Setting the Scene The theme: A simple idea—for Oprah, it was everyone in hats—is all you need to throw a garden party. Your prize dahlias are blooming? It's an event. New patio? Reason enough. The neighbor caught a bluefish? Absolutely. Turn any day into a party: Bastille Day, Labor Day, the dog days of summer.
The look: Once you've chosen a setting—on the lawn, by the pool, under your favorite tree—think about how to serve. A buffet is easiest. For a sit-down meal, get guests to mingle by placing starters, drinks, desserts, and gifts at separate tables where everyone helps themselves. Don't forget umbrellas or canopies for shade. At night, string lights in trees, float candles in bowls of water, hang paper lanterns. A color can hold it all together. Pick one or two colors you love—hot pink, say, or blue and white—and add a touch of it to everything from invitations and table settings to parting gifts.
The invitations: Make a guest list of friends you want to see and one or two people you'd like to meet. Oprah's invitations were handmade, but inexpensive computer calligraphy can be ordered from stationery stores. (You can also order online at sites like ChelseaPaper.com.) Choose paper to match your theme. You might attach a card with ribbon to a flower-seed packet or pretty garden gloves.
Dressing Up the Table Table: Casual tablecloths and napkins can be cut from any material—cotton, even burlap—then hemmed or trimmed with pinking shears. Designer Todd Moore suggests layering colors, textures, patterns. For anything messy—a barbecue or crab feast—cover the tablecloth with sheets of butcher paper (for windy days, secure with tablecloth clips from any party store).
Chairs: An inexpensive way to doll up old garden chairs—instead of organza, use unhemmed sheer curtain panels or any lightweight gauzy fabric. (Find sheer panels at SmithNoble.com; or call West Elm catalog at 866-428-6468.)
Place settings: Think texture and contrast. Moore topped a rose china service plate with another of amber glass. More ideas: mismatched vintage floral china; one strong color like cobalt blue on a red-checked cloth; crystal plates and goblets and silver on a white cloth.
Centerpiece: Give an outdoor table personality—small crystal glasses filled with fresh mint at each place setting; a shiny champagne bucket and masses of tulips; a dozen weathered pots planted with red geraniums on a silver tray; a wood box of grass and pansies; a large crystal cachepot filled with lemons.
Planning the Menu What to serve: Whether you grill on the deck or cook indoors, plan your meal around fresh, seasonal ingredients. Think of finger food that's fun to eat: shrimp on a skewer, grilled pizzas, lobster. Or design a themed meal: a Tuscan feast or classic picnic with spicy fried chicken and peanut coleslaw. If your guests—like Oprah's pals—are dressing up, serve a fancy seafood luncheon. Save Aunt Nell's barbecue ribs for a jeans crowd.
Dessert: Never feel guilty about browsing the bakery for a fancy fruit tart or key lime pie. Better to be a relaxed hostess than stress out over a big finale. Many store-bought desserts can be deliciously dressed up: pound cake with raspberries and whipped cream, brownies with ice cream and chocolate sauce, cookies with fruit sorbets.
What to drink: In hot weather, greet guests with big iced drinks like mojitos or margaritas, or, as Oprah does, some bubbly: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV is a nice summery choice. For lunch, serve a chilled white wine like Edna Valley 2000 Chardonnay. And always offer nonalcoholic drinks: creative lemonades—lavender, cherry, blueberry, mint—and sun-brewed iced tea.