outdoor entertaining

When the summer heat begins to dissipate, we North Carolinians start spending more and more time outdoors without ever having to stray too far from home.

While our backyards are often our personal sanctuaries, comfortable places to escape and relax, they can also be ideal places to host parties and gatherings, especially during fall.

Interior designers Amy Vermillion and Heather Garrett, of Charlotte and Durham, respectively, say they are seeing more and more North Carolinians use their backyards for entertaining.

People are viewing their backyards as extensions of their homes, Vermillion says:

“We live in one of the greatest states in the union, where you can be outside nine months of the year. People are looking at their yards in a whole new way.”

As autumn approaches, Vermillion and Garrett paused to offer a few ideas to help us prepare for al fresco entertaining with North Carolina flair.

Bring the Inside Out

Garrett recently went to an outdoor birthday party, where the hosts had moved their reclaimed-wood dining room table outside into the yard. She was stunned by the effect. “It blew my mind,” she said, explaining that the indoor table gave the yard a special feel. When entertaining outside in the fall, Garrett advised, make use of the items you normally use indoors, like cloth napkins and tablecloths, porcelain dishware, stainless steel silverware, and wine glasses. “I have a weird collection of tea towels from flea markets or old vintage napkin sets,” she said. “It’s fun to mix stuff up, because it keeps people feeling relaxed outside.” To create a bar, bring a console or other table outside and decorate it with a vase of flowers and candles in candlesticks. Fill a tin bucket with ice and champagne or beer. “If you can treat it like a real room with furnishings and textiles and lighting, it’s going to change the whole spirit of the time you spend there,” Garrett said.

Construct a built-in fire pit

In addition to providing a fun gathering spot, a fire pit — or s’more pit, as Vermillion likes to think of it — provides heat, light, and a novel and age-old way to cook food. Pick a spot that’s a safe distance from your house and overhanging trees (after checking local recreational fire codes) and outline the interior of your pit by digging a six-inch-deep circle that’s 36 to 44 inches in diameter. Fill the hole to ground level with sand or gravel and stack flagstones, bricks, or cinderblocks eight to 12 inches high around the rim. When friends come over, incorporate campfire cooking into the evening’s plans — or chat around the fire’s edge on chairs or benches. When the pit is not in use, Vermillion suggests placing a tabletop on its base to create a more usable space.

Think illumination

Candlelight illuminates and softens, and as darkness descends, it constricts your space and creates a sense of intimacy. Fill Mason jars with sand and votive candles, wrap wire around their rims, and hang them from the trees, Vermillion says. Place candle-filled jars of different shapes and sizes, but the same colored glass, in clusters around the scene, Garrett adds. Or create a centerpiece by filling long trays with stones or sand and rows of differently sized candles. For a less fiery but equally bright option, decorate low-hanging trees or porch supports with strings of globe lights.

Exercise your green thumb

“If you don’t have much space, you can cordon off an area with little clusters of container plantings,” Garrett said. In addition to sectioning off space and accenting patio nooks, container gardens of fall-blooming flowers and colorful foliage bring nature closer. When filling a container, you should aim for plants with a variety of colors, textures, and heights, says Greensboro Science Center horticulturist Chandra Metheny. In the same pot, “you want something that drapes, spreads and has nice foliage, and also something more upright,” Metheny says. “Using different layers and different textures creates a great look for fall.” Incorporating plants native to North Carolina has the added benefit of supporting important pollinators like butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds, she says. In shaded areas, try planting ostrich ferns, wild columbine, Solomon’s seal, and wild blue phlox. In sunny areas, Metheny recommends using purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and Stokes asters. Remember to select containers of varying heights, too, which contributes to the layered look. You might also consider planting a tabletop herb garden in wooden or galvanized tin containers or NC-made ceramic pots. Basil, oregano, dill, mint, rosemary, cilantro, and native sages will not only enhance your tabletop, but also freshen your meal.

Go vintage

When it comes to outdoor furniture, embrace the charm of used over new. Peruse North Carolina’s flea markets, estate sales, and garage sales — like the Raleigh Flea Market or Antique Tobacco Barn in Asheville — for vintage outdoor furniture, preferably of the wrought iron persuasion. “Repurposing outdoor materials is huge,” Vermillion says. “All the wrought irons from the ’40s and ’50s — people love that.” At home, sand and prime your purchase with an outdoor primer and paint it a color of your choosing. “You can also find some interesting pieces in the mountains — twig furniture and repurposed furniture from logs — that look great on a porch,” Vermillion says. When selecting fabric for cushions and pillows, opt for UV-, water-, and mildew-resistant fabrics — and prepare to be blown away by the quality and variety of outdoor-rated textiles on the market today.


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Christina Cooke is a freelance writer and editor living in Durham. She teaches journalism and nonfiction writing in the documentary studies programs at Duke University and Lewis & Clark College. Find more of her archived stories here.