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On lovely summer evenings, the best seat in the house is outside. That’s why I entertain al fresco every chance I get when the weather is nice. Today, I want to take you back in time a bit, to the courtyard at my old home in Atchison, Kansas, which was one of my favorite places on earth. For one of my spring open houses, we set the back for a beautiful dinner party. The setting was as delicious as the dinner. I hope it will give you some ideas and inspiration for your own open-air event.

When I entertain, I like to set the mood the moment guests enter. Our guests entered the venue from my screened porch. Next to the steps was an iron garden urn. So we turned it into a drinks table, topping it with a silver stand. When you build dramatic stands like this, make sure you anchor the server well or you’ll have a cascade of broken dishes the first time a guest grabs a cup. But it’s worth the engineering because multilevel servers pack a lot of visual punch.

The awesome table design was inspired by the centerpiece. Sometimes, we do it the other way, come up with a place setting look we adore then create the centerpiece to complement it. We had a bevy of fresh plants we wanted to use, so we placed them in a mix of green pots that encircled an oversized ginger jar. A showy centerpiece like this one is going to make cross-table conversation impossible. But, oh my, does it make your jaw drop when you see it!

We let nature set our color scheme for this party, taking our cue from the fresh summer green in my courtyard. The base for each place setting is a summer place mat turned on its end, trailing over the side of the table. This is one of our favorite ways to use place mats, giving the look a little edge and allowing more space on the table for additional settings.

To make a place setting more interesting, use a variety of dish patterns, with different shapes and sizes adding to the fun. These leaf majolica plates, with their curled edges, add an interesting structural quality.

When you’re entertaining outdoors, lighting is a big part of the party. I didn’t have electric lights in my courtyard, so we harnessed the power of candles.

A beauty of entertaining in the garden is that most of the decorating is already done for you. We made the space more magical by hanging votive cups from the branches of the shrubs.

The winking lights suspended from the branches in the dining area made the outdoor room feel like a fairyland. Once the fireflies started up, and the cicadas began to hum, it was summer bliss.

This column was adapted from Mary Carol Garrity's blog at nellhills.com.

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