One of my favorite ways to spend a bright, clear fall evening is under my courtyard canopy of amber, red and orange leaves, enjoying a lovely meal with friends. Here are some tips for creating an inviting al-fresco dining room for a fall dinner party.
When planning your outdoor event, you can approach your table two different ways: Dress it with style for a sit-down dinner or set it up for a buffet. Usually I jump at the chance to trick up the concrete table in my courtyard because every lavish touch you add when you dine outdoors is so unexpected that it instantly shoots the tablescape up on the drama scale. But this year, I was feeling the buffet love, so I set the table for a simple service of appetizers and drinks.
The food-and-drink service takes a back seat to a large, layered and supershowy centerpiece. Since I'm not a chef, I like to put my creative energy into tablescapes, and, boy, did I have fun with an over-the-top treatment. Not that I'm trying to justify my penchant for extreme centerpieces, but when the room you are decorating is as big as all outdoors, you have to have something large at the center of your table if you want to make a statement. The added benefit of a buffet is that you can go really large because you don't have to worry about interrupting cross-table conversations. Not that that has stopped me before!
For this showstopper, we started with a decorative wheelbarrow as our base. A friend loaned me a gigantic silver candelabra to give us dramatic height. Then we started layering in favorites of fall, from pumpkins and vines to nature-inspired candlesticks. Creating a fall centerpiece for an outdoor event isn't an overwhelming feat for me because when you're outdoors, you take your lead from nature, and just about anything goes.
Here are some other go-to picks for statement centerpieces:
• Cluster three different-sized trellises at the table center, fill them with a stack of pumpkins and finish off by twisting honeysuckle vines around the trellises.
• Place a garden statue at the table center, giving it an air of fall by entwining it with honeysuckle vines and dotting in a few pumpkins and gourds.
• Put a birdbath at the center of the table, then place a gigantic pumpkin in the bowl of the bath. Twist some honeysuckle vines up the base of the bath.
A central tenant of decorating is to mix the formal with the informal, the rough with the refined. So, we balanced the wild, organic nature of our centerpiece with an elegant table service. A silver tray holds crystal champagne flutes. A three-tiered silver server will show off even the simplest of appetizers -- fruits, cheeses, nuts and veggies -- in fine style.
Another benefit of a buffet service is that guests are free to mill and mingle about. To give my guests a comfortable place to sit while they dine, I cozied up iron outdoor furniture with soft cushions and pillows made from durable outdoor fabrics. Instead of doing an elaborate fall centerpiece on my little iron table, I just added an orange wooden tray.
Thanks to my sheltered screened porch, I can entertain outdoors even when the weather is nippy or misty. When guests gather on the porch, I use my wooden hutch to serve food and drinks. To trick it up for a fall party, I added a spray of fall foliage to the top, then dotted the shelves with gourds and little vases holding orange roses, one of my all-time favorite flowers for fall decorating.
• Adapted from Mary Carol Garrity's blog at www.nellhills.com.