How to style an outdoor wedding reception with a fresh vibe.
Dusty roses, twinkling lights, and succulents galore. Setting an outdoor wedding tablescape with simple, romantic style can be a dream come true—even when you’re on a budget. The secret lies in little touches that add up to create a naturally beautiful landscape that makes guests feel like they’re on vacation. We asked stylist Aaron Hom to explain exactly how he pulled off the look for a recent catalog shoot, with easy, elegant ideas that translate to any outdoor affair.
1. Look to nature for your color palette. In our case, we were inspired by the colors of the desert: soft pinks, greys, and sandy hues. This washed palette is pretty and very popular, and Hom suggests taking a trip to the flower market to determine what flowers to use. Look for varieties in your color palette that are fresh and in season.
2. Set the mood with romantic lighting. String lights and tea lights are the easiest and least expensive way to create a special ambiance at night. “Plus they make everyone look really pretty,” Aaron says. He draped cut glass string lights along the trees and scattered tea light candles along the table to light up the night.
3. Think outside the flower box. Aaron turned a macrame plant holder into a blooming bouquet by placing floral foam inside a terra cotta pot. Then he wet the floral foam to easily insert a mix of unusual flowers with interesting colors, textures, and forms. “In the desert, things grow wild and flowers aren’t manicured perfectly. This arrangement was totally playful, really fun, and really easy to replicate,” he says.
4. Small arrangements make an impact—without overwhelming the table. Rather than overwhelm the table with one big arrangement, Aaron used bud vases and small containers to hold small groupings of flowers or a single stem (bell jars and soda pop containers work great for this). Not only is this option cost effective, but it doesn’t block any views across the table. Here is Aaron’s trick for determining flower height at the table: Put your elbow on the table with your arm straight up to the sky. Your flowers should never reach taller than your hand.
5. Fill the table with other natural elements. Aaron topped each place setting with succulents, which work with the desert theme and survived long shoot days in high temperatures. “They’re great because you can get them way in advance, they work with lots of settings—desert to city to beachy— and they’ve become a staple in modern day party decor,” he says. Consider other natural materials that add to the effect, such as our topanga bamboo hurricane. “It adds great texture in the day and light at night, plus I love that it looks like tumbleweed that just rolled up onto the table,” he says. Aaron also points out that when you have lots of little items on the table, you need a larger thing or two to serve as punctuation and give your eye a place to rest.
6. Make your dessert follow the dress code. At this party, a naked carrot cake—created with a simple scraping technique around the sides—fit right in. It’s modern and fresh, and felt perfectly casual for the setting. “I love that it looks like a dusty road, and we threw flowers on top that sort of tumbled off the sides,” Aaron says. To recreate this version, get the recipe below from one of our favorite food stylists and cookbook author, Jeanne Kelly.
7. Repurpose a bar cart as a DJ booth. Clear off your bar cart and introduce it to rock and roll—literally. Roll it into an easily accessible spot, then dust off your records for a night of playing DJ. “This gave our party that Old West vibe we were looking for,” Aaron says. You can even encourage guests to walk up and choose something when the mood strikes.
Carrot Wedding Cake with Nuts and Spices–Provided by Jeanne Kelly
Carrot cake is an old-school crowd-pleaser. It’s perfect for a homemade wedding cake as layers of it can be made ahead and will stay moist and tender, but with enough structure for a tier or two. Frosted and ready to go, you’ll just need to spend a few minutes stacking and garnishing with fresh flowers on the big day. Cardboard cake circles are available at cooking supply and craft stores.
Makes 20 to 30 servings
5 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups firmly packed golden brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups rice bran or grapeseed oil
1 1/4 cups plain whole milk yogurt
7 1/2 cups grated peeled carrots, about 2 1/2 pounds
5 cups chopped walnuts, pecans or almonds, optional
3 1/3 cups raisins
Position rack in center of the oven and preheat to 350F°. Grease three 9-inch diameter and two 6-inch diameter baking pans and line with parchment. Grease the parchment. Whisk the flour, sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking powder, nutmeg, salt and baking soda in a large bowl. Whisk the eggs, oil and yogurt until well blended in another large bowl. Whisk the egg mixture into the flour mixture. Stir in the carrots. Choose a nut and fruit and mix into the batter. Divide the batter among prepared pans, filling evenly. Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake or cakes comes out clean, about 22 minutes. Transfer cakes to racks and cool completely in pans. Unmold cakes.
(Cakes can be prepared up to 4 days ahead. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and keep at cool room temperature.)
Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes about 7 1/2 cups
3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
8 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add powdered sugar and continue to beat until light. Mix in the vanilla and lemon zest. (Frosting can be made 4 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature until spreadable before using.) Place one 9-inch cake layer on an 8-inch cardboard cake round. Spread some frosting evenly over the top. Repeat with the remaining 9-inch cake layers. Frost the sides of the cake with a thin layer of frosting. Place one 6-inch cake layer on a 5-inch cardboard cake round and frost the top evenly. Repeat with the remaining cake layer. Frost the sides of the cake with a thin layer of frosting. (Cakes can be made ahead. Wrap carefully in plastic and refrigerate up to 2 days.) Place the 9-inch layer cake on the cake plate. Top with the 6-inch layer cake. Spread with remaining frosting if necessary. Garnish with roses or other edible flowers.