We be jammin–planning an outdoor party

Posted by on October 25, 2012


I had an outdoor party; a big party, more like a casual soirée. While it only took a few hours to set up, it was a  decade and a half to realize.

The outdoors has always been like a home to me; I’ve always held a fascination for it.  I’ve never been the kind of person that was bothered by weather or bugs. I do recognize some people are pestered by mosquitoes, annoyed by flies, allergic to bees, afraid of bats, and even fearful of snakes, but I take the better with the bother. I prefer to be outside.

Being outdoors is my lifeblood, from camping as a Girl Scout, to spending hours, days, and weeks–at the beach, climbing mountains, and hiking woods–giving me strength and energy.  I’m just a naturalists at heart. I love the sky, moon, wind, and rain. As a kid, when school ended for the summer, I kicked off my shoes at the back steps to begin each day. I left the house at first light and returned when the street lights came on. It was understood, I was out there somewhere, and it was OK.

When it came time to get married, there was only one option for me…to be married outside. My husband and I said our vows in front of 50 friends, on the banks of the Elizabeth River, in Portsmouth, Virginia, October 8, 1988.

When I designed my current garden, the basic plan gave my kids a long stretch of grass on which to play, and it allowed me to morph that space into a party area; a place to host events. The space is called the Soccer Field. The majority of the time, it’s the kid’s field, and they use it nearly everyday. Even though I only had a one year old child at the time, I was able to see the future with kids kicking balls, chasing fireflies, and lounging around. I could also see a long series of tables and chairs in colors that match my garden and style. This cohesiveness gave the feeling that everything belonged, not brought in from a rental facility. To do this, I needed to make an investment. To keep costs down, I did it over time, when items were on sale, most often deeply discounted at the end of the season. If you know this is something you want to do, plan ahead. If you’ve invested in the basics, you will be more likely to use them and entertain more.

The design plan allowed for two parallel garden beds framing a grassy area. The grass stretches about 60 feet long by 25 feet wide. My children’s play-set was sited at one end and there is a gazebo, with a table for two, at the other. The plan was for the play-set to occupy one end of the turf until the kids were through that stage of their lives. That stage came last year when I added a garden house we call the Love Shack.

The garden house is centered exactly perpendicular to the grass. This sitting of the Love Shack gives a long, graceful, calming perspective; and one of my favorite views of the property, even though I don’t see much of the gardens. What I do see are my kids kicking balls, chasing fireflies, and lounging around.

Most days, the garden house is a quiet place; during events, the Love Shack becomes a hotspot since it then serves as the bar.

There is a lot to consider when having an event out doors. Even now, 24 years later, with dozens of outdoor events under my belt, the challenges of hosting an outdoor soirée are the same. It will always come down to the elements. To put it mildly, we who relish outdoor parties are, by nature, risk takers.

Recently, I hosted an outdoor event in my ½ acre garden, Helen’s Haven, for 50 Friends of the JC Raulston Arboretum. It went off without a hitch. Much of the success came down to the weather. It was a beautiful night.

Here is some advice I’ve learned from personal experience to help make an outdoor party seem seamless.

No matter when you plan for an outdoor event, start shopping now for the best discounts.

I had most of the chairs. I’ve been collecting them over the years. I bought chairs as I found them on sale. Two here, four there. So far, I’ve bought 21 chairs; 10 were white, 11 were black. The most I paid for a chair was $5.00. The styles are a little different, but during the summer I had all 21 painted brown to go with my color scheme. Painting is an easy fix when unifying different styles to blend as one. Since I didn’t have enough to seat everyone, I pulled in other seats from around the house and garden. I stuck to a color theme, though. One white folding chair , to me, would have thrown off the rhythm of the scene. The center tables didn’t hold everyone, even with the extra chairs. There are other seating areas around the garden that were used.

These chairs have been borrowed by garden clubs, friends having friends over, and used by me for extra seating for other events, inside and out.. They are most handy to have.The chairs easily store in my shed. Since they fold, the space require to store is small. Unfortunately, they are hard to find; when I see them in the stores, I buy them.

Tables are another item that are easy to store and come in handy when planning an outdoor party. For my event, I didn’t have enough, I needed five (six would have been better), so I borrowed a couple to make the design work. As it happens, they were the same width and height, but  if not, they could have been unified with table clothes of the same color. If they weren’t the same height, the table legs of an off-scaled table could have easily been sunk into the ground to make the height uniform. Similarly, if the tables were on a slight incline, one side could have been sunk into the ground. The ones I used and borrowed from friends, were folding 6-foot long tables from Costco. They fold in half for easy storage. Cost $50.00 each.


The color scheme in my garden are browns and reds. Rust and red are unifying colors found echoed in art and structures, such as the garden house with its red roof.

