the area of any decaying plant matter and standing water to keep the bugs at bay.

Also, be sure to check for any hazards like fallen branches or lose patio stones that could pose a hazard to your guests.

Borrow. Need to fill out some space? Borrow planters and potted plants from your neighbours, and move some of your indoor plants outdoors for the occasion.

Use the “good stuff”. You don’t have to break out the good china, but leave the paper plates and plastic cutlery for picnics. Touches like silverware and linens can enhance the atmosphere.

Go floral. Let flowers be your inspiration. Use blooms on your table — like large blossoms floating in bowl or some smaller flowers in a little vase. Let floral hues dictate your choice of napkins, placemats, table clothe and other decorations.

Provide plenty of shade. Give your guests a break from the heat and the sun. Set up seating under cover or shady trees, and provide some cover (like an umbrella or temporary shelter).

Include the indoors. If you’re planning a larger gathering, include an indoor area for mingling. You may also want a handy place to set out food away from the sun and insects.

Plan for the light. Hosting an evening gathering? Make sure you have adequate lighting so guests can see. Set the mood with decorative lanterns, solar lights and candles.

More prep tips

What else do you need to know? Here are some more tips to help you be the perfect host:

Give fair warning. When you send the invites, make sure your guests know it’s an outdoor event so they can don some sunscreen and dress appropriately. If you planning a rain date, note that too.

– Have a back-up plan. Nothing says summer like unpredictable weather. Building in some flexibility so you can move the party indoors — or to another day — if necessary.

Keep your budget in mind. A formal tone doesn’t mean you have to spend big bucks. Dial down the fancy décor, borrow items you need (like a punch bowl or card table) and see what other cost-trimming measures you can employ. (See Entertaining on a budget for more tips.)

Stock up on ice. Not only will you need it for the drinks, but a bed of ice will keep foods cool to prevent food poisoning.

Mind your food safety. Remember that two hour rule for foods sitting out? Better shorten that time when the temperatures rise. Make sure to properly wash, prepare, serve and store foods to avoid food-bourne illnesses. (Visit Health Canada for advice on Summer Food Safety.)

Whether it’s a big event or a cozy gathering you’ve got in the works, a little planning and forethought can help you host the perfect event.

Have you ever hosted a summer garden party? Share your tips in the comments!