Invite Them to a Garden Party 

Summertime and garden parties were made for each other. There's always something pleasant to remember about outdoor gatherings. It's easy to move around and talk to people, the food and drink flow, and the kids can play alone yet stay under a watchful eye from afar.

Occasions like special anniversaries and birthdays, graduations and wedding engagements all lend themselves perfectly to festive garden parties.

While you may agree about the fun, hosting one may seem a little daunting. I'm here to convince you otherwise.

The key is planning. A little organization goes a long way. And, yes, you'll need to rent some things. But not to worry: the rental companies do this every day. You can use their planning advice and checklists to your advantage. 

Think of a party event coming up. Let's say, for the sake of planning a sample project, that your folks have a wedding anniversary coming up in a few months and you want to do something special. 

Come with me as we plan a garden party....

What to do first: Talk to the guests of honor. Tell them that you'd like to host a party and are thinking of an outdoor event. Pick a date that's good for both of you. Ask Mom and Dad to help with the guest list. Start informally circulating the word about what date you have selected.

As soon as possible afterwards: Sit down with a few people, your sister or your brother, your spouse and an aunt or uncle - folks who can who can be relied on for a little help. Talk about logistics. This is the time to decide if you want a formal or informal event, how many people you should invite and what you may need professional help with and what you can do yourselves.

Here are some basic things to consider:

Will anyone be coming from out of town? Put someone in charge of making overnight accommodations. 

How long do you expect the party to last? This will help you plan how much food and drink you'll need. Also, will you want to consider arranging for some lighting?

Are you comfortable with making the food yourself? Do you want to cook some dishes and order some others, like salads, from a local market? Is yours a family or group where people expect to pitch in and bring a dish? Is a caterer more your speed? If you elect to make the food yourself, plan a menu where everything is prepared ahead of time. The only exception to this is barbecuing the meat.

Do the guests like music? Would everyone be happier if there were a band or a DJ? Or is it sufficient to put someone in charge of making sure the CD player is always loaded with favorites? Will you need to order a small dance platform?

Will there be kids? If so, make sure you plan on some toys and a play area.

Pick a color theme. Use this to coordinate the tent, tablecloths, flowers and any decorations you'll order. Whatever else you do, don't scrimp and pass on the tent. It provides protection from not only the rain, but also the sun. A tent also provides a natural gathering place for everyone. People are less likely to stray inside the house if they have a specific place to sit and socialize. And yes, the tent rental company puts it up and takes it down.

Talk about your supply of tables, chairs, tablecloths, napkins, china, flatware and glasses. Seriously consider renting these things. The tables and chairs will be assembled for you. All the other items will be delivered clean and most times can be returned after just being scraped off. The china and glasses will come stacked in plastic racks. You can tuck these in the garage or barn until you need to return them.

Will there be enough people to necessitate a port-a-potty? If you have a septic tank, it's always a wise investment.

As you come up with answers to these questions, the party will start to take shape.

You've made some decisions. It's time to visit the rental companies, talk to the deli staff at your favorite market and call caterers. Shop and make your best deal. As soon as you can, finalize the arrangements. 

Now, the big day is getting closer. And it's time to talk about finishing our party plans. Start carrying around a little notebook with your "things to do list." It's handy for taking notes as you call around for quotes or visit merchants. And, when a gal you work with reminds you to arrange for several coolers and ice, mark it down right away; chances are you'll remember to do it.

What to do a month before:

Send out the invitations. Ask for a reply so you can get an accurate head count. Find out if anyone needs a hotel room.

Invite your neighbors. Telling them ahead of time will give them a heads up on the extra people in the neighborhood and the extra noise level that will surround your property. It's almost always appreciated and it helps create a friendly atmosphere.

Double check your order with the rental company. Arrange for the tent, tables and chairs to be set up two days before the party. This is a good hedge against rain soaking the ground the day before.

If friends and family are bringing food, contact everyone and keep a list of the dishes tracking who is making what. Remember, it's ok to tell people what they should bring. Leaving the menu to chance will likely result in four pasta salads, many bowls of coleslaw and no meat.

Contact your lawn maintenance service. Make sure they cut the grass and trim the hedges before right before the tent goes up. 

Hire a neighborhood teenager or college student to help the day of the party. Select someone who can be responsible for parking cars when guests arrive and later help with chores such as making sure that the ice is replenished and the dirty plates and silver are stowed away unobtrusively. 

Ask someone to chauffeur the guests of honor. It's their special day. Make sure that they don't have to worry about having a good time and driving home. 

Consider whether you'll need some additional outdoor lighting. If you expect that the party will go on after dusk, arrange for some flood lights and power, if needed. Note: Double check with your municipal zoning authority and find out if there are any restrictions on lighting your yard. There may be a specific time when the lights will need to be dimmed or they may require a permit.

Order the cake, and consider a pastry tray. If Mom and Dad have a favorite by all means make sure you get it. Order some ice cream for the kids - big and little alike.

Visit your local liquor store. Arrange for your alcoholic and carbonated beverages. Make sure that the unopened bottles can be returned after the party. Order plenty of ice.

A few days before:

Reconfirm the hotel reservations for the out-of-town guests.

Give the house a good scrub. Pick put a place where guests can put a gift for the guests of honor.

Visit your local florist and arrange for some flowers in your theme color to decorate the tent and the house.

Set up a table inside the house for the cake. Don't take it outside in warm weather.

Buy lots of film and an extra battery for the camera.

Reconfirm the menu and serving time with the caterer. 

Buy charcoal, or if you're using a gas grill, make sure the tank is refilled.

Pick out a comfortable outfit to wear for the party.
The morning of the party:

Eat a light breakfast to take the edge off any nervousness.

Put out the table cloths. Make sure the plates, glasses and flatware are where the caterer can find them.

Just before everyone arrives:

Change into that comfortable outfit and put on your dancing shoes. It's time to enjoy the day along with your guests. 

Relax, the best is yet to come!