For a sit-down meal, bring out indoor furniture. Surround a table with a mix of chairs or benches (left). The charming combination will put guests at ease and set a come-as-you-are attitude.
Or take cues from a picnic for an even more casual party. Spread blankets and pillows throughout the yard. Set a basket of simple eats and a bucket of cold drinks on each blanket, suggests Michigan native Katie Brown, author of Katie Brown's Outdoor Entertaining.
For a windproof tabletop with style, use your indoor dinnerware (left) or rent from a party store, suggests Minneapolis event planner Laura Mullen. "Heavy plateware instantly classes up everything for little expense," she says. (Rent plates for 30-70 cents each.)
In addition to hefty dishes, use only windproof decor on tabletops. Instead of one centerpiece, line up weighted pots of flowers (left) or inexpensive pots of fresh herbs. Chalk names on river rocks as place cards, and clip on tablecloth weights.
Encourage guests to walk around and mingle by setting up food and drink stations. Try a fruit buffet, appetizer table or lemonade and drink stand (left).
Provide buckets of dollar-store sunglasses, bottles of sunscreen or an assortment of floppy hats (left) to combat the sun. For more shade, make a canopy by tying muslin to tree branches. If it's a chilly evening, supply shawls cut from inexpensive fabrics. "It's as if you had an outdoor concierge for your party," Katie says. "I try to think of what a great hotel would have for you, especially when dealing with weather."
Create a themed playlist, and take speakers outside. For a laid-back beach party, try a reggae mix. Complement a formal dinner with jazz.
Or play '20s music for a Great Gatsby lawn party. "Ask everyone to wear white and provide lawn games, such as croquet and badminton," Laura suggests.
Hang lanterns or twinkle lights in trees to create intimate evening lighting. Line walkways with luminarias.
Instead of a giant outdoor chess set, design a tic-tac-toe board (left), Katie says. Make a grid with rope. Secure with stakes if needed. Use natural objects such as rocks or flowers as the Os and sticks as the Xs.
Coat the yard with garlic spray or natural bug spray--instead of harsh chemicals--three days before and the morning of an event, Laura advises. Do it yourself for $30 (if you own a bug fogger), or hire someone for a couple hundred. Have bug spray (left) set up at a station at the party so guests can appreciate all your hard work and planning in comfort.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® July/August 2009.)