As a longtime popular social event, Victorian garden parties were all the rage in England during the mid- to late 1800s and lasted well into the early 1900s in the United States. What began as a common gathering among the elite, held on the lavish lawns of mansions, transformed into more accessible outdoor entertaining. From small cottages and cabins to local parks, the garden party became an event for all to celebrate the splendor of nature, games, culinary creations and more.
Now, when many people are still cautious about gatherings, a small garden party — if guests wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines — can be a perfect scenario to both socialize and soak up the summer sun.
Traditional Victorian-era parties were as much about activity as they were about socializing. Games such as croquet, archery and lawn tennis were the order of the day.
For a modern spin on the gaming portion of a garden party, Brian Worley, creative director and owner of B. Worley Productions (BrianWorley.com), offers a few tips.
“I would have games for guests to play, like badminton, giant chess and horseshoes, that are easy to disinfect after each use,” Worley says. “This means providing hand sanitizer around the party and disinfecting wipes for easy cleanup when someone is done using a horseshoe or racquet.”
And, while physical entertainment was often a staple of garden parties of the past, Worley provides an important perspective regarding the current climate, as does Laura Beth Peters of the Steel Magnolias Podcast (steelmagnoliaspodcast.com).
“Outdoor entertaining provides the freedom that many of us need due to space and layout limitations inside our homes and lessens the cleaning and preparation required of a dinner party,” Peters says. “A garden party can be an easy way to extend an invite in today’s climate without the phobia that can come with germs being spread all over your home.”
If distance is more desirable among hosts and guests, Peters suggests switching your form of entertainment to something less interactive — such as live music, or even a storyteller.
Remember too that while it’s important to consider both adequate space and activities to allow for social distancing, it’s equally wise to provide shaded areas where guests will have a reprieve from direct sunlight, says Worley.
It was common, during the golden age of garden parties, to provide a tent for this reason. In addition to serving as an area to cool off, the covered area was the focal point for food and beverages.
Separate tables would be arranged for delicacies such as lobster, sandwiches and pate and champagne, brandy, lemonade, coffee and iced tea.
If a tent feels too enclosed, wide-rimmed umbrellas, open canopies and even making your patio available will allow for shade and a cooler place for snacks.
Depending on your comfort level and budget, a more decadent menu may not be desirable.
“If each group brings their own food, that would be the safest way to keep everyone healthy, but if you are hoping to be the hostess-with-the-mostess, do your best to prepare food similar to how restaurants are doing takeout these days,” Worley recommends. “Have things prepackaged and stay away from buffets. I would suggest having a grill and allowing everyone to use it if their menu includes meat or grilled veggies. And, have sanitizer wipes for the spatula and any other grilling equipment needed available.”
For drinks, big-batch offerings can help eliminate multiple hands from diving into the cooler and make life easier for you as the host.
“I’d suggest making a garden party punch. Punches are the perfect built-in bartender,” says Peters. “And, since you are already in the garden, why not pull in something you’ve grown, like an herb?”
Peters suggests following the Southern Living Lemon Basil Spritzer recipe using fresh basil, simple syrup, sugar and Champagne or sparkling wine (southernliving.com/recipes/lemon-basil-spritzer).
Food Network’s Damaris Phillips offers the use of another garden herb — fresh mint — in a recipe for a mint julep party-batch punch, combining bourbon, sugar, fresh mint and crushed ice (foodnetwork.com/recipes/damaris-phillips/mint-julep-party-pitcher).
Of course, a nonalcoholic fruit punch, lemonade and ice tea are also perfectly suited to serve to garden guests.
The beauty of garden parties is the simplicity they invite. While in the days of horse-drawn carriages and frilled umbrellas hosts and hostesses may have pulled out all the stops, striving for grandeur, many modern garden parties elicit more focus on the intimacy of being with friends and family — the focus shifted to nature’s built-in decorations and ambiance.
“Bunches of flowers growing around your yard are simple yet perfect decor accessories,” Worley says. “String lights or bistro lights always provide such a great decor element as well as lighting if your party should go into the night.”
“Enjoy the time with your guests and remember that it’s you they really want to see; the garden or porch is just the backdrop,” Peters adds. “Send them home with something creative like a packet of wildflower seeds with a note that says ‘This may be our wildest year yet, but who knows what we might be growing for the future! Thanks for coming.'”