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How to throw a winning garden party

Melanie Whitehouse / 29 June 2016 ( 04 July 2017 )

Throwing a successful summer party in the garden means planning ahead to embrace the weather, as well as the occasion.

Garden party

Plan for the weather

With our unreliable climate you can burn, drown, freeze or be blown away in the course of a day, so it’s best to have contingency plans. 

Luckily there are some great pop-up gazebos available that are quick and easy to put up and take down. Some are pretty basic with open sides, easily available from places like Wilko, Argos and B&Q, and will just keep a light shower at bay. Go for more protection with Argos’ smart blue Garden Gazebo with side panels and window.

And it's not just bad weather you might need to protect yourself from. Remember that not everyone likes being out in direct sunlight too long, so some colourful parasols will provide much-needed shade. These can be as simple or elaborate as you like, with cheaper parasols starting at around £15, to £200 for a cantilever parasol. If you're looking to splash out on something a bit special the East Indian Parasol Company has a range of beautiful colours, fabrics and shapes. Prices are around £400 but you'll have an iconic garden feature for years to come.

If you'd rather not splash out a decorative blanket strung up between trees or fence posts can also add some shade.

Stay warm at night with a chimenea or a firepit. Some firepits come with integral grills, so you can cook your food while keeping warm. Some even cook pizzas, too.

Drape a throw, stole, wrap or scarf over the back of every chair, so guests can pull them around their shoulders if they get chilly.

Read our guide to choosing a garden wood burner for chilly evenings

Dress your table

A cheerful tablecloth adorned with bright, happy florals will set the scene for a delicious meal in the garden.

Use colourful crockery and don’t worry if the pieces don’t match. Painted terracotta plates and bowls brought back from Greece, Portugal and Spain always look sunny on a summer table, or go for a vintage look with pretty, second hand crockery from car boot sales and charity shops. Charity shops are an excellent place to find mismatched colourful terracotta. 

Invest in plastic glasses – you don’t want unstable wine glasses falling off your table and breaking on your patio in the dark. Look out for colourful acrylic wine goblets and tumblers, which are usually lining supermarket shelves in the run-up to summer.

For a quick centrepiece put a tiny jam jar filled with a posy picked from the garden – sprigs of honeysuckle, sprays of miniature roses, lavender and jasmine will all smell wonderful – at each place setting. In the evening some battery-powered LED string lights will add some charm.

Visit our Home and Garden section for gardening guides, home improvement tips and much more.

Garden party lighting

Tea lights in jam jars are ideal for use on tables but use the battery-operated ones for safety reasons if the grandchildren are around. You can pick these up from most supermarkets.

Put bigger candles in closed hurricane lanterns, which keeps them safe and stops them blowing out in the breeze – Ikea has a great selection for just a few pounds.

So nobody trips over, light up steps and paths with solar-powered lights – Wilko and the supermarkets usually stock light markers that stick into the earth for as little as £1 or so, although when it comes to solar lights it's often better to pay a bit more and get better quality.

Wind pretty fairy lights through trees and around gazebo poles – most shops sell an extensive range and you can get lights that either plug into a socket, are powered by the sun or use batteries. Don’t leave flexes trailing – make sure they’re taped down or safely out of reach.

Don’t forget the music, but keep it low after 11pm if you’re in a built-up area or have neighbours nearby, so they can sleep. A Bluetooth speaker linked to a playlist on your phone is ideal if you're far from your stereo.

Try making your own tealight holders from jam jars

Tips for food and drink

Create a bar where guests can gather to refill their glasses and chat. Big garden, large party? Have more than one area with beer and wine in an ice bucket, so nobody has to wait to refill their glass.

Serve up easy food – lots of light tapas-style dishes, easy-to-eat nibbles, pretty salads and, of course, barbecues! Visit our barbecue section for delicious ideas. Make sure you know of any dietary requirements in advance, especially if your guests are bringing plus ones or their children. The last thing you want is to not be prepared for any gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian guests you weren't expecting.

Add flowers to your food – sprinkle the top of salads with edible foliage, which includes pansies, violas, nasturtiums and scented geranium leaves which you can buy in Waitrose.

Mix classic summer drinks like Pimm's but you don’t have to pay full price: shop around for cheap alternatives in places like Aldi and Lidl, or try making your own.

For non-drinkers there's now a great range of grown-up soft drinks. Try Seedlip for a non-alcoholic gin, or one of the many zero alcohol beers available. Elderflower cordial always goes down well, and it's easily available in supermarkets if you don't fancy making your own. 

Read our tips for summer party drinks

Tips from the experts

To be instantly presentable, make sure that the first lawn visitors see is neatly edged. For a tiny town garden, with no lawn, it’s all about first impressions so make sure you have a beautifully planted container in full view of arriving guests.
- George Plumptre, Chief Executive of the National Gardens Scheme, publishers of The Garden Visitor’s Handbook

Remember that your garden is supposed to be fun, not drudgery so make sure that you take time this summer to just sit. Drag out a couple of cushions, pour yourself a drink and go and plonk yourself amongst the fruits of your labours. Admire your beans, smell the flowers and listen to the birds sing and the bees buzz.
- James Alexander-Sinclair, garden designer, TV presenter and award-winning writer

Summer means entertaining in the garden - I have several colourful outdoor rugs and cushions to adorn our large oak deck and for sprawling on the lawn. For the evening, dress a huge garden table with table cloths, runners, colourful crockery or an array of cut flowers in a dozen Japanese saki glasses and add a bit of bunting. While eating supper with friends and family let the children loose with colourful chalk on the deck. Summer gardens are for enjoying!
- Ann-Marie Powell award-winning garden designer, TV gardening presenter, journalist and author

To get the best out of your garden photographs in mid-summer – whether you use a smart phone or a DSLR – the solution is to get up early when the light is lower and gentler. This is often called the Golden Hour: the shadows are softer and the golden light will compliment your planting combinations rather than obliterate them. The evening light, before the sun goes down, can also offer the same advantages. If you simply cannot wait for either end of the day, then wait for a cloud. Clouds act as natural light diffusers which will remove most of the shadow and allow the camera to do its job, evenly recording your garden’s beauty without the brashness of the midday sun wiping out any subtlety of detail.
- Andrea Jones garden photographer and author of The Garden Photography Workshop (Timber Press)

Read our tips for caring for a summer garden, or find out how to make the most of a small garden

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.