This time of year, there are plenty of reasons to throw open your doors and gather friends for an outdoor party. But given the logistics involved in planning even an informal affair, it may seem as though there are just as many excuses not to entertain -- especially since long summer days don't necessarily equal extra hours to get ready. These tried-and-true strategies from our editors will help make your soirees run smoothly, from setup to cleanup. After all, guests shouldn't be the only ones who get to relax and enjoy the festivities.
A Summer Home for Dishes
Station an armoire on a covered patio or clear a few shelves in the garage to hold items devoted to alfresco dining. Affordable, unbreakable, brightly hued enamelware, sturdy flea market finds, or ecofriendly, reusable bamboo plates are good to have on hand, as are glasses, utensils, and candles.
Smartly Dressed Tables
Although typically used on chaise and chair cushions, outdoor fabrics also make attractive, all-weather table coverings and come in vibrant colors and patterns. Also try vinyl-coated oilcloth, which can be wiped clean with little effort.
Come One, Come All
Accommodating a large group for a sit-down meal outside can be accomplished easily and elegantly by topping a few folding tables with a rustic flat-panel door or a single piece of plywood covered with cloth. When not in use, the tabletop and collapsed tables can be stowed along a wall in the garage.
Get a Head Start
Tackle grill-related tasks more than just a few minutes ahead of time. Stock up on charcoal or refill the propane tank a week before. Clean and season the grill rack the morning of your party, and place a table nearby, complete with the various grilling tools and serving platters youll need.
Let It Shine
Enjoy candlelight even on breezy evenings by using hurricane lanterns or jam jars to shield the flames.
Running a fan near your dining area will help keep mosquitoes at bay -- and keep your guests cool, too. You may also want to fill a container, such as a flowerpot or basket, with natural insect repellent (made from essential oils) as well as nongreasy sunscreen. Set it out in a convenient locationon the porch or by the pool, perhaps -- for those who seek protection from the elements.
Your Own Sweet Way
Simple syrups infused with flavors let partygoers customize their cocktails. Bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar completely. Remove from heat, and add the flavoring of choice: the zest of 1 orange, a small bunch of mint, a few rosemary sprigs, or 8 ounces fresh ginger, peeled and sliced. Let steep for 30 minutes. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, and discard solids. Chill in an airtight container. Serve alongside seltzer, iced tea, and liquor, such as vodka, gin, or rum.
Create centerpieces using foliage from the yard. Flowering or fruiting branches look elegant atop a table, as do fern fronds and hosta leaves arranged in jars.
Say Yes to Help
Hours before the party, jot down a list of last-minute tasks. This will not only jog your memory but also simplify delegating when friends insist on lending a hand. Gather whatever is needed, such as matches to light candles or plates to set the table, and have everything at the ready. Also assemble a few spare serving vessels and utensils for dishes that guests may bring.
Avoid a Bottleneck at the Bar
Multiple beverage stations help ensure that guests can get a refill without waiting. Galvanized tubs, colorful enamel buckets, and planters work perfectly. Place an assortment of drinks in each bin if they're destined for different locations throughout the yard. Or fill each container with a single type, such as imported beer, white wine, or bottled water. With ribbon, tether an opener to a handle of each bin; drape a dish towel nearby to take care of condensation.
Form and Function
For a prettier and more accessible tabletop, decant condiments from their original packaging into small dishes, ramekins, or even mismatched teacups. Arrange them, along with homemade dips, salsas, and sauces, down the table, making sure each diner has everything within reach.
When getting ready for barbecues, clambakes, and other hands-on occasions, set out damp paper towels or cloths, sprinkled with lemon juice and rolled, to remedy sticky fingers. For easy cleanup, cover the table with split garbage bags topped with kraft or butcher paper. Keep crayons nearby for creative guests, young and old.
Informal gatherings, planned weeks ahead or convened at a moments notice, don't require traditional invitations or the attendant etiquette. Spread the word via e-mail or phone, and check in a few days before with those who haven't confirmed.