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The arrival of warm weather puts me in the mood to throw a summer soiree. For me, there is no better place to stage a delightful dinner party in June than in your own backyard. This summer, why not take the party outside? It’s easy to host a memorable al fresco event when you have the right tools on hand. Here is my list of must-have party props for outdoor summer entertaining.


Perhaps it’s the way they anchor a place setting or elevate the entire look of a table, but I consider chargers an absolute essential, whether I’m entertaining casually or formally. I’ve used all manner of things for chargers, from clay plant saucers to antique silver trays to mirrors, like in the photo above. One of my perennial favorites is a simple rattan charger because they are loaded with texture yet are so neutral they look sensational on both formal and casual tables and in every season.


Instead of using full tablecloths, which are expensive and a hassle to clean and iron, I cheat and use a 52-inch square tablecloth turned on the diagonal at the center of my table. This smaller cloth size brings color to the table yet still allows the beautiful wood of the table to show. You’ll also need a selection of cloth napkins. Start with a set of white cotton napkins you can bleach then slowly expand your collection with napkins in different colors and patterns.

If you’re having an outdoor picnic, like the one pictured here, your choice of picnic blanket will set the scene for the meal. I love how this fresh black and white check reinvents the idea of the red and white picnic tablecloth.


If you don’t have a set of plain white dishes, put this at the very top of your shopping list. White dishes work magic on the table because they look sensational all by themselves. Or you can completely change their look simply by pairing them with different accent plates, linens, accessories or stemware. For instance, in the summer zip up your white dishes by combining them with blue and white china salad plates and apple green table linens. In the fall, show your white dishes with russet napkins and brown transferware serving pieces. In winter, make them more elegant by adding in gold and silver accents, or make them whimsical by adding holiday themed dessert plates and napkins.


If you have a smaller budget and limited storage space, invest in clear glass stemware that has strong, clean lines because it will look marvelous with everything. Then, if you want to add to your collection, try glasses that are colored amber, green or red, or embellished with gold filigree, or etched with a simple pattern like your monogram or a bee.


Not lucky enough to inherit a set of sterling flatware? Consider investing in the next best thing: silver plate flatware. Instead of a matched set, why not collect a wonderful mishmash of different patterns from antique stores or flea markets?

Serving Pieces

You’ll need a good assortment of attractive and functional serving pieces. Whether you buy them new or scout for them at antique stores or flea markets, get several platters and trays, compotes and serving bowls, cake plates and three-tiered dessert stands. I also advise having an elegant water pitcher you can rest on a silver tray on the table. For something out of the ordinary, put new or antique saltcellars at each place setting.

Centerpiece Cornerstones

Right now, I adore simple centerpiece treatments. And all you need to pull one together is an assortment of vases or containers. Try different sized plain white vases or blue and white china vases clustered at the center of the table, each holding a single flower. Cachepots and English footbaths are also ideal to use for centerpieces, filled with nothing more elaborate than a few ferns. Or, for a really dramatic look, use a garden statue as the base for your centerpiece, then add elegant silver candelabrum, like on the summer party table pictured above.

Next Week … Looking for a fun project to fill your long summer days? I’ll share a few ways you can brighten your home with five yards of fabric.

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11 Responses to “Sensational Summer Soirees”

  1. patti g Says:

    I am printing this off right now. You are so right about having the essentials of entertaining. Nothing has to be fancy. The atmosphere is created by friendship – and food. You are the best!

  2. maureen Says:

    Love your suggestions on serving ware. Get out the good stuff and use it! I’m going to do that this weekend while hosting my daughter’s future in-laws!

  3. Debra Kilby Says:

    A feast for the eyes, never a disappointment with all you do!

    Do you sell the silver tray that is displayed?


  4. Brandy Hook Says:

    Mary Carol,

    I was wanting to know HOW in the world do you get your windows so
    crystal clean!!! No streaks, No nothing…. ever time I have toured your
    open house I mean to ask, what get carried away looking at all you have
    done. Please pass along your secret!!!!


  5. Mary Lynne Bailey Says:

    So love all the outdoor ideas. We are entertaining our Supper Club this weekend, and I will try some of these. Unfortunately the super HOT temperatures we are having makes it 11 at night before we can venture outside! I am praying for cooler temps. by the weekend. Thanks as always for great ideas. Mary Lynne

  6. Stephani Says:

    In the picture featuring the mirror chargers there Is a darling frog in a tutu holding candles. Is she for sale? How much is she? Thanks for all the great tips!

  7. Mary Carol Says:

    Not that exact silver tray Debra, that was an antique. However, lots of other silver trays in the stores to choose from.

  8. Mary Carol Says:

    I am with you Mary!

  9. Mary Carol Says:

    That cute frog Stephani is available for purchase on our online store under ‘accents’. Just go to nellhills.com and click on Online Shopping in the upper right hand side.

  10. Mary Carol Says:

    You are so sweet Brandy. I would love to tell you I slave over my windows with a special ingredient. But the real truth is I have my windows professionally done–both at my home and the stores. Kudos to the professionals!

  11. Sharon Ford Says:

    Your comment about inheriting sterling flatware got me to thinking… I have beautiful flatware in the “small” size. Of course it was the only thing available 30 years ago. Now I wish it were in the larger size that’s out now. What can I do with it? I never use it anymore because I feel like it’s too small. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    And thanks for the emails Mary Carol!! One day I will make it to your store. Until then, I just dream…

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