Imaginative Garden Party Themes
These fanciful and hands-on parties could inspire your next outdoor affair, big or small.
If a traditional garden party leaves you feeling a bit wilted, update it with a modern theme that ties together the food and fun inspired by these ideas and recipes.
Make Your Backyard a Living Masterpiece
Think of your garden as a canvas, and show off your artistic flair using artwork as party inspiration.
In my home, I have a framed print of Georges Seurat’s painting, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” which I’ve loved since I saw the real thing at the Chicago Institute of Art as a teenager. The shape of the ladies, their umbrellas and the boats on the lake, plus the pointillism technique in Seraut's work, is something I take time to admire every day.
I’m not alone. This 1880s painting depicting Parisians relaxing along the Seine inspired the theme for a garden party in Atlanta. Floral and event designer Jill Helmer hung parasols in bright greens, magentas, oranges and blues from the tent as unexpected bursts of color.
Once you find that inspirational piece of art, look for elements in it that can be recreated using a different medium or different palette, says Helmer, the co-author of Evergreen: Decorating with the Colours of the Season and Collections: Sharing the Passion as well as the forthcoming Home: Celebrating Autumn and Winter.
“Take that item and exaggerate it. In this case, it was the umbrellas,” she says. “Carnation balls mimicking the colors of the umbrellas were floating on top of glass vases. This gave the same illusion of the floating umbrellas.”
Fashion a Whimsical Wonderland
Just because some garden parties double as fundraisers, doesn’t mean the decor has to be stilted and staid. For a party that paid tribute to a beloved Atlanta duck pond and park, blue wide-brimmed hats covered with yellow rubber duckies, tiny trees and miniature people served as cheery centerpieces.
Your own party could focus on a local landmark or one of the area’s beloved attributes, and the décor could reflect that.
Throw a Grown-up Tea Party
Thrift-store shopping, or rummaging through your cabinets or storage areas, is the way to go when decorating for a tea party in the garden. You can mix-and-match, which removes the stress of having the right number of tea cups and saucers. You also can coordinate the rest of your decor with what you find, whether it’s plain white dishes or more ornate ones with gold and silver accents.
“When the guests leave, that’s their party favor,” says Atlanta chef Jennifer Hill Booker, author of the 2017 cookbook, Dinner Deja Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow.
To tie in the food, serve bite-sized items like petit fours and mini cream puffs. For something more savory, try deviled eggs and cucumber or pimento cheese sandwiches, depending on the local food culture.
For drinks, try this lavender lemonade recipe by Booker, excerpted from her 2014 cookbook, Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent.
Makes 2 lavender lemonades
- 4 ounces vodka
- 2 ounces lavender simple syrup
- 1 teaspoon fresh lavender flowers
- 2 ounces fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup crushed ice
- 4 ounces seltzer water or club soda
- 2 slices lemon
Pour the vodka and simple syrup into a cocktail shaker; add the lavender flowers and lemon juice.
Muddle until the lavender flowers are broken into small pieces.
Add crushed ice and shake about 10 seconds.
Strain into a chilled martini or glass or tumbler and top with club soda. Garnish with a slice of lemon.
Lavender Simple Syrup
Yields 1 ½ cups
- 1 1/2 cups fresh lavender flowers
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
In a saucepan, bring sugar, water and lavender to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Simmer syrup, undisturbed, for 20 minutes.
Pour syrup through a fine sieve, pressing hard on solids, and cool. Syrup will thicken as it cools.
Syrup keeps, covered and chilled, for two weeks.
Get Back to Nature
A good garden party is all about being outdoors, so get back to nature with your décor.
Even if you have a covering or a tent, don’t think of it as a limitation. With the right organic elements, that tent could seem like part of your yard’s natural landscape.
Using found objects is an inexpensive way to throw a party, too. When a storm brought down a neighbor’s tree, Helmer saw the wisteria vines on it, and an idea clicked. She used the hundreds of feet of vines as party decorations.
“We pulled them off the tree, out of the street, de-leafed it and saved for the party to use on the tent poles and frame,” she says.
You also can reuse old bushes and plants in table centerpieces, with a bit of skill. A dead oakleaf hydrangea bush in a planter, decorated with moss, pansies, faux feathered birds and vines can be a rustic centerpiece that fits with a garden party theme.
“I’m a believer in found objects,” Helmer says.
Organize a Flower Arranging Party
Make it easy on yourself. With this party, your activity is part of the decor. Lay cut flowers on the table with inexpensive vases, or ask guests to upcycle their own vase.
“Then, they can mix and match and make their own bouquet,” Booker says.
Another option is planting a live bouquet. Simply provide little blooming plants and seedlings and supplies such as garden gloves.
To make clean-up easy—and to move onto the food—use a plastic tarp or even shower curtains with patterns like flowers or stripes for the flower arranging.
“Everybody works on their floral arrangement or their live plants. Then roll that tarp out of the way, and then use the table for lunch,” she says.
Let freshness and greenery abound in your menu for this party, too. She suggests dishes like a collard greens salad and an asparagus and Vidalia onion tartlet (a smaller version of her quiche). She provided an excerpt from her book, Dinner Déjà vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow.
Collard Greens Salad
- 1 bunch collard greens, washed, about 8 cups
- 1/2 cup pecan oil
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 small onion, sliced
- 3 cloves raw garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- 1 small onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
De-stem the collard green leaves, roll into a tight cylinder, and slice the rolled collard greens into long strips.
Place strips in a large bowl. Pour pecan oil on collard strips and sprinkle on salt. Massage the oil and salt into the strips with your hands until all pieces are well coated, about 5-7 minutes.
Whisk together apple cider vinegar, onions, garlic, red pepper flakes and ground pepper.
Pour apple cider vinegar dressing over the collard green strips. Let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3-4 hours, but overnight is best.
Add the garnish right before service and serve chilled or at room temperature.