Similar to chairs being unified by color, so were the tables. Over the summer, I found inexpensive table cloths to match my color theme. Target had a pattern I liked and one that I knew I could buy more if needed. In fact I did need more. At first (when the party list went from 35 to 50) I had enough table clothes for 3 tables, then added 2 more tables for the dinning area. I then bought another cloth for the bar, the water and soda area, and the dessert table. At $15.00 each, they were a good investment for future parties. The consistent color theme made everything look custom even though it was only tied together by a color pattern.

This party was casual and everyone in attendance was a serious gardener. Rain would not likely dampen their enthusiam. I didn’t setup a tent, but I still wanted cover. It was a risk not putting up a tent. A huge risk, but I was prepared to have a tent, if needed.  There was  a tent on standby that could have been used if the weather warranted it. I don’t believe it would have been as much fun if I had a tent, but partying in the rain isn’t much fun either, as you can imagine in the photo on the right.

As it was, my dear friends, David Spain and Ken Gergle of Moss and Stone Gardens helped me make what I imagined in my head a reality. It was even more than that. David took my basic idea of erecting bamboo posts to hang a burlap enclosure, and created an elegant outdoor space. The bamboo was cut locally, the burlap fabric bought on sale. We were able to create the entire structure for less than $200.00.

Table Decorations
Moss Rocks were the obvious choice for the table decor. Votive candles were also added to tiny terra-cotta flower pots. It was simply divine.

When eating outside, under the stars, overhead lighting is a nice touch. Certainly candles are fun to have, and we did add them to the table for another layer of lighting. The bamboo structure was wrapped in twinkle lights (I found brown-colored cords for sale on the internet at $5.00 for a 45 foot string (100 lights.) The color brown blended in better than the standard green lights you often see at Christmas.

For more light to see what we were eating, we added hanging lanterns wired from the bamboo structure. David and his crew with Moss and Stone Garden did all the wiring making it all seem so effortless.

For the food, I find it best to make it as self-serve as possible. My friend Patricia Spain (David’s wife) did all the appetizers for the party. These appetizers were served by my 11 year son wearing his Boy Scout uniform. I found the color of his uniform blended in nicely with my decor ;~/

I served up a vegetarian white and a white chicken chili presented in the same copper pots they were prepared it. Chili holds its heat making it such that you don’t to have to worry about heated during the time it was being served. Interesting thing about white chili, it doesn’t feel like it needs to be served in the winter as beef chili does. It’s lighter in color and weight making it appropriate in other seasons.



Serve what you like. David Spain made a cocktail of citrus flavored vodka, basil, and honey. Plus we had beer and wine. People always wonder how much of a libation to get. It really depends on your crowd. For ours, basically light drinkers, we allowed 5 pours per bottle, and for the beer, one each. I serve wine in small wine glasses; it helps regulate how much people drink.

Cups, Plates, Napkins, and Silverware
Yep, I used paper products. If it were a more elegant gathering, like my kids wedding reception, I would have used ceramic plates. As it happens, I do have enough white plates to serve a sit down dinner for 50. But for the arboretum event, I took the easy route. I worried about it, but it was perfectly fine.



I use this old looking thing (in photo on left) as my music source. It’s battery powered and can go anywhere. A friend at the party asked what music I’ll be playing. I replied, “Reggae, of course.” Shocked, she said, “Reggae? Why on earth for?” “Why not? I replied. Why not indeed. We be jammim.

One day, I hope to host my children’s wedding receptions in my garden; at least for the girls. On those special days, I won’t be such a risk taker and I’ll erect a tent in case it rains. But white (a standard tent color), in this case, will blend well with the bride.

Helen  Yoest is an award winning writer and speaker through her business Gardening with Confidence ®.

Follow Helen on Facebook

Order Helen’s book today:  Gardening with Confidence –50 Ways to add style for personal creativity,

6 responses to “We be jammin–planning an outdoor party”

  1. Thanks for the awesome tips, Helen! I’m planning my outdoor wedding in my 1-acre garden next fall, and I will definitely use your suggestions. It’s a tent for me!

  2. I love how you gave us the WHOLE soup to nuts on your party plan. Now that’s great info! I love your choice of jammin to Reggae too. 😉

  3. Shirley says:

    Great tips for a beautiful party. Your ideas define planning ahead. So glad it all went well.

    It looks like the perfect venue for a rehearsal dinner too!

  4. HelenYoest says:

    Thanks, Jenny. I’ve very excited about your outdoor wedding. H.

  5. meghan says:

    You’re such a rock star! My mind is still spinning over the paper plates. Hey, if you do it- I’ll do it!

  6. What an elegant and delightful party! It looks and sounds like it was a great night. Thanks for sharing so many great ideas. I’ve added a few of the items you’ve mentioned to my “be on the lookout” list as I wander through thrift stores and estate sales.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *