Quick and Easy Backyard Fiesta

iStock_000023365878_MediumCinco de Mayo is on a Thursday this year, which may make you inclined to think that it will be a little hard to pull together a fabulous celebratory backyard bash. After all, it’s been a crazy week with a mile-long to-do list, plus all of those end-of-school-year activities. All the more reason to take a deep breath and relax with a mid-week margarita!

Here is a list of some easy tips for pulling off a casual backyard Cinco de Mayo fiesta like a pro — with nothing more than a quick trip to the grocery store and a peek inside the back of your hall closet.

Decorations

Ok, so you’re the type of person who typically likes to channel your inner Martha Stewart when it comes to preparing for a party. Well, it’s doubtful you’ll have time to make your own paper maché piñata in time, so it’s time to get creative with existing supplies. Unless, of course, you happen to have an old piñata in the back of your closet, in which case, dig it out!  For other decorations, think in terms of earthy textures: wooden items, wool blankets, burlap sacks left over from the 4th of July sack race (which make excellent table drapes)…you get the idea. Fruits and vegetables also make festive table decorations — for example, a glass bowl or trifle dish filled with limes, avocados, or tomatoes.

Menu

When planning your menu, think dishes with minimal prep. A slow cooker and a packet of taco seasoning can come in handy for making “crock pot chicken fajitas” or “pulled pork tacos”. Another idea is to turn meal prep into a party activity by making Mexican pizzas on the grill. For a quick-and-easy “homemade” salsa recipe, throw a large jar of cheap salsa, a can of mild Rotel, and some fresh cilantro into a food processor. Spice it up with a little cumin and garlic powder, then puree everything together. It looks and tastes like restaurant quality, and they’ll think you whipped it up from scratch.

Beverages

Of course, let’s not forget the best part of Cinco de Mayo celebrations! Obviously, you will add Mexican beer to the grocery list. But for a perfect pitcher of homemade “top shelf” margaritas on the rocks, forget the bottled mixes — instead buy frozen limeade. Mix the limeade per directions, replacing one can of water with gold tequila. Add a healthy splash of orange liqueur (like Triple Sec), salt the glass rims, and you’re good to go. If you want to add a pitcher of mojitos, use rum instead of tequila, and grab some mint from the garden for muddling in each glass as you serve it. If you want to get really fancy, muddle in some strawberries, too. For kid-friendly versions, just make the limeade per package instructions, using water only, then garnish with salt (or mint/strawberries) and lime.

Now…make a quick grocery run, and get ready to enjoy your fiesta!

Dimensional Design with Container Gardens

Catalog photography for national hardscape manufacture in Arizona for Oldcastle plant Superlite.

Pavers: Lafitt™ Rustic Slab

While driving past meticulously landscaped yards, you might wonder how to get a look like that without spending every weekend pulling weeds. Container gardens are a great way to soften the look of hardscaped areas and add character to your outdoor living spaces without all the work. Particularly if you don’t have a green bone in your body, container gardening is a low-maintenance way to add pops of color all over.

Pavers: Catalina Slate™

Pavers: Catalina Slate™

Most likely, you have a couple of planters or even random containers that you can repurpose as vessels for this project. Think of each container as a piece of art that will display your garden. Instead of scattering single containers around the area, consider grouping together multiple containers of varying heights. The initial planting stage starts out with smaller plants that will become fuller as they grow. By grouping them, you will give the illusion that they are more substantial than they are, creating a finished garden look immediately.

One of the key elements in container gardening is drainage. Make sure your containers have holes in the bottom where water can easily flow. Aeration is probably the most important part of container gardening. Creating a mixture of topsoil and peat moss is a fine recipe to grow a healthy garden. Peat moss is less dense than soil alone, which allows the water and air to move through rather than collecting in a puddle at the top of your planter. Fill the bottom of your container with a couple of handfuls of rocks before adding the soil mixture, which will keep the roots from staying too moist and rotting.

Consider using a large Rubbermaid container to create your soil mixture. Pour both the peat moss and the soil into the container and mix them well. Go ahead and dig in; this is your chance to connect with the earth without getting too dirty. Make sure the soil you are using doesn’t have sand in it unless you are growing strawberries.

Recycled Window

Pavers: Mega-Arbel®  Wall: Weston Stone®

Mixing multiple plant varieties in a single pot is a way to add a little texture and interest. Choose plants that bloom all year for the outer rim of your container. Pathos, English ivy, or even spider plants can surround a couple of annuals. Your local garden center will have plenty of flowers and other plants to choose from, as well as containers of all shapes and sizes. You may also want to visit your local antique mall, consignment shop, or reclaimed building materials store for interesting items that you can repurpose as garden containers — like barrels, vintage pots or antique milk cans.

Bringing container gardens into your outdoor living area will bring color and serve many other functions as well. Choosing plants that attract butterflies, like Buddleia, is a great way to add an ethereal quality to your seating and kitchen spaces. Also, hummingbirds are attracted to Bee Balm, Larkspur, and Hibiscus, to name a few. The farmer’s almanac is a great resource for types of plants for your area, as well as time to plant.

