Few venues can compare with the great outdoors when it comes to inspiring wedding-day awe, and the choices are limitless: the drama of a rocky ocean shore, a fragrant and romantic botanical garden, and even the sentimental familiarity of your own backyard. Think sunsets, cool breezes, and the tranquility of a twinkling, star-filled sky. Here are the four most popular outdoor wedding settings plus general tips and site-specific ideas for each.
Who needs a florist when you can be surrounded by free flowers! Imagine the bounty: vibrant roses, marigolds, tulips, hibiscus, pansies, and geraniums blooming all around you. Not only does it look good, it smells great! There are plenty of reception sites that have outdoor facilities and if the weather turns ugly, you will already have a built-in backup plan. Use the gazebo, lily pond, or canopy of trees on your reception site's grounds. Many botanical gardens rent space for weddings -- have the ceremony outside and the reception inside, or vice versa.
Theme Ideas: Enhance your surroundings by taking a cue from the colors, country of origin, or shape of flowers, trees, or topiaries near where you tie the knot. Exchanging vows in an Oriental garden? Have curly bamboo stem centerpieces and wispy paper lanterns strung in the tent or trees to conjure a warm and festive ambience. Are topiaries shaped like zoo animals overseeing the ceremony? Go for a tribal theme under the tent and line your aisle with tiki torches. Create an aisle with buckets filled with flowers or glass vases filled with water and floating petals.
Cost & Legalities: The site fee at private gardens varies; but a "donation" to botanical gardens (in the name of ground maintenance) may be a tax write-off!
Specific Issues: Double-check that the sprinkler schedule. Also, be mindful of the fact that some people may be allergic to what's blooming at that time of year; be sure that your invitation makes the garden location of the ceremony and reception clear.
Home Sweet Home
Picture saying your vows under the beloved oak tree you climbed as a kid or sipping cocktails among the rose garden you helped your mother tend. Having a wedding at home is the ultimate meaningful setting.
Theme Ideas: Anything goes at home, as your decor is less restricted by the setting and can be based more on your personalities. It is, however, a great idea to emphasize a focal point of your home -- a bridge or clear dance floor across a beautifully landscaped pool, for example.
Cost & Legalities: Be sure to understand neighborhood noise ordinances that may restrict music to certain levels, or between certain periods of time. Check civic ordinances to see if it's permitted to have a convoy of cars parked along your street (day and night rules may differ). Hiring a valet may be advised to keep things moving smoothly -- and to keep guests from blocking driveways.
Specific Issues: Sure, you love your house, but does the space fit your needs? Is there a quiet, picturesque backdrop where you can say your vows far from the neighbor's dog and hissing air conditioner? If food will be prepared at your home, is your kitchen big enough? Last but not least: It's all fun and games until the neighbors call the cops. Goodwill is the name of the game. Alert all your neighbors about the party plan -- perhaps with a small box of chocolates and an invite to the cocktail hour in their mailbox -- and commit to a time when the band will unplug.
Knot Note: For more on home weddings, check out our top tips on how-to plus all the need-to-know info at Home Weddings.
A ceremony and reception that overlooks the water is magical. Festivities are beautifully reflected in a placid lake and the silky sand of a beach wedding makes everyone feel like they're on vacation. Be sure to time your event with the sunset for outstanding photo opps. In addition to local lakes and beaches, many reception sites offer waterside wonders.
Theme Ideas: For a seaside affair, think silly or high style: Print your save-the-date cards on a beach ball and attach your invites to a starfish, carnation lei, or a pair of flip-flops. For readings, pick up a copy of Gift from the Sea by Anne Lindbergh, who likens relationships to the changing tides. More ideas: Create a walkway made of seashells, use boxes of wheat grass as centerpieces, and arrange flowers in large conch shells or colorful beach pails.
Cost & Legalities: Staging a wedding in the sand is a snap if you book it through a hotel and stage it on their private beach. Otherwise, a public beach is, well, public -- don't be surprised if people stop, stare…and applaud! You may not be permitted to serve alcohol, and you will need a "Use of Park Facilities" permit for a large gathering of people, if allowed at all. You may be able to reserve private spots along bay beaches, but deposits and/or fees may be required and you may have to purchase pricey parking stickers for cars -- a good incentive to rent a bus for round-trip shuttle service. Contact the city's Parks & Recreation Department for site-specific information and clarify noise restrictions (decibel limits). You'll often have to turn the music way down, if not off -- or move inside -- before midnight.
Specific Issues: Beaches and lakes are breezy, so keep decorations simple and well secured. Beware heels, which will sink in the sand. Another idea: provide a small throw blanket on each person's chair as your wedding favor since it's always a bit cooler at the shore. Also check the tide schedule -- tides coming in are noisier than tides going out, plus you risk the chance of water creeping up on you as you wed.
The soaring peaks and verdant valleys of America's national parks provide grand backdrop vistas for your guests and wedding photographs. Remember that these parks are also public domain, so reserve someplace as far from the road as possible to avoid the possibility of rubberneckers -- and their blaring radios -- and/or an interested audience of hikers.
Theme Ideas: Your creative decor options may be limited but one mantra is certain: Don't compete with Mother Nature. Instead, enhance the background you've chosen, whether snowy slopes, a thick fir forest, or sculpted sandy desert stretch. Make an aisle out of pinecones, give birdhouses as wedding favors, and wear a headpiece woven from ivy, vines, and berries.
Cost & Legalities:You do have to request a "Use of Park Facilities" permit, but in many cases it is free. The catch is that there are a limited number of spots where gatherings are allowed, and they book up quickly, so request a permit as soon as possible. The number of people allowed is determined by the amount of parking available, but it's usually no more than 100 people. Receptions are usually not an option in public parks, as many parks do not permit you to bring in tables, chairs, amplified music, lights, or alcohol!
Specific Issues: Bugs may be an issue, so you should be sure guests are forewarned and prepared for any onslaughts with bug spray or wipes. Think about where the sun will be during the hours of your wedding. Be sure there are plenty of shady trees for the hottest hours.
The skies could be crystal blue one minute, dark and stormy the next. Attempt to schedule for good weather, then plan for the worst: Pitch a tent or some other form of shelter for your outdoor affair. Party tents are available to rent in all shapes, sizes, and materials (not all are waterproof; be sure to check) that can be chic or casual. In addition to coverage, you'll want to take temperature control into consideration. Tents and outdoor spaces can be cooled during the blaze of summer by using fans and portable air-conditioning units and kept warm in chillier months with tall patio or floor propane heaters. And don't forget Mother Nature's other foil: bugs. To help keep uninvited skeeters out, have the location sprayed two days before your event and surround the area with citronella candles.
Choosing a Space
If you forego the traditional outdoor venues available at many reception sites, there are a few questions you'll need to ask: What are the restrictions, if any, for the number of guests, food preparation, tables, tents, noise (bands or DJs), and alcohol consumption? Are there any time limits for the event? Is there enough room to erect a tent over a dining area, bar, and dance floor? Is there an indoor or covered space nearby for emergency relocation of the party if your tent takes flight? Where will the Port-o-Sans be located? Does the indoor space have bathrooms? Where will the DJ plug in? Is there space for guests to park? If not, is there a large nearby parking lot (school, mall, church, park-n-ride) where they will be permitted to ditch their cars and come in by shuttle bus? (This saves guests the hassle of taking cabs or walking a long—possibly muddy and dangerous—distance.) What permits are required?
You may also need to hire additional staff to handle everything from electricity and lighting to construction and catering and you will need to rent everything from shrimp forks to tent poles. Of course, one thing you won't have to rent is ambience -- just look around you!