Industry Secrets for Perfecting Outdoor Entertaining

Apr 6, 2021

A conversation amongst friends and peers as we usher in al fresco entertaining season.

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope” – Lady Bird Johnson

The welcomed breath of fresh air that accompanies a changing of seasons has brought with it a hopeful outlook.

Ask any designer what they look to for inspiration, where they go to dream, and they’ll likely cite Mother Nature as a frequent source. A consummate hostess in our eyes, she does have a way of inviting guests in to gather and stay awhile within her lush and abundant landscapes.

What you may be surprised to know is that behind the scenes, a lot of work goes into achieving that natural feel and flow during an al fresco event. With spring and summer outdoor entertaining on everyone’s wish list as a way to comfortably (and safely) gather, we thought it was a fitting time to talk gardens and green spaces over a glass of chilled French Rosé with our friend Claire Kelly, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate at the University of Texas.

We had so much ground to cover (See what we did there?) with Claire that we’ll be sharing more from our conversation in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for part two: for now, enjoy being a fly on the boxwood wall as we discuss a few industry secrets for how to best utilize an outdoor space and let us help you get inspired to take cocktail hour outdoors.

CL: What is it that you love most about working with landscapes and outdoor spaces?

CK: I love that outdoor spaces can be enjoyed by everyone. Even residential yards are public in a way, and the beauty and tranquility these spaces offer can be experienced by the casual passer-by.

CL: When planning an event in an outdoor garden space, what layout factors should be taken into consideration to ensure a successful event flow?

CK: This is a great question, and a fundamental part of hosting events where everyone feels comfortable and has a good time. When thinking about layout, it’s important to be aware of how people occupy spaces as they interact and mingle, and there are some patterns about the way people behave in group settings that can help inform layout.

People tend to cluster together around the perimeter of spaces, for example. It’s very unusual to see them occupy the absolute center of any space, unless the setting is so crowded that there is no other option. Knowing this, you’ll want to make sure that pathways and landscaping around the edges of your space are clear and attractive, and it may be helpful to offer seating options in these areas, too. If you want to get people in the center of a room or lawn though, you will have to give them a reason to be there –a bar, food station, or dance floor all work well.

Also, people naturally gravitate to areas where they have a view of what’s going on – where they’ll still feel like they’re part of the action – but also feel sheltered in some way. This is where seating vignettes and outdoor rooms come in. Making sure your space has multiple options for smaller gathering areas – a deck or patio that’s adjacent to a main central area, tents, pergolas, cabanas, or seating areas arranged in ways that invite conversation all work well. There is almost nothing more lovely than relaxing with friends, cocktail in hand, and taking in the view from your own cozy niche within a larger space.

CL: We are always dreaming up inviting ways to move guests throughout a space. What are some of your favorite techniques to help guests explore the grounds?

CK: People have to be guided through a space. Not only are they likely to gravitate toward the perimeter, they are also likely to congregate in areas that provide a feeling of enclosure. For instance, if an outdoor space is divided into a lawn and a deck, and guests naturally make their way from the interior of the space onto the deck, getting them to then extend onto the lawn can be a real challenge. Even if the deck becomes crowded with new people entering, most people will be shy about being the first one to venture to a new area. So, the lawn will remain unoccupied until the deck becomes uncomfortably full.

To counteract this tendency, offer things to entice people into other areas of the space. Food and beverages work best. Even beautifully arranged seating areas or fun lawn games or a band may not do the trick, but a secondary bar or dessert table – or, if the event is formal, having servers circulate in less-used areas – is a great way to ensure that people spread out and that all areas of a space are used.

CL: What physical characteristics of a space influence how people gather?

CK: Something that’s often overlooked in outdoor event planning is how light interacts with the space, especially during daytime events. Over the course of a four-hour event, the sun’s position relative to the space will change quite dramatically. It may even set entirely if the event spans the evening. This is important to know, because sometimes sunlight is inviting, but in other cases it may be a deterrent to people congregating in a certain area. If your event is in the fall or spring when the weather may still be chilly, people will want to congregate in sunlit areas. But if your event is in the middle of the summer, especially in a warmer climate, people will typically avoid it.

CL: Are there any seasonal changes to the landscape that hosts should be aware of that may impact their event?