Container gardening around your outdoor space can also be functional. Start out with some simple easy-to-grow vegetables such as kale, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. One idea is to use metal wash tubs to create an herb garden. Herbs like basil, rosemary, and chives will add so much to just about any dish. Instead of the farm-to-table movement, be a part of the container-to-table movement!

Unplug and Unwind in Your Outdoor Space

Turn off the TV, leave the phones inside, and have some make-your-own pizza family time.

Turn off the TV, leave the phones inside, and have some make-your-own pizza family time in your outdoor kitchen.

Magazines and websites are full of articles that talk about unplugging for a day or a weekend. Making it a reality, however, is a different story. Find a date and mark it down on a calendar. That is a sure fire way to make it happen.

The outdoor kitchen space is a great way to move the family out of the house. Not only is it a place to enjoy fresh air and soak in some Vitamin D, it is the ultimate floor plan. Choosing recipes to utilize amenities like a brick oven are always a big hit and do not require endless prep time. For example, kids love to create fun designs with pizza ingredients — like swirls, flower designs or smiley faces — which makes the prep time a fun family activity. And if you don’t have a brick oven, you can actually cook pizza on the grill.

Mix fruit moctails drink - vintage filter Let the kids mix and match various fresh fruits and juices for creative "mocktails".

Let the kids mix and match various fresh fruits and juices for creative “mocktails”.

Stocking the outdoor refrigerator and kitchen ahead of time is a great way to make your outdoor space self-sufficient. Having everything in one place also saves time and makes the preparation a lot smoother.

Vote on what kind of cuisine to prepare and shop for ingredients during the week, which will save time later. Or, visit the local farmers’ market for fresh produce and make the outing part of the day’s “unplugged” experience.

Think about fun recipes everyone can enjoy. Instead of having cocktails, enjoy some “mocktails” with fresh citrus, berries, and carbonated water or sprite. Serve them in some fancy plastic glasses designed to create the same look as glass without the potential of shattering.

Horse Shoes

Find or make old-fashioned backyard games for some great “unplugged” memories.

Look around and see what kinds of items are available to make fun outdoor games the whole family can enjoy. For example, cut a couple of 2×4’s and make them in to an oversized Jenga game. Pinterest has numerous ideas for outdoor games and old-fashioned family fun. And believe it or not, old standards like horse shoes and badminton will keep your family entertained for hours.

So, corral and turn off all electronics and technology, with the possible exception of  a little music. Making memories in your outdoor living space is a fabulous way of enjoying life’s simplicity and creating the life you love with the people that mean the most: family.

Rise of the Outdoor Chef

Remember the days when outdoor cooking basically referred to your father grilling up a few burgers? Perhaps he went the fancier route and threw some steaks on the grill, or even a tuna steak if he wanted to get really fancy. The rest of the family prepared the sides inside or just waited patiently for the ole’ man to finish. Well it’s 2016 now, and while some traditionalists choose to keep their sacred bygone grilling rituals intact, the rest of us are moving forward into a new generation of gourmet outdoor cooking. With outdoor kitchens gaining in popularity, it’s no longer just dad out there by himself. Meal preparation has become a community event with a team of chefs prepping, grilling, or just hanging out to enjoy a glass of wine and camaraderie. Yes, outdoor cooking has become a team sport, and why shouldn’t it be? Everyone likes a good party, and this year, you can be the envy of the neighborhood with some exciting cooking techniques you can use in 2016.

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Photo: Johnny Autry; Styling: Mary Clayton Carl (Courtesy Time, Inc.)

YOU WOOD NOT BELIEVE

Puns aside, if you have never grilled with a wood plank, you’re missing out. Paul Bunyon should have been a chef. He would have been a great addition to your All-Star grilling team. At your next gathering, enhance the flavor of your favorite meats by grilling them on top of a wood plank made of hickory or maple. If you truly want an unforgettable experience, try grilling a fillet of redfish or salmon on top of a cedar plank. It may become your favorite meal. However, feel free to experiment with different seasonings and wood planks to find your next signature dish. Make it your own, or check out this recipe for Cedar Plank Salmon with Mango Kiwi Salsa to get you started.

HIMALAYAN VACATION

While it may be impractical to pop over to Tibet, you can bring the taste of Himalayan minerals to your next party by purchasing yourself a Himalayan salt block. This is another easy tool you can use to show off to that neighbor who always wants to one-up you. All you do is place the salt block on your grill, let it heat up to the desired temperature, and throw your food on top. Your meal will come out with a hint of salt that goes well with so many different foods. Let’s see Susan top that.

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Photo: SOS Shells

CHARGRILLIN’ TIME

While raw oysters may not be everyone’s cup of tea, chargrilled oysters are amazing. Made famous in New Orleans, it can be a real pain to chargrill your own oysters on the half shell. Luckily, thanks to SOS Shells, you and your new team of outdoor chefs can channel your inner Cajun. These reusable, stainless steel shells are perfect for chargrilling oysters, shrimp, scallops, vegetables or more. They are extremely easy to use and are great gadget to break out at your next grill party. For more information on chargrilling, check out our chargrilling blog.

