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Design on a Dime
When it's party time, string a few kaleidoscopic paper garlands overhead—they're a festive, fun touch—and break out the cheap, chic paper parasols and hand fans to help beat the heat.
Parrot 13-foot garland, $3, pearlriver.com
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For an evening party, make your backyard pool sparkle like those at hip boutique hotels. Circle the sides in a border of inexpensive lanterns or float multicolored glowing LED spheres in the water.
Magic solar glowing globe, from $29, grandinroad.com
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One person's cast-off garden gnome can be someone else's treasure. Search for useful or beautiful outdoor decor items on freecycle.org or craigslist.com.
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Raise the Bar
Why spend your party time refilling glasses when you can let guests serve themselves at a designated table? Put beverage bottles in an ice-filled metal bucket. Pour punch and iced tea into pretty pitchers, and line up colorful glasses on a tray. "I add a bowl of lemons, which makes the bar feel summery," says Dallas party planner Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, author of Tablescapes: Setting the Table with Style (Gibbs Smith).
Essential Home Floral Bohemian Garden pitcher, $10, kmart.com
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Keep pesky critters at bay by dressing up your patio with citronella candles in tea tins, jars, or other decorative containers, or plant these floral torches straight into the lawn. If you're put off by the scent, burn sandalwood incense—it's another way to drive bugs away.
Citronella lotus and flower torch candles, $6 each, Pier 1 stores
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Get a Leg (or Two) Up
Kick back with an ottoman designed to stand up to the elements. Look for a sturdy one that can double as an extra seat or table when needed.
Ceramic garden stool, $80, Home Goods stores
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Stencil It In
Pep up a blah wooden picnic table by covering the top in a mod pattern using paint and oversize geometric stencils. The shapes in Stencil 101 Decor (Chronicle Books), $25, are designed to line up easily for a wall-papered kind of look.
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Create a cool-looking focal point in your backyard by hanging a bright, modernist metal mobile from a tree branch or pergola, suggests Christiane Lemieux, creative director for DwellStudio. Get a similar effect by suspending a flea market chandelier that you've painted a bold shade.
Flowing Rhythm mobile, Flensted Mobiles, $54, designpublic.com
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If you're short on ground space near the patio for an herb garden, grow plants in large terra-cotta pots or hanging containers. A grouping of fresh herbs looks great and smells fragrant, and "you can easily reach for them to add to whatever you have on the grill," says Jamie Durie, host of The Outdoor Room on HGTV. "Wrap shrimp kebabs in basil leaves or sprinkle rosemary on lamb chops."
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Blowing through stacks of paper plates can bring on a serious case of eco-guilt. Instead, serve up dishwasher-safe, planet-friendly melamine in gorgeous colors and graphic patterns.
Sorrento plates, $20/4, crateandbarrel.com
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Light a path or give a glow to the outdoor table with battery-operated LED candles. They won't blow out in the breeze.
Flameless candles, from $2, flamelesscandles.net
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Center of Attention
No other form of entertainment is needed when guests can sit around a portable fire pit in low-slung chairs watching the flames dance. If you can, locate your conversation pit where the yard dips down. "It mimics the feeling of a sunken living room," Durie says.
Sonoma Outdoors Life + Style fire pit, $220, kohls.com
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Think outside the vase by hanging a wreath full of blossoms on your front door. Or place one on the table as a centerpiece with a pillar candle in the middle. Dampen a ring of floral foam and insert flowers. "The blooms stay exactly where you put them," says gardening expert Suzy Bales, author of Garden Bouquets and Beyond (Rodale). She suggests using azaleas along with their leaves, black-eyed Susans, or hydrangeas. Another way to display is to fill a watering can, wheelbarrow, or even a pair of rain boots with flowers. Or float an array of them in a bird bath.
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Okay, so it's not the Caribbean, but a centerpiece of one or more goldfish in a favorite clear glass vase will add a bit of tropical flair to a table.
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Finally, a truly easy (and attractive) way to beam tunes wirelessly from your stereo, computer or iPod to your patio or deck. The latest in outdoor speakers are water-resistant and designed to look like rocks or lanterns, so they blend in with your landscape.
Portable wireless outdoor speaker, Acoustic Research, $100, lowes.com
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In the Comfort Zone
Great idea for lazy days—a weatherproof storage box filled with comfy blankets and cushions near the patio for instant lawn lounging.
Cassie Collection owl pillow, $50, shopscadonline.com
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Outdoor decorating can be as simple as arranging a collection of mix-and-match painted picture frames, pieces of driftwood, clocks, plates, old garden tools, or other found objects on a fence or wall. Mirrors, hung or leaning, also make great garden accents. "There are no hard-and-fast rules—have fun outside the same way you would inside your house," Durie says.
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Amp up your patio's style by arranging furniture around a mildew-resistant weatherproof rug. "I love the ones made of recycled packing materials that can be hosed down when dirty," says Grace Bonney of the Web site Design*Sponge.
Turquoise and lemon-yellow Oslo rug, from $46, fabhabitat.com
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For the Birds
Energize a ho-hum yard by hanging birdhouses and feeders from trees or an arbor. "It's a good way to attract a variety of feathered friends to your garden and get the kids involved," Bonney says.
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Give Me Shelter
A tent on your lawn is the ultimate summer escape, says Santa Monica designer Annette Tatum, author of The Well-Dressed Home (Clarkson Potter). Use four bamboo poles or PVC pipes as corner supports for a drop-cloth roof, or lean five poles together tepee-style and wrap the cloth around. "Bring out blankets, pillows, a rug, and tables to create a casbah mood," she says. Or order a fold-out lawn tent from quikshade.com, from $100. With a few chairs, it'll feel like a backyard beach cabana.
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"Brightly colored fabric cut to fit your table adds pizzazz to outdoor entertaining," says Whitman. Look for vintage textiles on Etsy.com and ReproDepot.com. Or find vividly patterned vinyl cloths that can be wiped clean and reused.
Home Trends vinyl tablecloth, $4, Walmart stores
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Brighten the way to the hors d'oeuvres for guests arriving at dusk by lining the walkway with twinkling lights. Gather up mix-and-match jelly and Mason jars to use as simple tea light holders, or make chic luminaries out of pretty paper bags. Just anchor each bag with a bit of sand and add a tea light.
Paper lunch bags, 15 cents each, stamponthis.com
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A little detail like a bright new umbrella or a pair of striped cabana chairs contributes to the fantasy of a vacation escape, says Tatum.
9-foot market umbrella, from $59, jcpenney.com
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The five-second, instant-gratification, low-cost makeover for ugly deck chairs: Simply pile on a bunch of striking, weather-resistant throw pillows.
Papaya mosaic pillow, $24, westelm.com
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Think of a garden mister as a kind of grown-up sprinkler. Attach the clear flexible tubing under the overhang of your patio to keep your cool.
Orbit portable outdoor mister, $18, amazon.com