CK: One thing I’ve learned spending most of my life in Texas is that spring means different things in different regions. Spring in South Texas (Corpus Christi) and the Gulf Coast (Houston) can be as early as early February, so by April and May most flowering plants like dogwoods, redbuds, Japanese magnolias, and azaleas will have bloomed out, and you’ll be left with a soft, light green aesthetic. Central Texas (San Antonio and Austin) is not far behind that schedule, but spring in North Texas (Dallas/Fort Worth) will be about a month later, so it’s possible – although never guaranteed! – that events in those areas may still benefit from spring blooms into April and May.

CL: Are there certain plants that are more likely to attract insects that would be bothersome during an outdoor gathering?

CK: While it’s difficult to completely avoid the presence of insects or other critters in an outdoor setting, there are some elements that play a role in whether or not you can expect these uninvited guests. I’ve found that food and drinks at outdoor events actually attract more bugs than flowers or plantings do. It’s best, then, to keep food covered whenever possible and position serving stations away from areas that have a lot of tree/plant cover, where insects naturally dwell. And while certain plants do attract pollinators like bees and wasps (which is a good thing for the environment!), usually those insects won’t be as active at night as they are during the day, so encountering pests at a nighttime event is fairly unlikely. And be sure to keep any water in water features on site flowing so that it doesn’t stagnate and attract mosquitos!

CL: What are some of the latest trends that are popping up in outdoor spaces?

CK: I love that people are becoming less hesitant about using traditionally “indoor” décor in outdoor design. For so long, hosts and planners were limited to décor, furniture, and dinnerware that was designated for outdoor use only, but now the sky’s the limit! Wool rug on a covered patio? Sure – looks great! Grandma’s silver or fine China at a picnic? Absolutely. Getting creative and incorporating items that would have one time been considered too “delicate” for outdoor use lends a personal, bespoke feel to events that makes them that much more distinctive and memorable.

In terms of landscaping trends, people are moving away from traditional green lawn spaces for environmental and maintenance reasons, especially here in Austin. We’re seeing a celebration of the “no-lawn” lawn, where materials like natural stone and even turf are replacing traditional grass, and plants are native, drought-tolerant, and of the desert variety. The landscaping term for this is “xeriscaping.” When done well, these spaces can be quite elegant and sophisticated – think Palm Springs or Taos. However, this aesthetic is not a fit for every space, and it is not completely maintenance-free. Consider how xeriscaping works with the overall design of your home and your lifestyle before converting an entire area.

CL: What’s your favorite well-known garden or park?

CK: As classic as it is, Central park is fascinating to me. I love that New Yorker’s simply call it “the park,” because it functions as everyone’s backyard. Also, it was designed by America’s most famous and influential landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, so it’s one of the most foundational works that anyone in my field can study.

But there are so many intriguing and beautiful places to explore, from pocket parts to spaces spanning hundreds of acres. Most major Texas cities have at least one, well-loved public space that people will point to – Buffalo Bayou in Houston, the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Zilker Park in Austin, and Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. Also, the Dallas Arboretum is lovely and made the list of the world’s best gardens a few years ago (the list also included Versailles!).

CL: What are some permanent or non-permanent ways to incorporate shade into outdoor spaces?

CK: I’m a huge fan of how crisp, oversized white umbrellas add easy polish and elegance to outdoor spaces. They work just as well in intimate backyard gardens as they do on the sweeping, expansive patios of Napa wineries and Mediterranean villas.

CL: Speaking of wine, what’s your favorite beverage to enjoy al fresco?

CK: A mojito!

CL: Which leads me perfectly to my next question…what plants or flowers can people incorporate into their outdoor living space that can do double duty as ingredients for cooking or herbal remedies?

CK: Herbs have practical uses in cooking and mixology, and they add such lovely fragrance to outdoor areas. They do require a lot of sun, though. Lavender is another classic choice for a truly multipurpose plant. I’ve seen lavender used in everything from cooking and baking to cleaning and aromatherapy. A friend of mine hangs bundles of lavender in her shower and lets the steam bring out its natural fragrance to create an even more relaxing experience. I’ve also used packets of dried lavender in place of dryer sheets – they make linens smell amazing, and lavender has naturally calming properties so having lavender-scented bedding can help promote restful sleep.

CL: After all the fresh air from an outdoor event and lavender-scented bedding, we should all be sleeping soundly!

Images Courtesy Of: 1 | Korie Lynn Photography 2 | Jerry Hayes Photography 3 | Korie Lynn Photography 4 | Cassie LaMere Events