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By Patricia Berry
Jenna Rath was afraid she'd blow the budget for her husband's, Wally, 40th birthday bash. The size of her house dictated that the party had to be outside. But a cold front threatened, making a rented tent with heaters a last-minute must. The tent she could afford was big but not big enough to fit everyone for dinner. Scanning her yard for clues, the Portland, Ore., native spotted the hardly used outdoor fire pit her brother had given her. Four hay bales and a few logs later, Rath had hit on a budget-friendly solution: a campfire set up a few yards away from the tent with seating for eight. The fire "place" was the hit of the evening.
Maximizing your outdoor space -- using items you already have on hand -- can make throwing warm-weather parties much less work than indoor entertaining. Tidy up the lawn, throw a few twinkly lights from the holiday bin and voila. No vacuuming, no dusting necessary!
With all parties, the No. 1 priority is making guests feel relaxed and comfortable, says Genevieve Ferraro, owner of The Jewel Box Home, which helps owners of smaller homes decorate and entertain. "No matter how small your garden or budget, applying a few rules to your outdoor decor will put friends at ease and let you have a good time too," says Ferraro.
Here's how to turn your outdoor space into a party palace.
Make room for the festivities
Define your space so partygoers don't wonder where they're "allowed" to go. Patios and porches make it easy to understand where the party perimeter lies, while open lawns may suggest too much space and make mingling more challenging. Here's where those twinkling lights come in handy. Arranged on shrubs or potted trees, lights visually rein in space and give a shape to your party space. Set up the buffet table and bar so that they too suggest edges of the "room." Do the same with card tables, folding chairs or whatever seating you have available.
Give them an eyeful
If you're serving food, chances are good that the focal point of your party will be the table. So make it spectacular. A vase bursting with flowers or greenery from your garden coupled with a bountiful array of colorful dishes will earn you a round of oohs and ahhs from your guests. A couple of two- and three-tier serving racks will help balance the table and allow you to put out more food than will individual platters at the same level.
Dress it up in white
When entertaining indoors, you think about whether your napkins clash with your tablecloth and dishes, and whether they all clash with the colors in your house. Outdoor party space deserves the same consideration. Ferraro likes using all white linens, in part because almost everyone has them, but also because they work in any environment. "White tablecloths and napkins -- paper or cloth -- are like clean canvases," she says. Anchor white cloths on card tables with a single flower in a small vase and a votive candle. Ferraro carries the white theme to her serving pieces, which are inexpensive to buy and indispensable throughout the year. She complements white pottery with glass vases and bowls and stainless steel cutlery.
Lose the smoke machine
Assuming it's on wheels, move your barbecue or grill away from guests and decorations, particularly if children are present. You wouldn't want your outdoor decor to be lost in a haze of smoke!
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