A good plan is key to backyard bash

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May 12, 2007|By Deborah Hornblow | Deborah Hornblow,Hartford Courant

If there is any time of year that rivals the December holidays for party-giving, it has to be May. Graduations, wedding showers, Mother's Day, Memorial Day weekend -- they set a tone for a summer season of weddings, anniversaries, July Fourth celebrations and Labor Day wrap-ups.

"The spirit of entertaining is reborn as we're inspired by the season's wonderful color schemes, fresh air and a host of reasons to bring people together," Mary Carol Garrity writes in her new Nell Hill's Entertaining in Style: Inspiring Parties and Seasonal Celebrations (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $29.95).

Plenty of entertaining happens at home -- on the patio around the grill, under a tent in the backyard or, when the weather refuses to cooperate, inside the house itself.

To get homes and hosts ready for a backyard bash, we asked a handful of experts for their advice -- whether the plan involves entertaining six for steaks on the grill or 200 for a backyard wedding.

All of them agree that planning is the key.

"Planning is essential, especially when it comes to backyard things, because when it rains, you're in trouble," says Elissa Fallo, vice president of Perfect Productions of Farmington, Conn. "You have to have a Plan B in place to take over when Plan A fails because of weather or mosquitoes or whatever, and the bigger [the event] is, the more essential planning is."

Well before any event, Garrity suggests that hosts "invest in the basic tools you need to host large get-togethers, like serving pieces, tableware and table linens. Collect casual stoneware and formal china that you can mix and match to create visual interest on the table. When planning your backyard patio, decks and porches, wire for outside lighting."

After rounding up (or arranging to rent) the necessary equipment, the next step involves getting the yard in shape.

Louise Houk, event planner for Taylor Rental of Torrington, Conn., says, "Mulching, planting annuals or perennials to spruce up flower beds and a general straightening up never hurt." Houk also advises anyone planning an event with an outdoor dance floor to be certain there is a level area in the yard and that it's conveniently located. If not, "plan to hire landscapers early in the planning stages to create a flat surface," she says.

As the event draws nearer, "Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best," says Houk, repeating a mantra that has served her well in 16 years on the job. "If the day goes badly, make sure you have sufficient cover for people -- a plan to handle food, sanitation and all of that -- before it goes bad."

Houk recalls one outdoor wedding where the problems began with drenching rain. "The location where [the clients] wanted the tent was so far from the house and the catering facility that it was impossible to get from one to the other without getting covered with mud. The guests started calling it `Wedstock' because it was like Woodstock."

Flexibility is crucial. To avoid potential problems and pitfalls, Houk says, "Be realistic about your yard."

Creating a map of the backyard can help. For big events, sketch the yard to include the tent or market umbrellas, catering stations, power supply, band or stereo, sanitation facilities, parking and so forth.

"Make things as user-friendly as possible," says Jennifer Aaronson, food editor of Martha Stewart Living, Blueprint and Martha Stewart Weddings. "Somebody should be able to walk up to the bar area and have it be very easy to figure out how to pour themselves a drink." Aaronson likes to use large galvanized buckets to hold drinks and plenty of ice. "Have your bottles of wine open [and recorked] so people aren't fussing with trying to open them."

Decorating for the party may be the last detail, but it's one of the most memorable. "Lighting is incredibly important," write Lara Shriftman and Elizabeth Harrison, authors of Party Confidential (Bulfinch, $29.99). Candles, tea lights, hanging lanterns, spotlights tilted upward to illuminate trees and floating candles can all be used together and separately to create a festive, welcoming atmosphere.

Aaronson also suggests decorating with branches, vines and flowers cut from the backyard. "Branches from fruit trees with fruit on them -- they make great decorations."

Hosts who successfully plan for the worst and hope for the best still face surprises, and all the pros say roll with it.

"Wedstock," Houk recalls the bride put on rubber boots and the guests kicked off their shoes when they had to wade through the mud. "I have seen people make the most of it, and I have seen people completely fall apart because it didn't turn out exactly as they had planned."

Deborah Hornblow writes for the Hartford Courant.

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