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Outdoor entertaining

Use centerpieces and lights to establish the perfect mood

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Ah, summer is truly in the air. Besides blooming flowers, longer days, chirping birds and the other mood-lifting elements that come with the season, I can't help but get excited thinking about the outdoor parties that will surely occur in the coming months.

I love to entertain outside. There are so many reasons I love attending and hosting outdoor gatherings. After a long winter, it's nice to get out of the house, relax with friends and family, spread out on a freshly mowed lawn and inspire children to play in the grass and to smell the barbecue on the grill.

Besides the natural decor that being outdoors offers, there are so many things you can do to further evoke a mood at an outdoor party. There are many resources available to help you plan and host an outdoor event your guests will love.

My favorite entertaining books are those by F. Lee Bailey, Martha Stewart and, of course, my own: "The Summer House Cookbook." Lillian Vernon, the specialty mail order and online retailer, also publishes a wonderful and inexpensive booklet called "Celebrate All Year Long."

When planning an outdoor party, think first about the "why" of your event. A summer garden party, for example, can be anything from a picnic to a ladies' group gathering to a swimming bash. One of my favorite design elements (and one of the most versatile) that can jazz up any outdoor party is lighting, especially if your gathering is at night or continues into the evening.

If your outdoor furniture includes umbrellas, decorate the underside with twinkling lights. I love the clean look of white lights, but if your party has a color scheme (like red, white and blue for a July Fourth party) using colors can also be beautiful.

For ease in decoration, find the lights manufactured specifically to attach to the spokes of umbrellas. Or bring out the Christmas lights. A few strands placed on low bushes will add ambience to your gathering.

Place citronella candles throughout the party area to keep the bugs away and to add more ambience. Accent the path to the street with luminarias that allow the light to flicker through. These can be purchased or even crafted with carved-out coffee cans or vegetable cans and filled with inexpensive votive candles.

Centerpieces (whether simple or elaborate) are one of the best ways to illustrate your party's theme. I believe that almost any item can be used to create an attractive, fun centerpiece. One of my favorites is fruit. Lemons and other circular fruit are great for decoration (and after the party they can be enjoyed as healthy snacks). Assemble the fruit into a pyramid shape, securing the pieces with toothpicks or bamboo barbecue skewers.

Use flowers plucked from your yard or strawberries tucked in the gaps to make your tabletop even more colorful.

Think about the unexpected when determining your centerpieces. For a beach theme, use pails, shovels, beach balls, sand and seashells. For a true garden party, decorate with lush ferns, flowers, gardener's gloves and tools.

A great idea for place cards: use lemon leaves from the florist, tie a bow at the end with gold ribbon, write your guests' names with a gold pen and place at each setting.

As far as tablecloths, consider items you may already have lying around your home, like burlap or old quilts. For a segment on "Oprah," I designed a tabletop with a safari theme and used a great-looking leopard print shower curtain for the tablecloth.

Always think about an alternate plan in the case of rain. A great way to avoid unexpected showers is with a small and easy-to-assemble tented pavilion or gazebo.

Be prepared to secure plates and napkins on a windy day. If you don't have tablecloth grips, use clothespins.

If children will be present, have planned activities for their enjoyment. So parents can truly enjoy the festivities, you may want to hire a baby sitter. Sidewalk chalk is popular these days. Or, provide age-appropriate crafts. Purchase inexpensive watering cans or ceramic pots the children can decorate with washable paint or markers.

No matter what activities you plan for your guests, a well-planned outdoor party is sure to be enjoyed by all. If you've never hosted an outdoor party, try it. You may start a tradition in your family or neighborhood.

Chris Casson Madden, host of the Home & Garden Television show "Interiors by Design," is also author of 12 books, including the newly released "A Room of Her Own," Clarkson Potter Publishers.