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Want to party? Take it outside

Ray Roberson of A+ Landscaping in Pinellas Park got the call at 5 p.m. on a Friday. The homeowners needed a backyard makeover for a big party they were hosting at their St. Petersburg home on Sunday.

Roberson and three of his employees went to work. First they added a variety of plants and shrubs, then put in 2,000 square feet of sod around the focal point of the yard: a $100,000 fountain that sprayed water from three dandelionlike designs. By 8 p.m. Saturday, Roberson and his team were done.

Party planning is easy when you can hire experts. But for those on tighter budgets, don't let the absence of a $100,000 fountain put a damper on your party spirit. The key to entertaining outdoors is to use things you have, then apply a few creative tweaks (adding plants, lights and beach towels, for example).

Thanks to the Internet, it's easy to become the diva of outdoor parties. A search of "garden parties" or "holiday entertaining" will deliver a host of ideas. Here are some of the better tips picked up from local experts and from www.hgtv.com, www.ivillage.com and www.gardenweb.com; read on, then get your party started.

Green pieces

+ Vary the heights of plants to add interest to the landscape, said Patrick Bush of Gulfcoast Land Design Inc. in Largo. Try pairing bird of paradise with purslane.

+ If you want a more tropical effect, add robellini (miniature palms).

+ Use miniature vases to showcase a variety of flowers. They make wonderful centerpieces or can be party favors.

+ A garden draped in color is great for the senses, so consider bird of paradise, hibiscus, African iris, vincas, pentas and crotons (in red or orange). These plants thrive in our semitropical climate. Other treatments for color include annuals (zinnias, begonias and lisianthus) and perennials (alamanda and plumbago with its huge clusters of vivid blue flowers).

+ Don't forget silks. Silk flowers and plants are wonderful alternatives. With today's selection, which includes everything from ficus to palms and topiaries to roses, there is no reason your party can't have the look of an English garden or a tropical oasis _ with half the work.

Weddings and more

+ If you're planning a wedding, give your clay pots a facelift. Wrap the pots with an inexpensive white fabric (try netting or a gauzelike fabric) or butcher's paper, then tie with ribbon in your wedding colors.

+ Use pillows, mirrors, candlesticks, quilts and other indoor furnishing outdoors. An old lounge chair in need of a fresh look will fare just fine with some pillows, a snugly throw or a colorful beach towel.

+ Fill a glass bottle (it doesn't have to be fancy) with two or three colorful blooms and place on tables or on window ledges.

+ Lighting adds a special feel to a nighttime party, so go for some candle-adorned garden torches. Don't forget the citronella candles; not only do they keep insects at bay, they add a soft glow for a touch of romance.

+ When dining alfresco, place a large umbrella over the table, then drape mosquito netting over the top. Adorn with real or faux flowers.

+ Use chairs to showcase some of your favorite plants.

+ Add a touch of Christmas in July by pulling out the miniature white lights and wrapping them around trees or shrubs.

+ Put votive candles inside Mason jars (add a little sand or soil to help steady the candles), then line the walkway. Also consider putting candles inside tin cans and hanging them in trees.

+ Make your table a focal point. Layer red, white and blue beach towels to create a patriotic tablecloth, or arrange black and white place mats in a checkerboard pattern.

+ Place bottles of sunblock or bug repellent in conspicuous places. Your guests will thank you as the party goes from afternoon to night.

Ground works

At www.ivillage.com, Susie Coelho, author of Everyday Styling and host of HGTV's Surprise Gardener, describes a backyard makeover that includes the addition of a brick and gravel patio and walkway, a covered seating area and a trompe l'oeil entrance along the back of a garage wall. Any do-it-yourselfer would be inspired. (To see the before and after garden, go to the Web site and search for "backyard makeover.") For a fresh look without so much fuss, we offer these tips:

+ Add rose petals to your walkway or sprinkle them in the grass for a romantic touch.

+ Rake or arrange the mulch in your flower beds or spread new mulch here and there. It's one of the easiest ways to enhance your landscape.

+ To rid a deck of tree sap, rub the spots with mineral spirits then wash with an all-purpose cleaner.

+ To get rid of mildew on plastic chairs, spray them with a mixture of half liquid bleach, half water; wait five minutes, then wipe dry.

+ Don't mow the day of the party; that only stirs up dust and pollen. Mow the day before and let the dust settle.

+ If pets are a factor and weekend boarding is not an option, create a special place for them away from the party area. Too many dropped treats might mean a trip to vet for your four-legged friends.

Rent this way

If you are in the market for some backyard fixtures but don't want to buy them, consider renting. Take time to shop around for the best prices and items and be sure to make reservations at least two weeks or more in advance of your party. Here are examples of items and prices that are good for weekend rentals that typically include a Saturday pickup and a Monday return.

+ At Rent-All City (727-381-3111) in St. Petersburg, you can pick up a white-lattice gazebo ($100); plant stands (in wrought iron, $20) or white lattice ($15); "swamp cooler" or water-cooled fan ($75); ficus tree ($15).

+ Fast Rentals (727-526-9133) in St. Petersburg can supply garden fountains ($45), tents ($60 for 10 feet by 10 feet, $200 for 20 feet by 20 feet) and free-standing, 6-foot-high lights with four globes ($12).

Here's a rental tip: Make your rental reservations at least two weeks in advance and shop around for the best prices and items.

Kate Pursell is a freelance writer in Bradenton.

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