Lowcountry summers are notoriously steamy, but as tempting as it is to stay locked inside your climate-controlled house until September, that would mean missing out on some of the season's greatest opportunities for fun. Whether you've got a small patio downtown or a rambling house with a pool in the 'burbs, you've got the setting for a memorable summertime event.
We turned to a handful of local experts for entertaining tips and tricks: blogger Chassity Evans, children's photographer Gray Benko, and event planner and stylist Calder Clark. With their five simple steps, you'll be ready for any outdoor party from a Fourth of July block party to a family reunion.
Choose Your Menu
Clark is best known for planning elegant, elaborate weddings, but she has some surprising advice when it comes to entertaining at home. “Keep it simple, silly,” she says. “Summer is not the time to channel your inner Sean Brock and attempt anything that hates humidity — save the homemade gaufrettes and gelato for another time. Summer menus should be five things: comforting, light, room temperature or chilled, and family-style.” Southern favorites like barbecue, fried chicken, pimento cheese and pasta salad always work well, and there's no harm in stopping by your favorite deli or caterer for a little help—the less time you spend in front of the stove, the better.
A self-proclaimed “sucker for comfort food,” Clark hits up places like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Kudzu Bakery and Goat Sheep Cow for supplies. “I usually think French,” she says. “Most of my friends, and even their children, actually prefer a beautiful spread of fromage and charcuterie, with local honey, stone ground mustard, tiny pickled goodies, fresh French bread, and great chilled Burgundies and champagnes to anything else.”
Evans swears by Hamby's Catering's tea sandwiches (chicken salad, pimento cheese, and shrimp salad), and she's also a big fan of potlucks. “I recently hosted a lunch for some girlfriends that I like to call a 'PLOP' (potluck on the porch),” she says. “Each family brings a dish, that way everyone feels like they're contributing something meaningful and the host doesn't get too stressed out about the menu. … Potlucks are a great way to entertain friends, and setting up the lunch on a porch helps create a laid-back atmosphere.”
Be sure to have plenty of beverages on hand to keep your guests hydrated. The kids will appreciate lemonade and juice boxes, while the adults will typically enjoy a selection of ice-cold beer, crisp white wine or a fun, fruity signature cocktail.
Making It Pretty
Choosing how to decorate your event really depends on your personal style. Benko, who has two kids under the age of four, likes to keep it simple with small gatherings but go all out for birthday parties. “Birthdays only come around once a year, and the kids love getting to see all of their friends and I think really enjoy the excitement of a big gathering on their special day,” she says. Using Pinterest and Etsy as sources of inspiration, she likes to work around a theme and add an element of surprise to kids' parties. For her daughter's Sesame Street-themed party, she rented an Elmo costume. All of the kids were thrilled.
Another option: just let the beauty of your natural surroundings shine while accenting them with simple, affordable decorations. If it's a nighttime affair, drape a few strings of globe lights overhead. During the day, paper lanterns hung from tree branches give a fun, whimsical feel. Invest in a few flower arrangements, or just pot up some pretty plants for color that will last long after your last guests have left.
Fun For All Ages
Any parent knows that if the kids aren't having fun, no one's having fun—so it's important to keep the little ones entertained for the duration of the party. “I think that the most important thing is to create a fun and comfortable environment where the parents are able to relax and not feel like they have to be chasing their children around the entire time,” Benko says. She sets up different stations for games and crafts in the backyard to keep the kids entertained and encourage them to interact with each other.
Clark usually makes a kids' table for her events, and she admits it's one of her favorite things to put together. “My guests are often drawn to the kids' table like moths to a flame,” she says. She recommends creating a simple tablecloth from chalkcloth and providing little tin pails with colored chalk. “Outline each child's place setting with a hand-drawn 'charger' and their name. Boxes of old-school animal crackers can serve as delineation between seats, add a few cake tiers full of candy as a centerpiece, and voilą!”
If you have a pool, like Evans, entertaining all ages is even easier, but be sure that a few parents are on pool duty watching the kids—or even consider hiring a lifeguard. Evans stocks extra towels, sunscreen, floats and toys when she has friends over, and she offers alternate entertainment options as well. At a recent pool party, she set up corn hole and a slip 'n' slide. “The slip 'n' slide was like the shiny object we used to ward off meltdowns,” she says. “When the kids tired of that, we took them to the screen porch and turned on a movie so that the parents could relax.”
Have a Back-Up Plan
Lowcountry summers are nothing if not unpredictable. Afternoon thunderstorms, mosquito swarms and debilitating heat waves can threaten to ruin even the best-laid plans, so it's important to have a contingency plan. “It rains so frequently here during the summer that it's really important to be prepared so that all of your efforts aren't thwarted by a sudden summer shower,” Benko says—and she's speaking from experience. “In case of a real downpour, it's a good idea to keep in mind that your party may need to be moved indoors (sometimes mid-party in my case) so make sure that you have some fun things set up indoors as well and that the most important elements of your party are close enough to the door so that they can be moved in quickly without getting soaked!”
As for bugs, try tiki torches, strategically placed fans, and organic bug spray. Clark also suggests Mosquito Squad spraying services.
Beyond the Backyard
What do you do if you don't have a backyard, or if you just don't love the space you've got? There are still plenty of options for an outdoor affair. Invite your friends to meet in a public park or at the beach—we love the idea of a tea party under the oaks at Hampton Park or a sunset bonfire on Sullivan's (with the proper permits, of course). Just be sure you're prepared in the event of rain.