May, the month of mothers and azaleas, marks the start of the outdoor entertaining season in Washington.
Celebrations under the stars are more casual and freed from indoor rules. This makes them less formidable to plan and execute than having guests to your dining room table. As the temperature goes up, it’s time to wipe down the grills and patio chairs, and put up the tiki torches and twinkly lights.
Could you use some new ideas for wowing your friends Memorial Day weekend and beyond? Whether your outdoor living room is a sliver of an urban balcony or a vast back deck filled with cushy seating, we have tricks to help your keep guests, food and flowers from wilting. Read on.
Planning is still the No. 1 ingredient, whether your party is al fresco or in the dining room. So why not choose a theme to help make your gathering easier to organize and give it a spirit of fun? Amber Karson and Emily Butler, twins who run Karson Butler Events, spend their days, and nights, throwing weddings, holiday parties and other festivities.
Karson and Butler, who have offices in Capitol Hill and San Luis Obispo, Calif., have a lot of great insight into how to make a party special. For example, they say, a garden party theme could include a “snip and sip” herb garnish station for guests to clip plants and add to their iced tea or cocktails. There could also be a build-your-own-salad station with veggies and meat kebobs. They also suggested a DIY activity of potting flower or herb centerpieces to take home, instead of party favors.
Another idea is an outdoor movie theme. Put out picnic baskets with cheese and charcuterie, pasta salad, gourmet popcorn and sweets, they say. Scatter blankets in the yard and project a movie on a large wall or white backdrop.
Here are some best party practices from Karson and Butler, who have been in the event and party business for more than 10 years.
Buy ice. And then buy more ice. They say the rule is at least one pound of ice per person per hour. You don’t want to run out, especially on a horribly humid Washington evening.
Assign seats . Just because you’re outdoors doesn’t mean you can’t plan where everyone is going to sit. As a host or hostess, you can strategize seating assignments to facilitate fabulous connections and conversations. Create fun place cards.
Be mindful of the sun. Figure out a few weeks before where the sun hits your yard at what time and plan your party time accordingly. No one wants to be wilting in direct sunlight.
Add color to your outside space. Buy a few splashy pillows or outdoor ottomans or an indoor/outdoor rug. They will dress up even a tiny balcony or patio and create a festive party venue.
Set up a cooling station. Stock a small table with fun things to help ward off the sizzling heat. You could have chilled towels, paper parasols and sunscreen — plus plenty of cold water.
If you want to add an of-the-moment accessory to your outdoor entertaining arsenal, try something made of galvanized sheet metal or some flameless pillar candles with timers.
This year, Crate and Barrel was inspired by waterside gatherings, according to Katie Fischer, the store’s merchandise manager for entertaining. “We thought of eating outside by a lake or ocean, and this influenced our color palette and textures,” she says. The season’s offerings use a lot of indigo blue and white. Galvanized sheet metal, with its classic yet industrial vibe, was made into trays, servers and lanterns, some the work of London-based minimalist designer Aaron Probyn. Probyn’s galvanized beverage tub has a red handle to warm up its sheet metal style.
‘This metal has a lot of warmth and familiarity,” Fischer says. “We like the way it goes with lots of colors and contrasting textures.”
Fischer shared her own recipe for entertaining outdoors.
Load up a large beverage tub with ice and lots of different refreshments. It’s important to keep beverages plentiful and handy and cold. If guests can serve themselves drinks, you can have more fun at your own party.
Fill a beverage dispenser. Water infused with fruit or herbs (cucumber-mint-strawberry is Fischer’s current favorite) is a refreshing treat. An acrylic beverage dispenser is good for the outdoors; put a stack of unbreakable tumblers nearby.
Be careful what you tote outside. Think twice about using your good china or silver outdoors. Melamine and acrylic tableware are preferable, as they won’t break if guests or gusts tip them over.
Experiment with lighting. Hanging globes are popular, as are metal lanterns for low lighting. Try using flameless pillars and tea lights inside lanterns; some can be put on timers. As the evening wears on, the glow of candlelight, real or faux, will keep your dinner party magical.
Don’t let bugs crash your party. It’s annoying to have lots of mosquitoes and gnats flying around. Crate and Barrel Fly Away Sticks are incense sticks that ward off insects with eco-friendly orange and citronella oils. They also make a thoughtful hostess gift.
If you always thought having flowers at your outdoor table was gilding the lily, it’s time to reconsider. Someone who could help change your mind is Jennifer “Jo” Oliver from Highway to Hill Flowers in Northeast’s Langdon neighborhood. Last year, Oliver moved her flower studio from her home to the Off the Beaten Track warehouse. She does custom arrangements for weddings, parties and individual clients, and she also offers classes.
Oliver has lots of experience in designing flowers that have to look their best for hours in Washington’s withering heat and humidity. Here are some of her do’s and don’ts for arranging and displaying blooms outside.
Choose hardy varieties. As long as you hydrate flowers, most will do well. Roses, daisies, Alstroemeria lilies and carnations are among the hardiest, Oliver says. A bit more delicate are hydrangeas, lilac and peonies; they might wilt a bit faster in direct midday sun.
Prepare flowers carefully. When you get them home, cut at least one inch and preferably a few inches off the stems, and put the flowers in cool water in a large container until you are ready to arrange them.
Test your arrangement for size. Put it on the table after you set out your place settings to make sure it isn’t dominating the landscape. Here is a florist’s standard rule for testing the proper height of a centerpiece to make sure it doesn’t block guests on the other side of the table: Put your elbow on the table and make a fist. Your arrangement should not be taller than the distance from your elbow to your fist.
Hold off putting them outdoors. Keep your arrangement inside until 15 minutes before guests are due, so the flowers will be at their most fresh. Store in an out-of-the-way place, such as a basement if you have one. If you don’t, put in an air-conditioned room, but not directly in front of the unit or vent. It never hurts to give an arrangement a quick spray from a misting bottle before placing it outside.
After your party, don’t leave your flowers out all night. Bugs or other creatures might nibble on them. Give them away as gifts as guests depart. Or bring them inside, where you should get a few more days of enjoyment out of them if you change the water daily.