GADGETS GALORE

While we’re on the gadget subject, in order to truly become a gourmet outdoor chef, you’re going to need to invest in some additional tools of the trade. It’s hard to make smoked almond and honey brie without a cast iron brie baker. And if you’re going to make bacon-wrapped goat cheese-stuffed jalapeno peppers, it’s a whole lot easier with a chili pepper grill rack and pepper corer. You can certainly use foil to cook both of those gourmet appetizers, but it gets a little messy. Luckily, there are no shortage of companies that offer great gadgets for the outdoor chef. For a plethora of gourmet outdoor cooking gadgets, check out Sur La Table or Crate & Barrel.

Enter for a Chance to Win the HGTV® Dream Home 2016

DH16 BRAND GUIDELINES_Sponsor.pagesAs a proud sponsor of the HGTV Dream Home 2016, we invite you to take a virtual walking tour of the Belgard outdoor living spaces of this waterfront retreat in Merritt Island, Florida, then enter for your chance to win this fabulous ultra modern home.

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Drive up to the ample guest parking area, with its arched duo-tone paver design that adds contemporary flair to the classic cobbled look of the driveway’s Old York™ Pavers. Then take the welcoming walkway, flanked by quaint picket fencing and colorful gardens, to the double-door entrance.

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As you make your way to the front door, imagine breezy mornings enjoying a cup of coffee and a buttery croissant with fresh fruit in this cozy breakfast nook, adjacent to the entrance.

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Next, step out onto the expansive multi-level backyard lanai, which boasts multiple seating areas to accommodate both large and intimate gatherings. Colorful hues of Lafitt™ Rustic Slab and coordinating Bullnose Coping don the lanai, step edges and poolscape to create one continuous and flowing contemporary design.

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Explore the various levels of the vibrant poolscape, with paver colors that mimic the natural tones of the surrounding waterfront property. Imagine enjoying a sunset cocktail as you walk down to the dock to greet neighboring boaters.

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To continue your virtual outdoor living tour, visit our Pinterest board for more photos of the HGTV Dream Home 2016.

Click here to enter to for your chance to win this amazing waterfront retreat!

No purchase necessary. Open to legal residents of the U.S., age 21 or older. Void where prohibited. Sweepstakes ends at 5 p.m. ET on 2/18/16. Odds of winning depend on number of entries received. For full official rules, visit hgtv.com or send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: “HGTV Dream Home Giveaway”- RR, P.O. Box 53445 Knoxville, TN 37950. Main Sponsor: Scripps Networks, LLC d/b/a DIY Network. Photos © 2015 Scripps Networks, LLC. Used with permission; all rights reserved.

Holiday Outdoor Entertaining

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Baby, it’s cold outside..but don’t let that stop you from enjoying your outdoor living spaces with family and friends this holiday season. Here are some tips for entertaining outdoors in colder weather that embrace the holiday spirit.

The Fire is So Delightful

There’s a reason that outdoor fireplaces and fire pits are one of the fastest growing trends in outdoor living: there’s just something universal about sitting around a fire. The dancing flames, the smokey aroma, the gentle crackle…fire’s are mesmerizing! This holiday season, it’s time to invest in that fire feature you’ve been wanting. And, be sure and stock up on wood and marshmallows.

All is Calm, All is Bright

Festive lighting is essential to any holiday gathering. String lights and candles will not only create a holiday atmosphere, they provide lighting that’s softer and more intimate than standard overhead lights. For creative ideas on outdoor lighting, check out our lighting ideas blog.

Jingle Bells. Jingle Bells.

What’s a party without music? A boring party, that’s what. If you don’t have a sound system in your outdoor space, don’t fret. There are a number of inexpensive bluetooth speakers on the market that will allow you and your friends to take turns showcasing your holiday playlists. Or set your iPad on a Pandora or Spotify station, link it to the speaker, and you’re good to go. When you’re ready to install something more permanent, look into the Sonos wi-fi system, which will allow you to link together your indoor sound system, desktop computer, any number of devices, and an outdoor speaker system that can all be operated together or in separate zones, all from a smart phone or other device.

Here We Come A-Wassailing

Sometimes it helps to warm your guests from the inside out. Be sure and have warm drinks available, like traditional English wassail, hot buttered rum, or peppermint cocoa. But to make sure they’re warm on the outside, too, it’s probably a good idea to keep lots of throws handy. You may want to consider investing in some tabletop and full-size butane heaters, which are available in a number of attractive styles, shapes and sizes from just about every hardware store. Just remember to keep extra fuel tanks on hand.

Oh, Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding

No holiday entertaining blog would be complete without a mention of food. You might want to skip the figgy pudding, though. It’s not that great. Stick to small bites like cocktail meatballs and goat cheese crostinis. The primary issue with outdoor holiday entertaining is keeping food warm in the cold. You may want to keep the food station indoors or use covered warming trays outdoors.