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Planning a Garden Party 

Gathering on the Grass

click to enlarge The bar at Mary Giuliani's Party Barn in Woodstock, as set up for an opening for artist Calvin Grimm.
  • Mary Giullani
  • The bar at Mary Giuliani's Party Barn in Woodstock, as set up for an opening for artist Calvin Grimm.

Branches draped with flower-filled jam jars strung up with twine. White candles, tall and short, crowd together near glass bowls brimming with cherries, grapes, and apricots. Giant round balloons in muted shades float on a rippling pond. As dusk sets in, strings of small white lights begin to shine on picket fences and green shrubs. Garden parties befit all types of affairs, from casual afternoons spent with close friends to pastoral-themed weddings.

Invitation Etiquette
For an informal gathering like a backyard party with your nearest and dearest, send invitations two weeks in advance; for a birthday, give three weeks notice; and for a formal event, like an engagement celebration or bridal shower, allow guests six weeks to RSVP. Traditionalists may prefer print invitations, but for informal soirees, can be a headache saver because it lets you track your guest list online. Address the invitation to the entire family if little ones are invited; otherwise, Abbe Aronson, event planner and owner of Abbe Does It!, says that a concise "grown-ups only" will get the message across. She also suggests that hosts make an exception for newborns and infants, and set up a cozy, private area for nursing mothers.

Setting the Scene
Orange, turquoise, and pastels like lavender, sage green, and baby pink are charming colors for a springtime party—but just choose two, or else you'll overwhelm the eye. Ideally, pick out one neutral or light metallic shade and a second hue that's brighter and bolder.

You may think that your iPod's "Favorites" playlist sounds like a genius compilation as you drive to work, but you should really build a list that's not quite so eclectic for a garden party. Start off with easy, soft tunes and gradually increase the tempo. Pick a theme, like old standards or modern instrumentals, and add one more hour of music than you think you'll need.

Cliquey events are rarely enjoyable. Encourage mingling by only having enough seating for only about 40 percent of attendees. Set up "pacing stations" with different foods so that guests have to move around in order to chow down.

Small Bites and Refreshments
There's no need to splurge on a full bar for a garden party. Set up a self-serve area with beer, wine, and one signature alcoholic drink, like white sangria or spiked lemonade. Offer a couple of nonalcoholic options, too, like bottles of black cherry Boylan's soda and peach iced tea. Supply plenty of chilled water and punch it up by adding mint leaves or lime wedges. Line potters and planters with small bin bags to use as ice buckets.

Unless there's an unexpected thunderstorm on the day of your fete, you and your guests will be passing the hours outdoors. Cheese and mayonnaise-based foods will spoil in the sun and heat. Make sure to only serve fare that will still be delicious—and safe—at room temperature.

Instead of cooking and coordinating a large, sit-down meal, serve side dishes, appetizers, and bite-size hors d'oeuvres that complement each other. "[Have] as many different choices as possible, as long as it doesn't make the host or hostess crazy," Aronson suggests. Her favorite outdoor edibles include edamame, hummus, lemon chicken sate skewers with Thai peanut dipping sauce, wild rice salad, and pretty much anything pickled.

Skip the huge sheet cake for dessert and take advantage of seasonal fruit instead. Aronson likes to toss strawberries with lemon, sugar, and Grand Marnier liqueur and serve brownie bites, coconut macaroons, and tarts with almond paste instead of cream. "These are hearty-but-basic desserts that hold up well in the heat," she says.

Knowing how much dishware to buy is always a guessing a game. A good rule of thumb is to factor in two and a half plates per person, two cups for every person during the first hour, and one cup for each guest every hour thereafter.

Protecting Your Guests
Cut your lawn the day before the shindig, but don't water it. Aronson suggests having a backup plan in case the sky starts looking gloomy. "When I throw an outdoor party, I always stick close to home and have a big refrigerator full of rosé and sparkling wine as payback for those wet party guests who need a reward for braving the storm," she says. Also, just because it's spring, that doesn't mean it's going to be hot outside, especially when the sun goes down. Keep throw blankets and portable heaters at the ready.

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